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Buying in and backing off

15 April 18

So you commit to change your organisation, but it doesn’t happen. Why not? This feature explains how to tackle two main obstacles, winning “buy-in” and knowing when to back off

by Stephen Vallance

Those of you kind enough to read, and occasionally comment on my articles will know that I spend a large part of my time meeting and chatting with our HM Connect member firms all over Scotland. Without exception they are great people, client focused and with a real desire to improve both their businesses and their service to clients. Often our conversations revolve around management issues and, on occasions, a few might even agree with some of the ideas and suggestions I put forward. The challenge, however, seems to be that for many the will to change is there but, on following up months later, I often find that little has actually been done. I hope in this piece to address what I believe are the two main issues that hold back most practices, “buy-in” and “delegation”.

So what do I mean by “buy-in”? Well, it is all about the individual’s and the organisation’s receptiveness to adopting something new. This could be anything from changing the way reception looks to fundamental changes in how a practice unit offers or delivers services. My experience is that, on the face of it, we all like to think we are comfortable with change, but deep down, are we?

Pain points and personal preferences

Think about this in the context of your own practice for a moment. First, you have to be persuaded yourself that there is a problem, or at least a better way to do something. I often describe this as a “pain point”. It is that grumble at the back of your mind that something isn’t right, or at least could be done a lot better. Often it can be hard initially to define clearly. Then, if you are persuaded that the pain point is there, you still have to be persuaded that it is worth the effort to fix it. Often people will put up with constant little problems, like a squeaking door, rather than deal with the bigger issue of taking the door down and repairing it.

Additionally, most practices are a complicated mix of people working together to bring about a result for the common good. In many, if not all cases, you need all of these individuals to buy into the change for it to be effective. Partners and senior staff can often be resistant, as they may not feel it is a pain point or, quite frankly, may not feel that the effort to fix it is worth it “for them”. For others it can be about inertia (they just like things the way they are), or ego (they don’t like it because the idea wasn’t their idea), and for others perhaps just fear of change itself.

It is not just the partners who need to buy in. Junior members and support staff often carry out the day-to-day handling of transactions. It would be a foolish partner indeed who upset these stakeholders, who often wield a lot of influence on the day-to-day running of a firm. It is likely to be the case that much of the implementation of any new systems will fall to this group. For them, the issues will be the same, but they may also have other concerns. It can be seen as an additional burden in what is already a busy day. It might be looked on as “not their responsibility”, their job instead being to look after “their” fee earners’ work. It can also be about fear. Will all these changes make me redundant?

Buy-in strategy

I believe that to start real change you need to get buy-in from everyone in an organisation, so far as appropriate. How do we do that, though? Well, probably not that much differently from how we already deal with our own clients.

  1. Explain the “pain point” to key stakeholders clearly and concisely. Focus on the why rather than what of the changes that are being proposed.
  2. Identify the long-term benefits of addressing the issue now, both for the individual and the whole organisation.
  3. Clarify the costs, both financially and personally, of not addressing the problem over, perhaps, a one and three-year period. Often this will show that that inaction may not be an option.
  4. Invite everyone’s input into the process. This will help them to take ownership of the changes, to see them as something they are a part of rather than something being enforced on them. Be prepared, however, to take on board any changes suggested as long as they are in the best interests of the practice.

Managing expectations

You have hopefully now moved the discussion from you trying to “enforce” change to a collaborative effort where everyone can buy in and take ownership for the common good. Even the most intransigent of individuals struggle to find issue once they agree with you on common values. The discussion then can move from “why” to “how”.

Like any client conversation, you will need to manage expectations. Too often we see change abandoned because the will to drive it forward has evaporated (particularly after a month of busy settlements). How then do we ensure that doesn’t happen?

Perhaps we could consider some or all of the following when managing expectations on implementing a change:

  1. Explain clearly what the costs here in time, effort and money are realistically going to be. Don’t underplay these. You need, if anything, to overplay the possible downside so people know the worst case scenario that they are buying into.
  2. What are the minimum potential benefits? Likewise, it’s always best to underpromise and hopefully overdeliver.
  3. Be realistic about what will be involved. Explain that, more often than not, things will get worse before they get better. Explore that in advance with those involved to make sure they know what they are signing up for. If people can’t accept this, it is a large red flag that there are going to be challenges in implementation.

It’s not rocket science, and I am sure that many of you will already deal with matters along these lines. So why on occasions do plans still stall? As you will have noted from the title of this article, there are two parts, and the second is often as large as the first: learning to “back off”.

Hold on, or let go?

As I travel around Scotland meeting HM Connect member firms, I hear similar tales both from practitioners and from external suppliers tasked with implementing changes. Even once changes have been agreed, more often than not it is one of the principals within the firm who holds them up. Great ideas will often wither and die while sitting on a partner’s desk waiting for approval.

Now there are many, many good reasons why this might be, both as a result of calls on a partner’s time and also in ensuring that things are being implemented correctly. There is always an urgent settlement and there will always be a new client meeting that has to be attended, which keeps pushing matters back. So how do we move past this?

I can offer only two possible solutions.

First, if you do want to be in control of changes, prioritise them. Have a timeline for things to be done and mark off dates and times in the diary for making sure that your input isn’t the one thing that is holding it all back. Make sure also that you have someone to hold you to account to these. As I have said in previous articles, the easiest people to fool are usually ourselves and we all need someone to make sure we are carrying out our part.

Alternatively, let go. Let go, back off and let others run with it. Ask yourself honestly this one question: “Am I the best person to add value to this, or this part of the process?” If the answer is yes, then go back to the first part of this section. If the answer is no, then the next question is “Who is?” The answers here can be interesting.

Let the leader emerge

I’ve come across firms whose social media presence has been revolutionised by an office junior, where case management has been redeveloped by a paralegal and where client acquisition has been improved by an external supplier. It does not in any way diminish your position or your standing because someone else is better at something. I always love the example of cycling in a peloton, that huge group of cyclists we see at the Tour de France. Every cyclist only stays on the front for as long as he is helping the group go faster. Once he cannot, he disappears back into the pack. Whether that effort is for 10 seconds or 10 minutes, it is what an individual’s efforts add to the group that is important.

I’ve been there myself, both at work and on a bike. For me the most surprising feeling was one of relief, relief that someone else can take the strain for a while, that for this part of “the race” someone else is fitter or fresher. To translate that to work, perhaps that someone else was better at something or just had more time to devote to it (and often these two will go together).

There is, of course, nothing wrong with letting go and perhaps setting down clear guides as to timings and costs of a project and reserving the right to a final sign-off before it goes live.

One last point. Once an organisation starts to become comfortable with change, all change becomes easier.
More and more of the pain points can be addressed, and the firm will become a better place, both for those working in it and for those clients it serves. How do you start? With one small change.

Stephen Vallance works with HM Connect, the referral and support network operated by Harper Macleod
e: stephen.vallance@harpermacleod.co.uk

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