Three steps to the future

In the last two blog posts, I looked at the limits on improving productivity compared to growth, and suggested that real changes in yield come with improved working practices and products or services that do not depend on contemporaneous fee-earner input. Coincidentally, yesterday I saw a very good explanation of the issue (defined as ‘the problem of constant cost’) in a guest post by Michael Mills of Neota Logic on the Beaton Capital blog.

…quantity in legal services is not necessarily a good thing. We have the diseconomies of scale—internal coordination costs, quality variation—but not enough of the economies, other than branding and cross-selling (when it works).

In short, law practice missed the industrial revolution. We didn’t build power looms, and we certainly didn’t build Jaquard looms, programmed by holes in paper cards (the model for the 80-column, cropped-corner punch cards of computing’s adolescence).

Forget about billable hours, alternative fees, and ABS’s. The problem is constant cost.

Neota Logic’s systems are good examples of the kind of thing I described in my last post — a combination of knowledge and technology increasing law firm productivity. This and systems like it are an inevitable future for firms. The problem, I think, is not in creating these new ways of working, but in ensuring that when they are developed that they flow into the firm as well as possible. How, in other words, does the innovative become the norm?

New embedded in old at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

As technology teams have faced this problem for longer, it is not surprising that a model has been created to describe how an IT function might be structured to allow it to deliver new things while continuing to support existing products and services. Gartner has invented ‘bi-modal IT’:

the practice of managing two separate, coherent modes of IT delivery, one focused on stability and the other on agility. Mode 1 is traditional and sequential, emphasizing safety and accuracy. Mode 2 is exploratory and nonlinear, emphasizing agility and speed.

But these are two complete opposites, and the gap between them is cavernous. Unsurprisingly, things can fall into the cavern and never escape. Simon Wardley (whom we have met before) is scathing about Gartner’s idea:

I couldn’t stop howling with laughter. It’s basically 2004 dressed up as 2014 and it is guaranteed to get you into a mess.

Wardley’s alternative is a system with three parts rather than two.

When it comes to organising then each component not only needs different aptitudes (e.g. engineering + design) but also different attitudes (i.e. engineering in genesis is not the same as engineering in industrialised). To solve this, you end up implementing a “trimodal” (three party) structure such as pioneers, settlers and town planners which is governed by a process of theft.

The three roles are summarised neatly in this diagram (taken from Wardley’s blog under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License).


The bi-modal model advocated by Gartner only considers the two extremes — pioneers and town planners. Filling the gap with a specified role or function helps to prevent the work of the pioneers being rejected by town planners for being undeveloped. As Wardley puts it:

The problem with bimodal (e.g. pioneers and town planners) is it lacks the middle component (the settlers) which performs an essential function in ensuring that work is taken from the pioneers and turned into mature products before the town planners can turn this into industrialised commodities or utility services. Without this middle component then yes you cover the two extremes (e.g. agile vs six sigma) but new things built never progress or evolve. You have nothing managing the ‘flow’ from one extreme to another.

(In an update to his original post, Wardley adds that a similar model was identified by Robert Cringely in his history of Silicon Valley, Accidental Empires. Cringely’s model used different archetypes — commandos, infantry and police. The relevant passage is in Chapter 12 of the book, published online by Cringely in 2013.)

Whichever terminology is used, the idea is the same.

The first wave of change is the responsibility of highly expert groups who work hard and fast to create products and services that might meet particular needs. Some of these might fail, but the speed of work is such that there is always something new to work on. In established businesses, this might be a dedicated research and development function, or it might be an activity open to all (as at Google, for example, where there was an expectation that everyone could spend 20% of their time on their own ideas).

When complete, the successful experiments might have proved their worth, but that doesn’t make them ready for widespread adoption. There will inevitably be some rough edges to smooth off, and some issues that could not have been foreseen until the idea needs to be scaled up for general use. That process of perfecting a new product or service is the responsibility of the middle group (the settlers or infantry). Some ideas may fail at this stage too — an idea that works in a lab may hit obstacles when it encounters real life and work.

Once a product or service has been proved worthy of inclusion as part of the core business, it still needs to be maintained and developed. That is the responsibility of the third group —  the town planners or police. As their archetypes suggest, this group needs to ensure such things as stability, good governance, predictability and reliability. But their work is not immune from disruption — as Simon Wardley’s diagram shows (click to embiggen):


Wardley’s model was designed with technology development in mind, and with the benefit of his extensive experience running successful technology companies. However, I think it is also a valuable template for development more generally in law firms (and probably elsewhere).

As an example, knowledge teams in law firms are now an established concept. They commonly work in similar ways when dealing with established aspects of legal practice. The fact that there is a lively market in Professional Support Lawyers between firms, and that many firms have created career pathways for those teams, suggests that this is a ‘town planner’ type of function. But that was not always the case. The first PSLs were experimental. They created their own roles: trying different ways of working, some of which were successful and some weren’t (the pioneer phase). As  firms became more familiar with the concept, they jumped on the bandwagon, perfecting the role in different practice groups and in different types of firm (the settler phase).

The same process can be seen at play in the way firms are adopting concepts like process-mapping and project management. Here, though, the pioneer phase can be massively foreshortened since these are concepts that have been tried and tested in different sectors before finding their way into the law.

Policing and town planning need to change when the context changes. Established knowledge functions need to pay attention to new ideas thrown up by pioneers. That message is at the heart of a recent call by David Griffiths for knowledge and HR functions to start disrupting themselves. When they do, they should consider how the three stages of development might be adapted to their situation.

Firms that cannot identify their pioneers need to consider where new ideas are going to come from. (Without those new ideas, the market will move on without them.) If they can point to a group of pioneers, but they expect ideas from that group to become part of ‘business as usual’ without additional work, they risk failure and frustration with the whole process. The latter situation is probably as bad as having no new ideas in the first place.

As usual, if you are keen to work out how these archetypes of development might work in your firm, we should talk.

Choosing focus

I am part-way through a long post on personal knowledge management, which may see the light of day sometime this century. In doing so, I have been reflecting on something that I mention a lot in these posts: focus. I have been guilty of using the word in a very loose “I know it when I see it” fashion, but I am beginning to realise that a bit more explanation is in order.

Monochrome grass

I have an interest in photography, where focus is clearly a part of taking good pictures. However, there is more to it than that. Cameras come with a number of settings that affect the image — what is actually in focus. All of these settings require the photographer to make choices, which are similar to the choices we make when we talk about focus in a more general sense.

The first choice to be made is selection of a lens (or a zoom setting, for lenses with a variable focal length). Is the subject of the image distant or close? Do you want to concentrate on a single item or a large landscape? Variants of these questions can be used when considering personal focus as well. Is your objective finely detailed and distinct? If so, make sure you concentrate on it to the exclusion of other things (the telephoto or macro lens). Is it more diffuse — exploratory, perhaps? Then use a more inclusive approach (a wideangle lens).

Then there is a set of choices that are all interlinked — aperture, shutter speed, ISO (sensitivity or film speed, for non-digital photography). These need to be set to take into account the depth of field required (how much the subject stands out from the background or foreground), whether the subject is moving, and how much ambient light there is. Again, similar considerations can be borne in mind in a non-photographic context. Does your objective stand apart from other issues or do you need to consider it in a wider context? Are things moving fast, so quick action is required, or is a slower, more reflective pace acceptable? How much information is there on the topic — do you need highly sensitive receptors or is a strong filter preferable?

Once you have thought about all those variables, it is time to compose the image. Like everything else, careful thought about these preparatory questions improves the quality of the output. Equally, whether the output is good or not, it can be used to refine the initial settings before repeating the action. A plan-do-refine approach can also be useful in other contexts too. I can’t pretend to be a great photographer, but I do try to get better.

Rethinking sport and life

My monthly copy of The Word magazine arrived last weekend. As usual, it is full of interesting articles about music, film and books. This month, however, there is a bit of a sporting flavour. This is provided by an interview with Ed Smith, who has combined a glittering academic career with top-level professional cricket, including playing for England. The interview itself is in epigrammatic form, but a number of Smith’s comments rang true with me when considered in a business context. Here are some excerpts.

Beware Academies — You could take the Platonic or Aristotelian attitude to creating winning sportsmen. The Platonic one is that you have an academy and you tell them how to do it. The Aristotelian one is, let them find out by trial and error what works and what doesn’t. … Sometimes I think that rebranding something as an academy gives it some legitimacy. It gives it none. Too often you get enshrined versions of mediocrity or systematised blandness.

When we think how people learn in organisations, we are often torn between Plato and Aristotle: between the training curriculum and learning on the job. I don’t think Smith’s point is that we should turn our backs on the Academy and embrace enlightened amateurism exclusively, but that we need to think carefully about the outcomes of different types of learning experiences. We also need to consider whether the people in the Academy are actually the right ones.

You have to trick your conscious mind — Bob Dylan said creativity is not a freight train on the tracks. It’s not something you can control. The best thing you can do is not get in the way. Most creative people have a cooperative subconscious. They keep their subconscious and rational minds aligned. The problem is, professionalism wants to understand how that works. You get some young player who’s very inconsistent and try  to make him consistent. …[Y]ou take somebody who is intermittently brilliant and you make them never brilliant.

This is a really perceptive comment about how we nurture brilliance of any kind. Often the hothousing of talent actually flattens it. Just like plants, people become more vigorous when they are subjected to the buffeting of their natural environment. When we take them out of that environment, and isolate them from the wind and rain (in the case of plants) or failure and feedback (in the case of people), we make them weaker rather than stronger. In the end, Smith is probably right that individuals are probably better off managing their own creativity and brilliance. When organisations get involved, they run a real risk of losing the brilliance along with the mystery.

It’s not about passion — Anyone can go around beating their chest; it’s winning that’s so damn hard. … I don’t pay good money to watch a conductor stamp his feet. I pay to listen to good music. The choreographer George Balanchine once said that the more he wanted passion, the more he found himself having to talk about precise, very technical things.

This last sentence is a real gem. So often we see so-called ‘gurus’ or leaders talking about the need for passion, but with very little behind it. Balanchine’s remark is much more useful. People cannot deliver with passion and flair (for the benefit of their clients, the firm or themselves) if they go not have a perfect grasp of the technical details. Some of them will never be able to show that passion anyway, but even so they would still have deep technical competence. That has a value in itself. Passion without command of the detail is worthless.

Unfortunately, the interview is not online, so if you want more you’ll have to buy the magazine. Alternatively, Smith’s recent book, What Sport Tells Us About Life, apparently covers similar ground.

Time and Promotion

Heather Milligan has just published the third blog post in a series on “Marketing Me.” The series (of four planned posts) is intended as a counter to what Heather calls “the worst piece of advice I ever got.” This was: “Do a good job, Heather, and they’ll notice you.” Naturally enough, they didn’t.

The third post, entitled “When do you find the time?” contains some really useful tips:

  • Manage your process
  • Avoid distractions
  • Clear your life
  • Make social networking part of your job
  • Take Advantage of Technology
  • Filter the Noise
  • Have faith, it will settle down

One of the actions under the heading “clear your life” resonated with something I wrote about last year. Here’s Heather’s story:

I went through my calendar and started to cross out everything that really wasn’t necessary, beginning first with the television. What was I watching that I didn’t enjoy? What was complete junk that I really didn’t need to watch? Gone.

And here is Clay Shirky:

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is…

Coincidentally, Charles Arthur has posted a link to a long interview with Clay Shirky in the Columbia Journalism Review. He then poses an interesting question:

But what also occurred to me that is not said anywhere, ever, yet seems to me to be ineluctably true is that part of the falling-away of long-form content (which includes novels and newspapers and other things that require some time in a quiet place) is down to the way that life is just getting more intense.

Is it just me, or are people generally having to run harder to keep up? I’m intrigued by the question of how many hours people have to work to have the “average” standard of living. I’m sure there’s data that American workers haven’t seen an increase in living standards over the past howevermany years. I wonder if the same exists for Britons, Europeans, people all over the place? Even as living standards rise, the rising tide means that if you fall out of the boat you’ve still got a lot of swimming to do.

The comments on Charles’s post are worth reading as well. There is an emerging theme that we tend to fill what we think is empty space with things like TV, radio, music, video games and so on, and that the increasingly portable nature of those things makes us think that we have no time to spare. In fact, those activities represent someone else’s priorities and we could use the time better to think about things that are more important to us.

That leads to Heather’s point about social networking:

I was asked recently how I was learning/managing social networking and my work load. Well, part of the answer is that my continuing education, which is what this was for me in the beginning, is part of my job. As the marketing professional for my law firm, I must keep up with not only the happenings in the industry, but the advances in technologies.

In addition, by marketing myself, I am building relationships with peers, vendors, reporters, publishers, and other professionals which all benefit my firm.

That is clearly more important than watching yet another cookery programme on TV, surely? I certainly think it is. If your life is too intense, I think you need to work out whether that intensity is being driven by things that are in fact of  little interest and value to you.