Fighting the right battles

Perhaps a more appropriate title for this post might be “not fighting the wrong battles.”

Over the past few weeks, I have come to a realisation that at various points in my career I have spent too long trying to achieve things that were actually impossible.

They weren’t impossible because they couldn’t be done. They were impossible because something about the organisation made them so.

Sometimes these were small projects, sometimes major programmes of change. The detail is irrelevant. The point is that, even though I could persuade important people to join me on the journey, I didn’t spot that success depended on a number of factors that would never fall into place.

So what are the right battles? Simple: the ones that are genuinely winnable. Anything else is a waste of effort. Hope rarely triumphs against institutional inertia. No matter how much someone wants something to happen, if success depends on someone else who doesn’t care or who actively works against it, it will never happen.

What does winnable look like? The key is to be sure about the essential components. The following questions should help.

  • What is the bare minimum to demonstrate success?
  • What resources are needed to make the project work?
  • Will the support you are promised really materialise, or are people just paying lip-service to your ideas?

The first question is probably the most important, but the hardest to answer. It’s important because you have to know when a project comes to an end. Goals like ‘creating a knowledge culture’ are really difficult because they seems to promote a worthwhile end, but it is impossible to say when the job is done. If something can’t be said to be complete, its success or failure cannot be assessed. What measurable change is there?

Breaking a vague notion into measurable components then leads to the next two questions, which are simply a means of gauging how likely it is that the end might be reached. Few projects, especially in the knowledge context, can be completed without significant assistance from other areas of the organisation:

  • IT: is this a technology project that needs to fit with other things that the business is demanding?
  • HR: does your project affect the way incentives are managed across the organisation? Is that an easy change, or something that demands significant realignment?
  • Finance: few things are free — what other costs are coming up, and how are they prioritised?

The reality is that few organisations can do everything that might be suggested. Projects will often be dropped because there isn’t the resource this year or because too many other things are happening in a similar area. But if the things you want to achieve keep hitting resistance, it is more likely that your goals don’t fit what the organisation is comfortable with. In other words, you’re trying to achieve the impossible.

What to do in such a situation? In general, there are only three real options when faced with difficult challenges: accept things; change them; or leave.

  • If change in the organisation is impossible, can your goals be achieved in different ways?
  • If no change is possible, is there any merit in staying just to maintain the status quo (and possibly make some minor tweaks)?
  • If neither of these is attractive, take the decision to leave as quickly as possible. The sunk cost fallacy applies.


Experimentation for success: the people factor

In a few weeks, the London Law Expo will take place at Old Billingsgate (pictured below). It is an interesting event, especially the keynote speakers it attracts. This year, Randi Zuckerberg (founder & CEO of Zuckerberg Media, a boutique-marketing firm and production company) heads the bill. Last year, the main attraction was James Caan, the entrepreneur. (Disclosure: I also spoke at last year’s event, and I am on the advisory panel for this year’s.)

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I meant to write about James Caan’s speech at the time, but couldn’t find the right hook. A few things recently have brought it back to mind.

Caan’s investments have always focused on businesses that depend on people. He started with a recruitment business, then moved into property management and has even invested in a law firm.

His keynote last year was packed with valuable tips on running people businesses. He was clear about the metrics he used to keep an eye on the health of all of his investments. He was adamant about the need to support people and to make sure they were right for the role the business needed. And then he said this:

But I like to do things a little differently. If I have found somebody that has the right characteristics, I will always try and find a role or a space for them within one of my businesses.

The very best and the most talented individuals can come from any walk of life and from any background. Experience and qualifications are of course hugely important and should always be taken into account, but sometimes it helps to look beyond these. What can really make all the difference is a person’s character and the strength of their personality.

Despite being highly focused on performance and fit, Caan occasionally allows himself to take chances on people who may not fit a role perfectly, but who feel like good people to work with.

When I heard this, I was struck by the contrast with my own experience in recruiting. The process of making business cases, proving that a particular role wasn’t unusual in law firms (often a challenge for KM teams whose structure can be very context-specific), and then finding someone to fit the role profile is a very taxing one. And yet this is one of the few areas where firms can experiment with ease.

Law firms are complex systems. As Dave Snowden tells us, the best way to start to manage complexity is to undertake safe-to-fail experiments. Here he is describing this approach in a historical situation:

Experimentation in a firm is tricky. Clients don’t often appreciate it, and the internal culture often militates against it.

James Caan’s approach to hiring is a type of experimentation. If you see someone who might work well within the firm, hire them even if there isn’t a perfect place for them. If they are as good as they appear to be, they will create real value that you couldn’t have expected.

This has worked well for me personally in the past. When I joined Addleshaw Booth & Co’s Trade & Regulatory team as a Professional Support Lawyer in 2001, the partners were taking a risk. They hadn’t had a PSL before, and they weren’t really sure what one could do for them. But we got on very well at interview and they decided to take a punt. It worked. Between us, we created the conditions within which the team grew and became very successful, winning Competition Team of the Year in the 2006 Lawyer Awards.

The current market is one in which firms should be experimenting as much as possible. The past few years have been hard and, although things may feel better at the moment, the market has fundamentally changed so that none of the old certainties apply any more. There are all sorts of things that could be subjects of experimentation — delivery models, client engagement, business structures, and so on. But what I see across the market is a small amount of experimentation and lots of copying. And on the recruitment front, there is little change from the past in terms of the specialists that firms are looking to hire.

It is a small risk to take a leaf from James Caan’s book and hire people who would fit well even though there is no obvious role for them. If the firm is honest with the candidate, so that both parties know what the risks are, surely the most dynamic individuals will be tempted to take the risk of their employment being short-lived in return for the opportunity to make a real difference?

(As always, get in touch if your firm is interested in taking such a chance. It’s my job to make a real difference.)

Work in song

The modern workplace provides few opportunities for singing. (Although there is a growing tradition of choirs and bands within law firms — some competing with each other.) Older working environments often depended on song to regulate the pace of work. Many of these songs have found their way into the wider repertoire of folk and popular music. Alongside these, there is a strand of music celebrating (or bemoaning) work. On the whole, these say little about the most common jobs that people do today (apart from generic office work).

The older songs often suggest greater pride and joy in work than newer ones. This morning, I was listening to “Come All Ye Fisher Lassies” — one of my favourite musical celebrations of work. Despite the privations described in the song, it definitely sits on the joyful side. This may be because it was written by an observer, rather than a participant. Ewan MacColl wrote the song for Singing the Fishing, one of the radio ballads that he created with Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker in the early 1960s.

John Axon and John Creamer commemorated at Chapel-en-le-Frith stationAlong with Singing the Fishing, two other radio ballads looked at work — specifically roadbuilding and mining. The most well-known, The Ballad of John Axon, commemorated an engine driver and who died at work while trying to prevent his runaway train crashing into another train at Chapel-en-le-Frith when its brakes failed. Their melding of first-person testimony with new and traditional music provide a fascinating perspective on work and life in the first half of the twentieth century.

Singing the Fishing is particularly pertinent today, in that it describes a pattern of work that is now common again in the ‘gig economy.’ “Come All Ye Fisher Lassies” tells of young women travelling to various fishing ports around Scotland and Eastern England to work gutting fish as they are brought to shore.

Noo we’ve gutted fish in Lerwick and in Stornaway and Shields.
Worked all on the Humber ‘mongst the barrels and the creels.
Whitby, Grimsby, we’ve traivelled up and doon,
But the place to see the herring is the quay at Yarmouth Toon.

The gig economy was no more secure in the early twentieth century than it is now, but the pride in work suggested by this song can be seen in many of the newer occupations that form part of the modern version. Agile working also allows some participants in the new economy to do so without travelling for days on end. Nonethless, I don’t expect to see a new version of the song celebrating the work of lawyers at Axiom, Lawyers on Demand, Halebury or Obelisk, despite the fact that those professionals have more than they might think in common with the herring gutters.

Listen to the song on the Spotify playlist below, followed by songs about work drawn from lists compiled by The Pessimist and readers of the Guardian.

Writing to stimulate

I spent the last two weeks with the family on holiday in Spain and then driving back through France, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium.

I expected the weather to be hot, so I planned some reading for lazing around. One of the books I took was Tender is the Night, which has been associated with hot beaches since I first read it on the rocks at Amroth at the age of 14/15. (Too young: I enjoyed it then, but I get more from it on mature re-reading.)

2015-08-04 20.33.42Whilst The Great Gatsby is usually cited as Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, I prefer Tender is the Night. It is a more mature work, and Fitzgerald digs deeper into the characters and their relationships (especially their relationships) than in the earlier book. Every time I read it, I find something new to learn.

This time, I found a throwaway line in an exchange between Dick Diver and his fellow psychiatrist and colleague Franz Gregorovius. They are discussing Dick’s desire to revise and republish his “A Psychology for Psychiatrists.” It is clear that Franz is less than keen:

I do not like these generalities. Soon you will be writing little books called ‘Deep Thoughts for the Layman,’ so simplified that they are positively guaranteed not to cause thinking.

Franz’s words made me think about the ‘deep thoughts’ expressed on Facebook and Twitter. Too many of them appear to be designed to suppress curiosity — they are deliberately simplified and sanitised to avoid causing offence (and so thinking).

I don’t think Franz is opposed to simplification itself — expressing ideas simply can be a way of stimulating  reflection. That is one characteristic of good poetry, for example. As R.P. Blackmur put it:

The art of poetry is amply distinguished from the manufacture of verse by the animating presence of a fresh idiom. Language so twisted and posed in a form that it not only expresses the matter in hand, but adds to the stock of available reality.

Fitzgerald knows this — he found the title for his book in a Keats poem, after all. But since his time trite and simplistic ideas have become commonplace. My post-holiday resolution is to try and avoid the wrong kind of simplification and to turn my back on things that are “positively guaranteed not to cause thinking.”

L’enfant, c’est moi

A while ago, a former colleague described me as being like a child. I think (I hope) she meant ‘child-like’ rather than ‘childish’. There is a difference, and the former description is preferable. Sadly, many organisations contain people whose behaviour is more likely to be childish.

Snow coverIt snowed yesterday in the part of Northern England where I am based. As I was working at home, I took the earliest opportunity to go for a walk. The snow was still falling, and the ground was firmly covered. It was a child-like impulse to venture out: to experience the metallic taste of snowflakes in the air, and to walk across cornflour-crunchy fields of fallen snow.

Snowfall changes a landscape. Shades of green and brown are blurred and highlighted. Seeing the familiar fields and trees covered in white makes one  appreciate them differently. Paths are indistinct, and one has to tread more carefully.

This is what it is to be child-like. To be open to seeing things differently. To welcome new experiences without pre-judging them. To wonder at previously unknown perspectives. To learn again and again. Sometimes this can tip over into sillier experiences, but that is not to be childish. (Richard Feynman could be famously silly, and retained a child-like curiosity until his death. I think he was rarely childish.)

The alternative is to resist novelty, learning, and new experiences without demanding detailed reasons for change. Closing one’s mind to how things could be different is petulant, childish, and sadly common amongst grown-ups.

There is more to gain from being child-like than from being a childish grown-up.

A little data (and emotion) about musical experience

One of the novelties of our connected world is the amount of data that can be collected. This may be a worry when the collector is unknown or untrusted, but it can also be an opportunity if one has access to the data oneself — especially when one might have no other record available. At the very least, it gives an insight into the way larger datasets might be used.

I signed up to ten years ago today. From that moment, almost every time I listened to a piece of the music, the fact was recorded by the service (a function they call ‘scribbling’). There are some gaps: I didn’t use it assiduously in the first few months, and the service itself didn’t timestamp scrobbles until later in 2005 (my first timestamped scrabble was on 18 December 2005, but music played before that is still included in the overall statistics). Apart from that, any music played on my iPod or in iTunes was captured. Also, as other services and devices became available (such as the iPhone and Spotify), they also sent data to However, I have no record of CDs played other than through iTunes, nor of music heard on YouTube.


So, I can say with a degree of certainty that in the last ten years, I have listened to over 134,000 tracks performed by over 5,000 different artists. I can also see which tracks, artists and albums I have heard most frequently.

There are some other things that I can do with the data, thanks to various tools  developed using the API. All this is very satisfying for the side of me that treasures useless information and therefore does quite well at general knowledge quizzes. I can even compare myself with others, and I am sure that information about patterns of listening could be useful to the music industry more generally. (That is one inference that can be drawn from the purchase of by CBS in May 2007.)

But, on reflection now, all this just leaves me cold. cannot tell you why I was listening to La Traviata, Leonard Cohen and Dave Brubeck in the week ending 21 May 2006, any more than it can say why this week last year resounded to Goldfrapp, Maria Callas and Sidney Bechet. Nor can I. There might be an interesting story there, but it cannot be told without additional prompts (such as might be found in my emails or notebook, and possibly not even then).

That is the problem. The real story — real knowledge — is as much emotional as analytical. And data cannot give access to the emotional truth. Given enough data, we might be able to see that something happened at a particular moment in time, and even what else was going on, but it cannot tell the truth of that moment.

This is the real challenge for data analytics (whether of ‘big data’ or otherwise). The analysis itself may be flawed because of the necessary exclusion of unmanageable information (the human factor). Even if perfect, the way a piece of analysis is received is also unpredictable (another human factor). Some people may react badly to what the data appears to be telling them. Some may react well, but act inappropriately.

I think this imposes a burden on those engaged in data collection and analysis to work carefully on understanding its limitations and its potential impact. I have read many excited articles and heard many breathless presentations about the power of data to make our lives better. I have rarely heard anyone refer to the corresponding responsibility to be sure that things won’t be made worse. That requires emotional intelligence, which is a purely human capability.

Data on its own will solve nothing.

Shown from a different angle

It is rare to be able to have one’s views played back by a professional. I was fortunate to have that experience recently, when I was interviewed by a journalist for a profile in The Partner magazine.

Actually, the interview itself was not the most interesting bit (mainly because I just enjoyed myself talking about the things that interest me about knowledge management and law firms.) The final article, however, was the first chance I have had to see how my views look when summarised and presented by someone else.

The article was published earlier this week — it’s a good read.


Many thanks to the folks at Netlaw Media for asking me to do this, and to Grania Langdon-Down for writing a great piece.

All change!

2014-05-22 18.23.58Thirteen years ago, I packed my bags and left academia. In doing so, I swapped one type of institution (where I had been for almost 18 years: undergraduate, postgrad, teacher) for another: a law firm. At the end of May, I left that firm and institutional life altogether. I am now in the third stage of my career — working as a consultant helping businesses find ways to use their knowledge more productively.

It will take a little while for me to settle to the new role. There will be some changes here too. My intention is to build a set of pages for the business on top of the old ‘Enlightened Tradition’ blog. If WordPress works as described, any old links to the blog will still work as before.

I hope also that the frequency of posting will pick up too. The past few years were very busy for me, and it became harder to sustain the blog. I regret that — I have many draft posts that are now too old to be useful.

The blog is important to me because the new venture will build on the thoughts and ideas I have developed here as well as on the institutional experience I have had.

The key point there is that my thoughts and experiences have been shaped by the hundreds of people in my network — those I have worked closely with, as well as the looser connections that come through comments here and on Twitter and LinkedIn. Over the past few weeks, many of those people have also assisted and guided me through the process of parting from employment and into consultancy. There are too many people to thank individually, but I hope they each know that I am immensely grateful for all of their support. The network is indeed powerful, and beneficent.

A new leaf for Autumn

After a prolonged period of contemplation (combined with some serious work away from here), I have reassessed and slightly re-focused what I want to do here. Increasingly, I am interested in unpacking what lawyering is, and what the ramifications of that unpacking are. Amongst other questions are the following critical ones:

  • Are lawyers really knowledge workers?
  • If they are, what kind of knowledge workers are they?
  • And what are the implications for those of us who support lawyers and law firms?

Obviously, a lot of this cogitation is triggered by the impending commencement of the Legal Services Act in the UK, as well as by the shift in the balance of power between law firms and their clients as a result of the prolonged recession (amongst other pressures). There are longer-term drivers as well, as exemplified by Richard Susskind’s work.

I don’t expect a lot to change here (although I have taken the opportunity to refresh the design a bit) — my reflections will still be coloured by my own personal interests, and they should also be relevant to non-legal readers too as often as possible. Venerable commentators in this field, such as Bruce McEwen, Jordan Furlong, Ron Friedmann or John Flood can rest easy.

It is probably worth reiterating, for the avoidance of any doubt, that the things I write here are purely my own ramblings. None of my past or present employers are responsible for these thoughts, ideas or fancies. Equally, there may well be times when I am deliberately silent or opaque about my work and that of the firm where I am employed. (And sometimes my silence may have no relation to that — no inferences should be drawn from an absence of comment.)

This is not a place where I write about the day job. But, like many others, I use this blog (together with Twitter and the like) as a place where I can learn and develop my understanding of a wide range of things for my own benefit and (ultimately) that of the firm. Many many thanks to all of you who have joined in that process.

Small fire. Nobody hurt. Lessons learned.

Last Friday, my wife was working at home. As she sat in the garden with her drafting, she noticed that there was some smoke at the side of the house. Thinking that the neighbour was having a bonfire, she walked round to take a look. The smoke was actually coming out of the vent for our tumble drier.

With immense presence of mind, she went into the utility room, saw flames, knocked off the power, closed the doors to the house, and told our daughter (revising for her exams) to leave the house. They then called the fire brigade from a mobile phone. The fire engine arrived within five minutes — the fire station is not far away, and one of our neighbours had a dishwasher fire a couple of weeks ago, so they knew where to go!

Once the fire was out, the firemen stayed around for a little while: to check that it really was out, and to assess the damage. They were very impressed that our basic glazed kitchen door had held the fire back from the rest of the house. The glass was cracked and soot-blackened, but when it is closed there is no other evidence (unless you look closely) that there was a fire on the other side of it. That’s the first lesson learned — keep your internal doors closed as much as possible — even if they appear to be flimsy, they could buy you an extra 15-20 minutes of escape time.

After the firemen had left, my wife spent the rest of the afternoon on the phone to me and then to our insurers. As the power had been turned off and couldn’t be turned on until it had been certified safe, she could not charge her mobile phone once it ran out of power. Also, our usual house phone is a wireless one, which will not work without a constant supply of electricity. Fortunately, I have always kept a wired phone connected to our landline. Second lesson learned — the old technology still has value when the new stuff is useless.

The third lesson learned? People are great. The following day, two of our neighbours let us use their washing machines — one of them even ironed the shirts when they came out! Everyone has been very supportive — even though there was no harm done, beyond the destruction of a few white goods, some groceries and a very functional room. There is nothing broken that the insurance can’t put right. And that is a blessing.