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Change management

Seven considerations for change management: Why it matters and how to get it right

Image Credit: REUTERS/Edgar Su - RTS8Z0Y

“Change is the only constant in life,” said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. In recent years, this is a truth that has become increasingly real for the legal profession. Digital disruption, increasing client expectations, and pressure on fees were already re-shaping traditional norms before the pandemic not only made radical and rapid change essential, but showed it was possible.

Today, change can take many forms: it may mean adapting to developing economic or political drivers, meeting evolving regulatory or market challenges, implementing new internal systems—or responding to a ‘black swan’ event. If change is a normal and natural feature of the legal landscape today, then how can law firms and legal professionals best manage it, turning it from a threat into an opportunity and maximising the chances that change initiatives will be successful?

Managing change post-pandemic

There is a sense that Covid-19 has altered the rules of engagement, as far as change management is concerned, but whether the shift is permanent remains to be seen. As businesses went into lockdown, there was no established playbook or official guidance for the new ways of working being forced upon them. Rather than change being carefully planned and led from the top, people just had to adapt, try new things, and see what worked.

In many ways, that creativity was liberating and opened the door to achieve things that may not otherwise have happened—or that would have taken a lot longer to bring to fruition, such as adopting new technologies or working in different ways. Looking ahead we may see a blend of this new mindset alongside traditional approaches: mixing experimentation with rigour. Ideally, the idea that everyone is involved in making change happen will lead to a more collaborative culture of learning and sharing ideas, tips, and best practices in the long run.

In the short term, however, after a protracted episode as physically, emotionally, and mentally draining as the pandemic, the first thing to do is assess how resilient your organisation is and whether staff have the energy and appetite to take on a major change initiative.

“If there’s a burning platform, then obviously you have to act, but if not, ask yourself: why do this now?” says Caroline White-Robinson, Head of Operational Development and Learning & Development at Shoosmiths. “If you’re doing a ‘pulse survey’ (to gauge employee sentiment and drive engagement), don’t just ask about work, consider what else is going on in people’s lives. Understand your people, not just your organisational needs.”

Winning hearts and minds

This matters because any major change initiative requires energy, investment, and enthusiasm on the part of everyone concerned. If you decide to embark on this kind of project, one of the biggest challenges is getting people on board and making sure the right culture exists to embrace change. That means articulating the need and vision for change and then getting staff to support it on a personal level—for example, because they can see how it will make it easier to do their jobs. Addressing issues such as how the change will impact people’s perceptions of status, sense of certainty, feelings of autonomy, relationships, and ideas about fairness at work (known as the ‘SCARF’ model) can be an effective way to tackle concerns and reassure people of the benefits.

“We often assume that people are like chess pieces that we can move about, but they sometimes react in unexpected ways,” says Ian Rodwell, Head of Client Knowledge and Learning at Linklaters. Offering ‘carrots’ can help generate buy-in, but check that incentives are encouraging the right behaviours or generating contributions that are truly valuable. Similarly, be careful with ‘sticks’: putting something into context as to why someone should do something is likely to be more effective than simply compelling them to do it.

Top level support for the change initiative is vital, but so too are having champions on the ground, either in the form of a centralised project team or via individuals acting as sponsors within existing teams. Whoever is leading the charge must have credibility so that people have confidence they have their best interests at heart. Resources should be ring-fenced to ensure that those tasked with driving through change have the capacity to focus on it and prioritise it, otherwise it could get de-railed by day-to-day operational necessities. It is also important to make sure that middle managers do not get too ‘squeezed’ in the process by pressure from above and resistance from below.

Mapping out the journey

Before you start, be clear about what needs to change and why. This is far harder than it sounds. Too often, too little consideration is given to whether change is necessary, what problem it will solve, understanding the issues involved, and what value making such a change will deliver. Once you understand the ‘why’, then you can concentrate on the ‘how’.

There are many different models for change management. “The danger is that people take one approach and apply it to every initiative,” warns Rodwell. “It’s always contextual: some things work in some scenarios but not in others.” Having the right frameworks and processes in place is vital to ensure that the inputs yield the desired outcomes.

“Think about the end goal, and then you can work out what the journey looks like,” says Helen Lowe, Head of Legal Operations at easyJet. “In the legal profession, it’s not necessarily about making a ‘big bang’ change. It’s easy to think a shiny new piece of technology will make all the difference, but this is a sector that’s traditionally very risk and change averse. Take baby steps. But maintain the pace. It’s fine to let the pioneers try fast and fail fast, but don’t fall too far behind the leading edge.”

Post-Covid, the rationale and route for driving change is more nuanced than ever. People may be more open-minded and adaptable, but bear in mind the personal and professional pressures staff are facing, and balance those against the business’ commercial imperatives. It’s about making the right changes for the right reasons, using the right structures to get the right result. That’s a big challenge at the best of times.

Seven top tips for success:

  1. Carefully assess the need and appetite for change
  2. Clearly communicate the rationale and vision for change to minimise resistance
  3. Engage people early so they become ambassadors, not detractors
  4. Put appropriate structures in place to achieve the right outcomes
  5. Ensure everyone is working as a team toward a common goal
  6. Ring-fence resources so change can be prioritised
  7. Set expectations and maintain momentum
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