James R. McCarthy, MS, CPC
Word Count: 825 words
Time to Read: 1-2 minutes
This is the third in a series of articles from Wolf Management Consultants, LLC on Changing Organizational Culture. The first article examined the concept of the “Social Contract and Culture” and their extreme importance during times of firm-wide change. The second, “Culture Change Part II – Identify your Culture”, addressed a number of methods used to recognize the culture in your law firm.
In this article, we will examine perhaps the most daunting of all organizational design efforts; how to modify, or even change your culture.
How does a law firm change its culture?
Culture change is particularly difficult because it often involves large-scale organizational change. In addition, the change is in things close to the “spirit”, or “heart”, of the firm. Let’s examine some options for successful culture change:
- Leadership (typically the Senior Partner and his / her team) must develop a compelling Future Picture, a set of recommendations, and a convincing case for change. A clear destination becomes even more important during implementation of the recommendations. It can help keep everyone motivated and moving in the right direction. If Partners, Associates, and Staff do not understand the vision and plans for how the changes will help, as well as the consequences of inaction, they will be less open to the recommendations. Solid, coherent tactics derived from the Future Picture must be developed to move the recommendations forward.
- Keep a sense of urgency. In addition to the clear sense of direction provided by a shared Future Picture, employees also need to experience some level of urgency about changing the status quo. It is probably naïve to think that all of the leadership team’s recommendations will move forward on their own merits, so the plans must have plenty of support from all interested parties. Kotter (1995) believes that the sense of urgency is not high enough until 75 percent of a firm’s leaders (the critical mass) are convinced that “business as usual is totally unacceptable.”
- Focus undivided attention on the new culture. “Undivided attention” is usually a good thing. However, because the stakes are so high and the competition is so fierce, leaders are increasingly required to spread their attention across a number of areas: client generation and servicing; concurrent change initiatives; human and organizational aspects of those change initiatives; ongoing strategic planning, and the day-to-day business of the firm. Consequently there must be continual focus on the new culture, through multiple channels, and a strong message sent that the journey is just beginning.
- Value diversity and “subcultures”, and honor the past. Diversity in the organization may be the key to successful culture change. Creating a new culture from scratch is difficult and may be seen as inconsistent with the norms and values of the firm. In addition, people may have invested themselves heavily in the past way of doing business. It often backfires when the past is criticized too strongly. Subcultures that already exist may embody desired characteristics and serve as “seeds” for change. Producing culture change is a bit like creating an infectious disease. You want a lot of people to “catch the bug” so they will spread it to other people. A bright focus must be kept on the recommendations and their implementation.
- Communication is the key. If colleagues do not understand the desired culture, why it is important, and what must change to create it, it is doubtful that change will happen. If an information vacuum is allowed to develop, people will fill it by creating their own information, whether or not it is accurate. Unfortunately, they often feed their worst fears and make up disaster scenarios. A little information about what is and is not known can go a long way to ameliorate the tendency to feed the rumor mill with anxiety-producing tales.
As the potential courses of action listed suggest, successful culture change requires a cohesive process involving not only changes in the culture, but also equivalent steps involving organizational elements such as leadership; communication; processes; policies, and perhaps even organizational form (structure) changes. Simply put, successful culture change cannot be done as a stand-alone project. It will almost certainly require a number of coordinated actions.
Culture change always seems to take longer than the time planned or desired. Culture change is not immediate, and it will without doubt meet with uncertainty, frustration, and even anger. A particularly vexing problem is that in the middle of most major changes, the problems are quite evident but benefits are still in the future. The firm must be willing to commit to the time needed for full and successful culture change.
At Wolf Management Consultants, we can help your law firm navigate the uncertain and turbulent waters of Culture Change. We have a variety of programs and processes, as well as a staff comprised of only very seasoned and senior practitioners.