Learning power

Posted: 28th August 2015

Law firms which make continuous reflection and learning part of their culture are more successful. In an apocryphal story, Steve Kerr, formerly chief learning officer at Goldman Sachs and currently a senior advisor to the investment bank, reputedly described training courses as people undertaking unnatural acts in unnatural places with each other. His views have been echoed by management gurus Henry Mintzberg, Gary Hamel and Noel Tichy, who have argued that traditional, formal, classroom-based management education doesn’t really serve the real needs of business and commerce.

The ultimate executive classroom experience, the MBA (disparagingly referred to as ‘Management By Analysis’) is a particularly frequent target of criticism. However, the throughput of the major business schools continues apace, the league tables are studied avidly and the fees have rocketed ever skywards. The question is, why?

For Mintzberg, Hamel and Tichy, MBAs and formal, classroom-based training programmes simply do not reflect the lives that executives lead. Russell Ackoff’s wry observation that executives very rarely, if ever, come across single disciplinary issues is particularly apt. Most executives we know (including law firm partners) typically have to grapple with cross-disciplinary issues that do not have clear, cut-and-dried solutions – real dilemmas in the true sense of the word. And, in an increasingly complex, fast moving and interconnected world, these dilemmas have become even more challenging.

So, if we know that formal, training programmes have limited efficacy, why do we keep exposing partners to the ministrations of academics and other presenters in a classroom setting? Especially as training programmes are rarely, if ever, followed by a period of reflection and discussion on what has been learned and, critically, how the learning will be applied?

“Clarity around the purpose of a learning activity and an overt link to its application are key”

It was frustration with this reality that spurred Reg Revans into the ideas that became the action learning paradigm, through which problems are solved by taking action and then reflecting upon the results. It is considered one of the most important ideas in the field of organisational development.

Revans’ formula was L = P + Q (learning = programmed knowledge + questioning insight). He believed that, for a firm to survive, its rate of learning must be at least equal to the rate of change in its market.

Image of a lady typing on a laptop

Learning methods

The majority of partners equate learning to a few days in a good location listening to someone better qualified (in academic or experience terms) than themselves. Of course, there are occasions when classroom experience has its place and can be very helpful in the right circumstances – some of which include sharing information and ideas and debating possible approaches/solutions. But, clarity around the purpose of a learning activity and an overt link to its application are key.

The typical law firm partner has a huge inbuilt need to be busy and be seen to be busy, and sees little value in stopping to think and reflect. Indeed, many partners seem to get locked into an inbuilt paradigm which clearly differentiates between learning and doing.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised about this distinction between learning and doing, as most partners have spent more than 20 years sat in one classroom or another being educated by someone else. With this history, is it any surprise that partners equate learning/education with formal structured training programmes?

The validity of the teacher takes on an even greater urgency and importance if partners have to justify their few days of precious fee-earning time away from the office to undertake this unnatural act in an unnatural place.

But, why don’t partners value the time they spend evaluating what they have learned from doing their job? The late Donald Schon wrote powerfully about the importance of becoming a reflective practitioner and stimulating an interest in and valuing one’s own life experiences.

The following (true) exchange between a consultant and a senior partner in a professional services firm is illustrative of the problem many partners have with reflection.

Partner: “You know, John, what we really like about your seminars is that, by talking about your experiences and clients, you help us to find new ways of working with our own clients.”

Consultant: “Thanks, but don’t you think about your own experiences with your clients in the same way?”

And therein lies the paradox: there is a chronic undervaluing or, more likely ignorance, of the value to be gained from analysing the hard-earned experience gained from leading and managing law firms today. In short, there is an unwillingness to stop, reflect, draw meaning from and learn from what has happened and to use it to plan for the future.

As James Thurber once noted, “the future will not belong to the learned, but rather those who have learnt to learn”.

So, how do we best awaken the realisation in partners that reflecting and learning from what they do and how they do it (the informal) is at least as valuable as attending a formal, classroom-based training programme? Or, put another way, how do we persuade partners to make helping themselves an active part of what they do?

Many tactics have been or can be tried, from asking partners to keep learning logs to ensuring more reflective appraisal interviews but, while these may have value in their own right, they don’t get to the heart of the issue.

“Without a clear view of what is acceptable, it’s impossible to hold people accountable”

Changing habits means changing behaviours, which means changing firm culture. So, the real challenge is to create a culture in which continuous reflection and learning are the norm rather than the exception. In such a culture, it would be acceptable to take time out to review what you are doing and to continuously think about and test ideas about how to enhance what you and your firm does. The informal would replace the formal as the dominant way of learning and enhancing performance.

Changing behaviours in a law firm is an exceptionally difficult challenge. If the task involves interpreting the profession’s body of knowledge or serving clients, then the chances of success are extremely high; if it doesn’t, the chances of success are absolutely the opposite.

“Speed drives an impatience, an unwillingness to tolerate the mediocre”

Driving behavioural change

There is a high need for achievement among the task-driven personalities who inhabit law firms. There are ways to adapt partners’ behaviours so that key activities (such as coaching team members and taking time out to reflect on their own performance) become key to the achievement of their professional tasks.

In any change situation, initially imposing a structure is a standard starting point; because most lawyers like (and, in some cases, need) structure, it is a very good place to start. Below are some of the internal structures which have proven the most effective in driving behavioural change. As always, which ones to actually use depends upon the firm’s individual circumstances.

1. Ensure there is an ongoing review during each assignment

The individuals involved in the assignment should discuss progress to date and what they could do better before planning the next phase.

2. Conduct a post-assignment review between the team and the client

Whenever possible, a post-assignment review should include the whole team (including the client’s team). When it isn’t possible, the client’s feedback should be discussed by the team and used to determine how to do better next time.

3. Encourage views to be shared on the contribution of each team member, including partners

An open sharing of views is often very difficult in a law firm because of the hierarchies in place. As a result, it is often best to start this process using a structured instrument, like a 360-degree feedback mechanism. The key is to introduce the instrument as a means to help improve the individual’s and firm’s performance. It must never be seen as an opportunity to complain or victimise.

4. Form an agreement on the firm’s values and acceptable behaviour

Agreeing on the firm’s values and what is acceptable behaviour within that framework can be a lengthy task given the need for everyone in the firm to be involved, but it’s a critical one. Without a clear view of what is acceptable, it’s impossible to hold people accountable.
For example, occasionally there are situations when a partner has clearly done something that they shouldn’t have – only for the other partners to ignore what has happened. If firms are really going to change behaviours, everyone must take personal responsibility for helping their colleagues do what is right and to continue to do what is right.

5. Ensure one of the firm’s values is ‘to be the best at everything we do’

Making high performance a reality is key to engaging people with new methods of learning. One way to achieve that is to get appropriate teams together to decide what ‘the best’ means for them and then, critically, to get that best practice communicated as quickly as possible to save people from reinventing the wheel.

There is also something symbolic about speed. Speed is a driver of change, of doing things now, not later. A willingness to accept second best is severely challenged in firms incorporate speed into their vocabulary and behaviour. Speed drives an impatience, an unwillingness to tolerate the mediocre.

6. Conduct an annual appraisal of each individual’s professional development plans

How individuals are going to enhance their capabilities should be a part of annual appraisal meetings. Each individual should have to answer the following questions (which were first posed by management expert David Maister):

  • In what way are you personally more valuable in the marketplace than last year?
  • What are your plans to make yourself more valuable in the marketplace?
  • What specific skills do you plan to acquire or enhance in the next year?

7. Ensure people attending conferences or training programmes report back

After attending conferences or training programmes, people should share what they have seen, heard and understood with other people in the firm, who would benefit.

8. Discuss the purpose of the training programme and how to apply the learning

Put in place a process to ensure that, before people attend a structured training programme, they have a conversation about its purpose. After the training, they should discuss what they have learned and how they will apply the learning.

Institutionalising learning

Our work over the past 20 years with firms across the world has continually demonstrated that those firms in which people actively reflect on what they do and, critically, learn from it (and make sure others do, too) are more successful than those that don’t. In short, informal learning is institutionalised and being the best drives what they do.

Rob’s research into what differentiates truly successful managing partners from their peers has identified a drive to be the best as one of the true differentiators. To us, it’s a ‘no-brainer’. It should also be to every managing partner, in every firm, everywhere.