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January 12, 2011

Overcoming lawyers’ resistance to change (Part 4): Find the bright spots

In this post, I would like to review the tactics leading law firms have used to complete the transition to what Paul Lippe described last March as “the new normal,” a world in which law firms deliver enhanced services with predictable pricing, and generally do more with less. 

There’s just one problem: no firm has completed this transition.  Lawyers want precedents and proven solutions.  But in this case, there are none. 

Firms that want to promote change are therefore reviewing tactics that have worked in other professions, and analyzing how they could be applied in the legal marketplace.  The first three parts of this series described key concepts from the book Switch: How to change things when change is hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, including find the feeling, create short term wins and raise the urgency level.  To that list, today I will add a fourth tactic: find the bright spots.

The Heaths illustrate this principle with an example from the work of the charity Save the Children on the problem of malnutrition.  When Jerry Sternin went to Vietnam in 1990, he had limited resources and few ideas of how to tackle this huge problem.  So he started by doing some research in rural villages “searching for bright spots,” things that were already working and that might be spread to others for a relatively low cost. 

Sternin found that in every village there were always a few bright spot children who seemed better nourished than the rest.  When he interviewed villagers about their eating habits, he found that most children ate twice a day along with the rest of their families.  But bright spot mothers were feeding their children four small meals each day rather than two large ones.  The children’s stomachs were better able to digest these smaller meals, and they ended up better nourished.

There were other differences as well.  In most Vietnamese families, the children fed themselves.  But bright spot mothers actively fed each child, which encouraged them to eat more.  These mothers also added some foods to the diet – shrimp and crabs from the rice paddies, and sweet potato greens – which other mothers did not consider appropriate for kids. 

You might think that Sternin’s next step would be to make an announcement to publicize his findings and recommendations.  But Sternin knew that “knowledge does not change behavior.  We have all encountered crazy shrinks and obese doctors and divorced marriage counselors” (p. 30).  So instead he took more active learning approach in which groups of families prepared food together, with the assistance of a Save the Children representative.

This assured that villagers tried the new procedures, and saw that they worked.  Within six months later, 65% of the children who had been through the program were better nourished.  Within a few years, Save the Children had spread the program to 265 Vietnamese villages with a total population of 2.2 million.

As the Heaths summed it up, “The solution was a native one, emerging from the real-world experience of the villagers, and for that reason it was inherently realistic and inherently sustainable” (p. 30).

The application of this “find the bright spots” approach to law firms is obvious.  Almost every law firm has some partners who have already started adapting to the new normal and finding ways to meet client needs more efficiently.  These solutions have instant credibility, because they have already been shown to work with the firm’s clients and within each firm’s culture.

One of the things we do in our just in time training workshops is to look for bright spots, such as lawyers who have developed checklists to streamline work processes.  Lawyers often operate so independently that they don’t know what their partners are doing, especially if they work in other offices.  So we collect and share this information as part of our process, and can sometimes produce short term wins quite easily.

Uncovering best practices may also prove to be a secondary benefit of our new Certified Legal Project Manager™ program.  The primary purpose of that program is to help lawyers master basic project management principles from other professions, to improve client satisfaction and deliver legal solutions for a reasonable cost.  To date, many of the lawyers who are signing up already have some background in project management and come to the program with tools and tactics that can have significant benefits to others in their firms.  So we are working with these pioneers to help them promote change by spreading this knowledge to their partners.

On Tuesday January 25, I will give a talk on this topic in New York City as part of the Ark Group workshop on Overcoming Lawyers’ Resistance to Change, which I am co-chairing with Patrick McKenna.


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Dear Jim - How do I find parts 1-3?

Sue - Click on the links in the post for find the feeling, create short term wins and raise the urgency level. - Jim

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