Mention strategic planning to most lawyers and their eyes glaze over. They think about the various nonprofit boards they’ve served on and how many strategic plans they’ve created at retreat weekends. They pull a strategic plan they helped create off the shelf and blow the dust off of it and into your face. They make cynical comments about how they would rather have oral surgery than participate in a strategic planning exercise at the office.
Such reactions are predictable but shortsighted. To remain healthy, all organizations must periodically create the “big picture” chart for the future. This is especially true when the profession, clients and the world are changing rapidly. A true strategic planning process, however, can take weeks or months. It is best done in a smaller group comprised of people who are excited and interested in the process.
ACTION PLANNING IS FUN
Imagine a process that involves everyone, is interactive, is engaging and leaves lawyers with a detailed month-by-month plan, telling them (in their own words) what they will accomplish during the coming year. Imagine further an activity that taps into their knowledge of the firm, its clients and the profession—and has an added benefit of knitting them together as a team. Welcome to action planning.
While I first learned about action planning when I participated in a nonprofit association’s retreat facilitated by Robert Brown, an Atlanta-based organizational development consultant, action planning was developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs in Chicago. Although not developed for law firms, it works especially well with a smart group of professionals. Each segment of the action planning process takes a different skill to accomplish, challenging participants’ creativity, knowledge and intelligence. It forces them to interact with each other in new ways that provide insights into the law firm itself.
Once I had participated in an action planning session, I immediately recognized its advantages for my law firm. While we have monthly partner meetings, there is only enough time to share information. There is not enough time to plan. Putting together an action plan once a year shares ideas and ensures common goals will be accomplished.
THE PLANNING PROCESS
A typical agenda for a law firm action planning session that you might facilitate looks something like the numbered list below:
1. Describe the focus question for the day. Choose a focus question based on interviews or knowledge about what the partners most want to discuss. For example, how will we grow our revenue? I post the question on a flip chart and display it prominently all day.
2. Structured conversation. At most firm retreats, there is an agenda of topics that participants will “discuss.” However, most of the time, people already have an opinion about each topic, creating conversations that are talking at each other—and don’t accomplish much. The action planning conversation is a structured conversation with groups of questions designed to “seed the clouds,” so that the brainstorming of ideas will be more interesting and productive. In the structured conversation, the leader poses four types of questions. Each type is designed to use a different part of the brain.
- Objective questions are designed to list the facts. An objective question might be, What key events have recently impacted our profession?
- Reflective questions seek immediate responses, the first thing that comes to mind. A reflective question might be, What surprises you about where the firm is right now?
- Interpretive questions require some thought. An interpretive question might be, Where do you think the opportunities for growth are?
- Decisional questions are those that lead to results. A decisional question might be, Based on the conversation we are having, what are the next steps we need to take?
3. A victory circle is a list created by the participants that defines what constitutes success. Using our focus question example above, a victory circle would answer the question, What will our firm look like if we succeed in our plan to grow revenue?
4. A strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis. I divide a flip chart page into four quadrants and write as the participants create lists to fill in each quadrant.
5. A commitment statement is a sentence or two that answers the question, What do we each agree to do to ensure we will fulfill our action plan?
6. Brainstorming ideas. Participants are led through a series of steps. First, each person works alone and generates 10 ideas. Then, the participants break into small groups of three or four, evaluating the ideas presented by the group members and assessing their relative value. All groups then share their best ideas with everyone. The ideas are put on the wall and grouped into clusters. This process generates excitement and great interactions. An unexpected bonus also materializes from this portion of the day: It helps in team building.
7. The calendar. The clusters become the committees that will accomplish the action plan. The participants self-select which committee they want to work on for the coming year. Each committee develops a sequence of events, one for each of the next 12 months, until the subject is accomplished. For example, one committee might create a marketing plan. The committee presents its proposed calendar to the entire group and solicits some suggested improvements. I recommend that each committee report regularly over the action plan’s year, perhaps at your partnership meetings.
An added benefit: Each committee needs a leader. Action planning provides opportunities for younger partners to show they can lead. It is great leadership training.
8. Reflection—that is, making sense of what occurred. As the session ends, it is important to have a final discussion. The group should reflect on what it has achieved and what its members have learned. They leave with a feeling of accomplishment.
Action planning can take place over a day or a weekend. It is an opportunity to get your lawyers engaged and involved. It will give your firm a boost of energy and activity. Let me know how your action planning goes.