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March/April 2020


Does Your Firm Have a Mulberry Harbor?

Thomas C. Grella

My regular readers know I like to travel. I generally find valuable leadership lessons everywhere I go. This past summer was no exception. A cruise on the Seine from Paris to Rouen, with an all-day excursion to the beaches of Normandy. A trip full of history and lessons. There are so many based on those first two weeks of June 1944. What I found most interesting were the lessons to be learned from a certain World War II post-invasion Allied strategy.

Looking into the English Channel from the D-Day Museum in Arromanches (close to what is known as Gold Beach), a few large remnants of an artificial harbor are still visible over 75 years after its construction. These harbor remains are a reminder of the genius of those who planned and executed the Overlord invasion. The construction and use of these harbors, which were code-worded “Mulberries,” had been meticulously planned. Allied leaders understood that once the invasion was underway, it might be some time before there would be access to a natural harbor. There would still, however, be a need to transport men and supplies into France. Assembly of two harbors began just two days after the invasion, and they were operational in less than a week. The harbor near Arromanches is believed to have been used to move several million men, hundreds of thousands of vehicles and millions of tons of supplies to the Allied effort in France. There are many lessons to be learned from this Allied engineering feat, even a few that can be applied to the operation, management and leadership in a law firm.

Innovation: Edgy Ideas Others Originally Reject

The artificial harbor was not an invention of World War II leadership but an idea that Winston Churchill had in 1917 in relation to prosecution of World War I. The idea was not yet ripe at the time, and the memo Churchill wrote about the use of artificial harbors was filed away. The idea in that memo was finally taken seriously when Churchill reintroduced it during World War II as a temporary solution when a port could not be immediately captured in an invasion. 

Whether leading a large law firm, practice group or just a few members of a team, leaders usually seek to educate themselves on the ways to be effective in moving their firms forward into a very uncertain future. Often, innovative ideas are brought to the firm only to be rejected by those who would rather maintain the systems, procedures or culture they have long worked to either create or understand. In most instances, they dismiss ideas at their peril. This type of rejection is not only disappointing and discouraging to the leader prone to innovative thought but undermines strategic initiative within the firm at large.

To assure that the firm does not lose an opportunity, its leaders must establish systems where the firm is able to document and revisit innovative ideas that are suggested from time to time but not yet ready for organizational acceptance. I have recently written in this column about my firm’s innovation committee and the way we consider, table and reconsider ideas from time to time. Our committee system might not be the answer in all situations; however, every firm needs some way to capture and reconsider its members’ innovative thought. Just as with Churchill, that quickly dismissed suggestion, brought forward today, might be the idea that eventually helps the firm achieve its vision of the future. 

Execution: The Discipline Leading to Strategy Success

Almost two years before D-Day, military strategists became convinced that the Allies would not, after the invasion, be able to immediately secure an existing port on the Normandy coast. As a result, the Allies designed and built the two floating harbors. Each day, men and women arrived at Southampton Harbor to construct structures to be transported across the channel after D-Day. Planning and strategy simply did not include construction. The structures had to be camouflaged from the enemy during construction. Engineers designed transport mechanisms. Transportation had to be coordinated with the anticipated successful beach attack. After transportation, the sinking of caissons (31,000 tons of steel), and placement of 6 miles of flexible steel roadways atop, had to be meticulously arranged. It’s remarkable that the plan worked. What is more remarkable is how many skilled and unskilled workers made up the team: engineers, army servicemen, tough dockland construction workers and dedicated sailors.

In over 31 years at my firm, I’ve observed some real success. In times past, success was usually credited to just one member of the organization, usually a partner. More recently, however, success seems more likely to be credited to a team. This has been brought about through a gradual change in culture due to reinforcement of values, sometimes through team exercises. In our most recent full firm retreat, we tried something innovative. Most people who know me understand that I’m not into games. The only game I ever played with my daughter was backgammon. In our  recent firm retreat, we split the firm into teams of five and began by discussing shared organizational values. Then we headed over to one of those escape rooms where you cooperatively discover clues, solve puzzles and accomplish tasks in order to release yourselves from captivity. As a natural skeptic, I wondered to myself whether this was just a waste of time. I was wrong. As I observed each team working together, and as I have seen resulting closer relationships among the several teams’ members, I realized the importance of these exercises and how they lead to more cooperative effort generally. An escape room may not be right for every organization, but I am convinced that team building exercises are invaluable for any firm.

Readiness: Preparation for Constant Waves of Change

Less than two weeks after D-Day, the strongest summer storm to hit Normandy in 40 years battered the coast for three straight days. It caused much damage to the two Mulberry Harbors, one of them considered a complete loss. Regardless, because the planners had the foresight to construct two harbors, the one that remained supplied Allied forces until an enemy port was captured (and was in fact used until the end of the war).

Most law firms have contingency plans in basic areas of firm administration. For instance, in my firm I recently had a computer issue that only occurred when I travel. Fortunately, on my last trip I was able to leave my computer, replicate my desktop on a “spare” laptop and have my regular device fixed while I was gone. Firms may have simple contingency plans for such events; however, most small and midsized firms are not ready for the more important constant waves of change that our profession is experiencing, such as nonlicensed competition; new client service expectations in the areas of delivery, communication and technology; and cultural changes created by the younger generation of lawyers. Strategic planning continues to focus on reacting to the present instead of envisioning the future and takes so much time that unanticipated waves of change hit before the process is finished. Having co-authored a book 15 years ago describing the old process of strategic planning, I now encourage firms to adopt a new approach: leadership that constantly forces itself to plan. Instead of just managing the present, leaders should commit to set aside half of their “management” time to plan and lead the firm into the future. Whether you are a solo practice or a firm with a management team, I would challenge you to examine where you spend your “management” time. If it is all focused on the present, you may be like a harbor standing alone in a sea of constant change, facing possible destruction and lacking backup or alternatives.

Thomas C. Grella

Thomas C. Grella is a writer and speaker on practice management topics and a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. He practices law with McGuire, Wood & Bissette, PA in Asheville, North Carolina, and is a former managing partner, having served in that position for 12 years. [email protected]