Strategy without creativity?

1 11 2010

Walking towards Holborn yesterday I looked up at a building to see the statement “strategy is nothing without creativity” plastered across the window. My instinct was to file it away in the “I agree” compartment of my head, and, as the song says, “walk on by”. The more I thought about it however, the less easy I found it to compartmentalise my response in that way.

The energy team's market strategy was lacking detail

Perhaps betraying my origins as a lawyer, I thought the best place to start the discussion was by getting clear on what I’m talking about when discussing strategy. A key distinction is between “corporate strategy” and “market strategy”.

By corporate strategy I think about the high level decisions of what markets a business will compete in, and possibly (depending on factors such as how disparate those markets are), a broad set of principles on how the business will compete.

By market strategy I mean how the business will compete in its chosen markets.

It is in this arena I want to examine the role of creativity,  however in my experience, there are more fundamental questions that many law firms need to ask themselves about their market strategies before creativity comes in to play.

The first is whether market strategy actually exists. Often firm strategy (essentially the corporate strategy mentioned above)  is set by the management and then “rolled out” to the partnership, practice areas, industry sectors etc. At the market level, often the business planning that happens is purely financial in nature; usually as part of the budgeting process. Targets are set, and teams then work out how they are going to deliver those numbers. This then leads into a very tactical discussion; perhaps looking at how to grow major accounts or penetrate particular prospects.

The market strategy layer is, not always, but often, completely missed. And as a result, firms often struggle to articulate their positioning in the market (one of the key outputs of market strategy) and when asked about their strategy for a particular market often end up talking about their experience or resources, which may well be relevant, but means the lawyers often lack the clarity of a well defined strategy that they can articulate.

Another benefit of having a market strategy, is a deeper understanding of what the competition are doing. When the day-to-day pace of life is so fast, it’s easy to get by with a cursory understanding of what other firms are doing in the market, relying on what’s in the legal press, and what you hear from clients and contacts. However, the benefits of actually analysing competitors, working out how they are different from you and your practice, what they do well, are significant and can shape the way you think about your own practice (and crucially how you present it to clients and prospects).

So, in a roundabout way, this brings me onto creativity. There’s no doubt in my mind, that at the market strategy level creativity can bring tremendous benefits, and create the sort of breakthrough strategies that could help a firm really win in the marketplace. However, if many firms don’t really have a market strategy, then I think there are opportunities for those firms who do have one to reap significant benefits simply from implementing their strategy well and communicating it clearly (both within the firm and to the market place).

Implementing and communicating strategy are both huge topics worthy of their own posts, so I’ll leave those for another day. However, the point I’ll finish on is just to mention that creating a winning market strategy doesn’t have to be a laborious, bureaucratic process – in Strategy SafariMintzberg lists a whole host of ways in which strategy can be formed (from emergent and entrepreneurial strategy through to more formal planning and design processes).

My bet is that if market strategy is something your team has done before, a small time investment would pay big rewards.

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Can your lawyer read?

5 07 2010

Dickensian lawyers were inseparable from their books. Noses always pressed into some dusty, leather-bound tome, everyone knew lawyers loved to read. Subsequent TV and film portrayals of lawyers  reinforced this image, with the hot-shot  New York lawyer seen pouring over books for hours, before leaping up (Archimedes style) with the fact or theory that would win the case and save the day.

Maude couldn't get enough of the latest equity and trusts text

But in the ever-accelerating, information-rich days of the “attention economy” (interesting read by Davenport BTW), how many lawyers actually get the time, or indeed have the inclination, to read more than is absolutely necessary?

Before I explore this area, I need to pin my colours to the mast. I’m a huge reader. I probably read 75-80% non-fiction, but also love a good novel (Shantaram by David Greggory-Roberts is a top read). Around ten years ago I read a few books on speed-reading (I’d recommend Buzan or Kump as authors in this area) and taught myself to do it. This meant for example that for the year I spent commuting I could easily get through 3 paperbacks a week.

There are a whole host of myths around speed reading, but the important thing to realise is that you need to read at a pace that’s appropriate for the material you are reading. For example, if I had 30 min to read a stack of industry reports, I would use a faster pace than I would if I was reading an important  judgement in a relevant area of law.  There’s very little magic in speed reading, but if you are going to read a lot, it’s worth investing a small amount of time in understanding the principles and techniques, then you can incorporate any parts you find useful into your reading.

The example I used above (reading a stack of industry reports in 30 mins) summarises one of the challenges that lawyers face, both in practice and in-house. There is a huge amount of material to get through that falls into that difficult “important but not urgent” category (classification from Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – a “must read”). It’s the type of material that, in private practice, might for example show you are a bit more up to date than your competitors in following your client’s industry. In-house it might allow you to have a discussion with a senior commercial colleague about the legal implications of a particular product development. Unfortunately this material is also the type which gets piled on a desk (or the electronic equivalent) with good intentions, and slowly ages and loses its value before it either gets read or (more likely)is  moved to the big bookshelf in the sky.

The view I’ve taken with this type of material for the past 10 years, is that it’s better to read it quickly and take on board a % of the key points (if indeed there are any; there may not be), than not read it all because I don’t have the time to do so thoroughly. If I do speed read an article and realise it’s particularly important or rich in some other way, I can of course return to it when I have more time.  Using the Pareto principle (80% of the value will come from 20% of the resource) speed reading helps me identify where best to spend my time.

When I was in practice and in-house I used to block out small but regular periods of time each week to work through these type of articles. If you are free of other distractions, it’s amazing how much you can get through in 30 minutes. I don’t claim to have kept every single diary appointment clear, but generally I did manage to fit enough of these sessions in to feel I was keeping on top of things. I’m sure scheduling them early, before most clients and peers were operating helped me.

As with many things in these fast-moving era, time management is an important aspect of managing this challenge (Getting Things Done is a very popular book in this area at the moment, although the system didn’t work for me), but speed reading can give you a useful tool to maximise the time you do have available.

The other area I think is important is the breadth of material that is read.  When I was in practice as a technology & outsourcing lawyer, I used to read lots about the technology itself, not just the market. Aside from product info from my clients, web resources like Wired and Slashdot, supplemented with a liberal dose of “gadget porn” (like T3 magazine) helped me speak to clients in their language and understand the culture of their core customers. When in-house, the aggressive reading schedule (120hrs per month) of my MBA introduced me to a host of great business authors that I hadn’t read before (Mintzberg and Porter being two of my favourites) . While I might have come across some of these authors’ theories before, reading their work first hand added a new depth to my understanding and definitely increased the richness of the conversations I could have with my commercial peers.

In both cases, I believe that this wider understanding allowed me to be a better lawyer too. Advice is of course not delivered in a vacuum, and while reading isn’t the only way of getting that broader knowledge, it’s certainly a good start.

Happy reading.

Strategy as a thought?

11 11 2009

In the increasingly fast paced world we live in, it seems more and more difficult to make plans for the future. There are all sorts of ways of thinking about strategy; what it is, how it’s formed, and what it does (a favourite book of mine is Strategy Safari by Mintzberg), but a common view is that it’s a game plan. A way to compete and win.

The problem, as I see it, is that these days, game plans need to change, and change fast. Clients change, their needs change, competitors change, technology changes, everything changes. Yesterday’s plans can hinder not help. Yet at the same time, if an organisation changes its strategy in real-time, will it lose its identity? Cause confusion?  Allocate resources effectively?

There’s no single answer for this; every business needs to develop and adapt a model that works for their circumstances. What I do believe, is that those companies that go through a charade of an annual strategy process, and spend months working on long term plans with the intent of sticking rigidly to them over the coming years, face more and more challenges from agile, more relevant competition.

Often with these sorts of annual processes, the market information used is far removed from the market by the time it gets to the strategic decision makers; it is distilled, analysed and sanitised before it is used (not to mention often months out of date and/or originally prepared for a different purpose). Competitive information is often paper thin and much of it speculative. Thinking about the future is often incremental and conservative, constrained by the process itself. The process itself often takes weeks (if not months); how can this be right for today’s marketplace?

Thinking time; strategic and practical?

One school of thought might be to say that strategy of this type is simply not relevant any more, but I think that’s over simplistic. Somebody (everybody?) needs to be thinking about how to win (or how to collaborate?). The underlying principles of competition, industry analysis (Porter et al) remain valid and helpful frameworks; they just need adapting and using differently.

In a changing world, the way organisations think about strategy also needs to change, but in this period of transition it’s critical that organisations and people don’t stop thinking all together. Consider who is thinking, why they are thinking, and what they are thinking about. But don’t stop thinking (or doing, but that’s another post).


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Strategy without creativity