Paul Heugh
Paul Heugh, CEO, Skarbek Associates

In 9 AD, the Roman proconsul Quinctilius Varus returned to the Germanic provinces with three legions to suppress a tribal rebellion. He had done this successfully three years earlier – but this time, the enemy chose not to fight in the same way and the legions were wiped out. Varus’s last cry was reputed to be: “Ne cras, ne cras” – “Not like yesterday.”

Every law firm’s strategy must be capable of adapting to new opportunities or changed circumstances. But where competition is getting tougher, it will not be like yesterday. At The Lawyer Business Leadership Summit at the end of September, we asked attendees some key questions about their strategy.

• 69% of respondents believe they have a winning strategy.

• 23% confessed to having an unclear strategy.

• Nearly a third admitted struggling with strategy implementation.

Each of these responses raises concerns. For those believing they have a winning strategy, such a belief is informed by the situation and success of yesterday. It is vital to avoid the complacency of  Varus.

For those lacking a clear, cogent strategy: take heart, it is not easy. Implementation of strategy confounds many of the largest, most respected organisations. In this article, we offer tips on two key challenges.

Fast-approaching new realities

Twenty years ago, a firm could define its five to 10-year strategic plan and implement it with a rolling one to three-year operating plan. Some businesses with long-term decision needs, such as those in the oil and gas sectors, had to look over the horizon some 10-20 years out. Imagining the future and preparing sensible plans became known as ‘the art of the long look’; this became the title of the seminal work on scenario planning by Peter Schwartz (who was head of scenario planning at Royal Dutch Shell).

The same business need that drove the exploration of scenarios 10-20 years out is even more relevant now to explore possible outcomes in the next two to five years. This compression of time, the one non-renewable resource – driven by technology, communications, faster innovation cycles and the competitive imperative to operate at the speed of the need – necessitates dynamic planning.

Consider Brexit. As The Lawyer leader on 26 July illustrated, we don’t know exactly what the future in two to three years holds, nor do we know the impact on the economy. But it is possible to define and describe plausible, very different views to create rich pictures of alternative futures. Strategies can be tested against those futures, weaknesses identified and opportunities considered. When we face a market and environment that is fast changing, against which our strategy must be effective, then scenario planning is a powerful tool.

Alignment and prioritisation

General Sir Peter Wall, former head of the British Army, describes strategy as the balanced linkage between ends, ways and means. The gap between strategic plans and action necessitates clear alignment: it is the difference between what we want people to do and what they do.

“It is rare to talk with someone in a sizeable firm and not hear of the problems of too many competing priorities”

At the Business Leadership Summit, a senior partner commented on this as simple and elegant whilst confiding the brutal fact: “It is hard to do.” In a slow, stable business environment, alignment of resources, people, funds and projects is a challenge. But in the volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world of today and tomorrow, achieving alignment is a challenge of the first order. It is rare to talk with someone in a sizeable firm and not hear of the problems of too many competing priorities. But when many things are a priority, nothing is. Achieving a tightly aligned organisation requires:

• Alignment of partners on the strategic and operational priorities. This is not simply agreement, but that the energy and actions of all are aligned in reality.

• Alignment of all the people in the firm behind its drivers of growth and profitability.

• Alignment on the budget and resource allocation.

Only then do we have alignment of ends, ways and means. This can be achieved in a way that also drives engagement and morale higher, through a collaborative top-down and bottom-up process.