What Happened to the Plan

Why did the plan fail?  This is often a question we hear in business, but it is not happening only in business.  I recently was part of a planned family event.  I mean, a planned event. Everything was thought out, or so we thought.  At the last minute, someone changed the plan without notifying the other members of this team.  This resulted in nine different events to be replanned and rescheduled.  Now, let me say upfront that it was more frustrating than it was a major problem.  When asked why they changed their mind, there was no good reason, and it could have stayed as-is.  When we mentioned the impact of this action, we got a confused look.  As we discovered the full effect, there seemed to be no awareness. Each of the nine events was minor, but a lot of time and energy was expended, correcting the course of events that could have been avoided.  The same thing happens in business.  If this happens a lot, the business process breaks down.

Over the years, I have seen several reasons as to why this happens.  Some people just do not like planning.  Not only dislike planning but can not do it and see no reason for it.  For these people, they would not recognize the nine things that did not happen above, and if told about them, would not see the relevance.  Their view was so focused that they never saw the big picture. That is the “being nice” side of this discussion. Some people just do not care, even if they understood the big picture. They want a specific task to do, and that is it.  This last group is best assigned task to do and are not team players or leaders. 

For the people that do not plan, some will become good team players if they know the details.  If they are told why and what about their assignment. One way to make that information available is to include them in the planning. That is also the “being nice” side of this story. Often, they either do not have the ability to see the big picture without a detailed explanation, or they just don’t care. Back in the ole days, we would call these people high-maintenance employees. It requires more energy and time to include them in the team. It is the responsibility of the leader to provide that information and to determine the benefits to the team.

Often the changes made are individually minor and easy to ignore.  It is the cumulative effect that becomes the problem.  Other than cost, there is an impact on the team.  Team members see this happening and gradually become a reactive only set of resources instead of a high-performance team. The adverse effect of this plan breakdown is poor process efficiency.  I have seen businesses where this is the norm.  They start with a great plan and a well-documented process but gradually bypass steps.  Over time the strategic plan becomes a dust-gathering forgotten document.  The rationale is, we always end up OK.  What they failed to recognize is that it cost more in time and money than it should have.  In a very competitive environment, you cannot afford to accept that deal.  This becomes a challenge for the team leader.

This discussion does not mean that there are never times when a break from the process is warranted. As my father would tell me, stuff happens.  What the team leader must do is recognize when this is becoming the norm. Did you find some neat ideas in this blog? What are the exciting ideas you came up with, and how are you implementing them? Let me know by contacting me at dwfavor@catalystgroupinc.com.


Law Firms and Remote Staff

Most law firms face stiff challenges in today’s marketplace. Changing demographics, new technologies, aggressive competition and Coronavirus, demand that firms change the way they do business.  Often firms respond to these challenges by trying to do what they have done in the past. Those that thrive change to address reality.

Many small businesses, like law firms, are adding work-at-home positions, four-day workweeks, and online client contact. All of these changes affect the work culture and how you do business.  You may look at the big picture and decide that a smaller office space is needed to compensate for the remote users.  Technology may change to support remote users or online client contact.  Some expenses will be added and some deleted. 

One of the fundamental business metrics is return-on-investment (ROI), sometimes referred to as profit margin.  In this new work-at-home world we find ourselves, we must consider more variables and expenses when we look at the business metrics. If you are doing strategic planning, SWOT analysis, or Needs assessments, you will see this complexity. Your team must define how to collect the data needed, how it will be analyzed, and what the goal is. I would consider what the ROI was in the past and focus on meeting that number and then plan to improve.  First, find your profit by subtracting total expenses from the revenue. If that is a negative number, you can stop there. To find the margin or ROI, divide the profit by the revenue.   

Overhead is another popular metric used to group expenses that are necessary for the business but cannot be associated with the production of the products/services being offered.  You do not want the larger portion of the total expenses to be overhead. You can debate expenses like the cost of a case management system, but most count this as a production cost, not as overhead. The cost of legal staff (attorneys, paralegals, etc.) are part of production, but the cost of administrators or support staff are considered overhead. Other expenses, such as rent, utilities, business insurance, and supplies that do not become a part of any products or services, are overhead expenses.  You now have to consider where to track the remote office expenses. I would suggest that it is overhead and not production, just like building costs. Other expenses like the cost of medical records, accident reports, and depositions, are part of production. 

The other popular metric in this group is the burden rate.  The burden rate consists of costs associated with employees (or staff) over and above gross compensation. This includes health insurance, license fee, training, etc. (Basically, any costs associated with your employee that is nottheir salary or pay). When you hire an employee for your law firm, they will cost more than the hourly wage (or salary) you pay them. The additional cost of that employee is known as the burden. The burden cost is important to compute and understand because it includes a variety of significant costs that are part of overhead and are related to employment. So it is a way to further breakdown overhead expense.

Knowing the burden allows a firm administrator or manager to determine the real cost of hiring an employee. The problem we have with burden is deciding what part of overhead is a burden.  If you have to purchase a new license for your case management system, that is a burden.  How much of the cost of the building is burden?   To get a true burden, you should use only expenses directly related to an employee. Once you have the burden cost, you can create a percentage of overhead, a rate per hour average for all staff, or a dollar amount to be added to a salary.  Most small businesses use a burden rate based on total hours worked and apply that rate to the hours of the new employee.  Not a perfect measure, but it will give you a good idea of the total cost for an employee.

Our original question was, how does all of this change in this new environment? If you were able to cut building or office expenses, factor that in.  If you had to purchase equipment for a home office, spread that cost over the first year. Whatever variables you consider, I would keep it simple.  Select data elements that are easy to collect data for and are stable over time. Often the cost of a remote employee is not the same as an employee in the office.  How did your burden change? What was the impact on overhead?  Do you need some new categories in your chart of accounts in your financial system to collect data?  All of these questions should be addressed when doing strategic planning.

Besides the financial impacts, there may be a security impact. You may have workers looking at business data and systems at home. Consider what kind of support a remote user needs and factor in the sensitivity of the data being presented remotely.  You may have to make a change in the IT support you have as your remote users expand. These actions will create an expense.   Are you going to supply the laptops, internet lines, or other equipment? When are your employees considered to be “on the clock”?

I would suggest that it will be six months to a year for the new work environment to settle down.  You will learn as you go.   Along the way, design a data collection strategy and improve it as you build the new environment. Don’t wait until the business fails to start developing a new work culture. 

Did you find some neat ideas in this blog? What are the exciting ideas you came up with, and how are you implementing them? Let me know by contacting me at dwfavor@catalystgroupinc.com.

For more information on creating a strategic plan that works, contact cheryl@catalystgroupinc.com


Try an Online Meeting

For the majority of remote teams, communication is the key to success. Each member of the team must know what the others are working on. This is something that can be easily lost when the entire team is working remotely. Remote teams simply cannot function with inadequate communication between its members. Short daily meetings over Skype or Zoom is a great way to do this. The truth is, it doesn’t matter which remote tool you decide to use; just as long as your team has a good line of communication, your remote workers won’t feel isolated from one another. The key is that all members of the team have access to it and can use it. 

Zoom sets up easily, and team members seem to adapt quickly. There are a few things to keep in mind with any of these tools.  You need a web camera and a microphone, which is standard on most laptops but need to be added to workstations.  Next, remember that you have an active camera and microphone once the meeting starts. Some security considerations must be thought through because you are extending a business discussion into a home or location outside of your control.

The lack of company culture can plague any remote team. Sure, it’s easier for the boss to pop in to chat with a team that works in the same office, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t do the same with a remote team. Set up a daily Zoom meeting that is more like a coffee break than a formal meeting. Other tools allow you to chat, exchange messages or E-mail, or just talk. You don’t need to get fancy, just be available. Here are a few ideas to create highly motivated and productive teams:

  • Prioritize regular check-ins so team members feel you are paying attention to them.
  • Instead of the phone, use Zoom; activate your camera during the call and encourage others to as well, so your team does not lose their sense of community.
  • Virtual meetings may not create the same interpersonal connection of a face to face meeting. That doesn’t mean they can’t be fun. Who wouldn’t appreciate the chance to take their mind off of current events? Try to laugh before jumping into business, advice from ProHabits.com/thrive.

I have found that one of the key ingredients to work culture is regular events and a schedule.  We all start in the morning with our daily meetings and have a coffee break after lunch.  You can do the same with a remote meeting.

Again, it isn’t rocket science. Case managers and Firm Administrators should be working hard to ensure that each member of their team has a clear idea of their expected working hours, all deadlines, what it is that the team is working towards, and even the policy on taking sick days. Establish a routine and have team members check in often. Not keeping track of what’s being done, who is doing what, and who isn’t doing what they are supposed to, is something that can destroy any team.

You should be aware of how much work your remote team is getting done, and at what rate? Luckily, there is a simple way to make sure you don’t end up in this situation, and it’s also an easy fix if you do find yourself in it: monitor and evaluate your remote employees using the same KPIs you would when dealing with in-house workers.  There is an assumption that you have agreed to performance metrics.  Most law firms use a case management system to track cases and can use that same tool to keep track of work done.  The remote teams we have set up, keep track of everything they do in case notes, task checklist, and case milestones.  A few reports that are run each day or week will develop a trend which will show who the top workers are.

The amount of work being done can be too much or not enough.  Most managers are focused on getting the work done and who did the most, but you can also find a team member that does too much.  That is the person that is always online and working. They tend to burn out over time and, in some cases, can destroy the morale of the team.  Back to culture, set some expectations.  Those expectations should include breaks, family time, and time off. Everyone likes to know the rules of the game, and they all want an even playing field. It is OK to have a special project, but the norm should be the same as it would be in the office.  Tell everyone what the rules and expectations are and establish a routine.

Did you find some neat ideas in this blog? What are the exciting ideas you came up with, and how are you implementing them? Let me know by contacting me at dwfavor@catalystgroupinc.com.


Just Relax

Have you ever thought about meditation or been told to relax?  I went through both, and it took some discipline for me to start. I go out on the deck in the morning, weather permitting, and watch the sunrise.  For the first few weeks, I did not get the hang of meditation. Here is what I finally worked out after some coaching. Take a moment and allow your heart to open, to become receptive. This was not easy! The bottom line, relax, and find a comfortable chair where it is quiet.  I like to sit on my deck in the early morning with my coffee and our Sheltie. Now, consider three of your senses and name three things that you notice. In other words, name three things you’re seeing, smelling, tasting, feeling, or hearing. I usually select smell, feel, and hear. My taster is busy with my coffee and perhaps an English muffin. You select the three you like.

I do my three things for hearing, feeling, and smell.   I hear the wind in the trees, morning traffic, a bird chirping.  I feel the wind on my face, the cold chair on my bottom, and the deck on my feet.  I smell bacon cooking, coffee brewing, and the garden. At this point, I can do it again with more detail.  The wind feels cold, or the deck feels rough. The purpose of this exercise is to distract your mind from whatever is causing you to be anxious.

It does not take long to clear my mind from today’s worries.  After my three questions, I don’t give myself much time to get back into the worrying; instead, I announce that I am here and listen.  This was the hardest part for me because I was just too logical.  Who was I talking to? After a lot of thought and trials, I decided it didn’t really matter, just open my mind and listen.  Perhaps it was my mind talking or some supernatural source, who cares. Once I got to this point, the next hurdle was my desire to interpret everything.  Again, who cares.  Instead, just listen.  After a while, I started to ask questions. Ask yourself this question, allowing the answer to come naturally: What do I need? Expect the answer to be something like the need to be connected, loved, peaceful, or free.  If this stirred up any anxiety, I go back to my calming questions: what did I smell, feel, or hear?   Then I listen for the answer to my question.

Most of us have difficulty focusing our attention. I believe that we can’t focus on multiple things at once. So, when I’m thinking about an email response, it is difficult for me to listen, especially when what I hear is annoying or nonsensical babble. There I go with the judgments. I had to set a clear intention to be a better listener. I would catch myself getting lost in thoughts while I should be listening. Listening means to stop making judgments and forming responses before the message is completed. It takes some practice.

Now consider a second question: What do I need to hear from others? Words that we would like to hear are often what we would like to have in our life.  Get ready to listen again. In other words, be patient and don’t judge. Don’t be surprised if you hear about the needs of others. The purpose of the questions is just to get the conversation going. 

I spent a long time fighting this idea of relaxing because I wanted to be in control.  Many months went by before I decided to get over it and just listen.  In my logical world, I decided that spending a few minutes could not hurt.  What I discovered was kind of amazing.  I am not going to claim any miracles, but I will stand by my amazing comment.  I solved problems I had been working on for a long time.  I decided to call people that immediately said I was just thinking of you.  I offered help to people that later said they had been worried about something for a long time.  After my first year, I concluded that we are more connected than we want to admit and that we have more abilities than we use.  Even if nothing amazing happens, I feel more relaxed.  The whole exercise takes 30 minutes, and I get some needed fresh air, and our Sheltie gets a piece of my muffin.

Did you find some neat ideas in this blog? What are the exciting ideas you came up with, and how are you implementing them? Let me know by contacting me at dwfavor@catalystgroupinc.com.


Why is it so complicated

Have you ever had a conversation start with the comment: Don’t make it so complicated?  It has been my experience that you didn’t make it complicated; it already was.  It can be on any subject from cashing a check to going on vacation.  The problem is usually related to all the behind the scenes work that has to happen first.  Most of the time you have some warning time to react and everything gets done.  Nobody knows what was done or really cares.  Here is the difference with an unplanned event with little or no reaction time.  It is Sunday afternoon on a holiday weekend and someone says, let’s jump in the car and drive to the coast.  I say, OK, give me about a half an hour and I will be ready.  The response back is why.  Well I say, I need to get some gas, the car needs service, and I need to transfer some money.  Then it happens, why do you make it so complicated.  Well first of all, none of those items were complicated and all were already in existence, so the best course of action is to just resolve the issues. 


The KPI Question

I recently discussed KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), where I was asked why I needed to see the vision and the mission statements for the law firm.  The answer I provided was; the key performance indicators are based on the goals of the business, which are defined by the vision and the mission found in the strategic plan.  That got a blank stare, so I tried the more official-sounding explanation. A Key Performance Indicator is a measurable value that demonstrates how effectively the firm is achieving key business objectives. That didn’t exactly go over any better, and I was asked, what is an indicator? Before I drown in this analysis, let’s use the KISS principle.  When I use the term KPI, I think of measurements of performance.  Let me also say I have seen where every single measure is called a KPI. That makes no sense to me as not all indicators or measurements are key – some must be more important than others.

Let’s start at the beginning.  The vision statement defines what success looks like. It should contain all the key elements you want to be successful.  You could start with a simple statement saying the firm is a successful law practice.   What does that mean?  So you change it a little to be, the firm is a profitable personal injury law firm that is known for great client service.  

Now you just defined two potential measurements; being profitable and having great client service.  OK, so far.  If you decide these are key to your business, you just defined two KPIs. Now you develop a mission statement to realize the vision.  The mission could be to provide personal injury legal services.  Not very exciting, so you work on it some.  The mission is to provide legal services for personal injury clients in North and South Carolina.  You quickly find out that a lot of law firms do that, so you try and differentiate your firm.  The mission becomes; we provide timely and compassionate personal injury legal services with the best settlements in the Carolinas.  You have just defined several more potential KPIs. All of this was done before we completed the strategic plan or decided on any processes.

You complete the strategic plan and define some tools, processes, and procedures to meet your goals.  Each of those will have a few KPIs. The point of this discussion is, you will develop a unique set of KPIs based on your strategic plan. Using KPIs is a good way to look at the success of a business.  There is also a balanced scorecard approach. The balanced scorecard asks that you translate the mission statement into specific measures that reflect success. The balanced scorecard looks at the firm from four perspectives – financial, client, internal, and growth.  Within the strategic plan, you would develop measurements relative to each of these perspectives — potentially more KPIs.

One last observation, we all have a different idea of what the measurement focus should be. You can probably guess that I look at the strategic plan as the starting point to define the business.  Someone else may be focused on marketing and another on job performance. I have even seen a focus on process effectiveness.  All of these ideas are correct as far as they go, which makes my recommendation to consider all of them.  I would say that too many measurements may result in analysis paralysis.  I would aim for no more than 5 to 10 Key performance indicators.  The rest of your list of measurements are metrics to be used for early warning of problems, performance evaluations, process effectiveness, or prediction of outcomes.

Did you find some neat ideas in this blog? What are the exciting ideas you came up with, and how are you implementing them? Let me know by contacting me at dwfavor@catalystgroupinc.com.

For more information on creating a strategic plan that works, contact cheryl@catalystgroupinc.com