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Surfing the Sand Dunes: Leading Through Transformative, Disruptive Change

By Brendan Miller posted 03-05-2024 10:16


Please enjoy this blog authored by Brendan W. Miller, Former AmLaw 100 Partner, Turned Legal Innovation Leader.

Change is the inevitable constant in life. Truly transformative change can be inspiring, refreshing, status-changing, and rewarding, but it can also be scary, risky, and disruptive. AI anyone?!?
The legal industry has garnered the reputation—sometimes earned, sometimes not—for being resistant to changes to established norms and practices. But that perception has evolved, as more legal teams and the clients they serve have seen the benefits of embracing innovation that improves the delivery of legal services, especially in the face of disruptive forces such as technology, market changes, new service models and billing practices.  Legal innovation, it turns out, is NOT an oxymoron!

At times, the constant state of change may have you feeling like you’re unequipped to move forward-stuck in a proverbial desert of sand dunes.  But, did you know you can surf on sand dunes?  
Law firm and legal department leaders—and those they lead—are uniquely positioned to steer the results of change.  Positive mindset, and tangible commitment to that mindset (time, energy, human and other resources), are critical factors to successfully navigating through change and capturing the winds to carry a team forward.  
So, be encouraged to “fight the good fight” and develop or keep a positive posture that allows your team to lean into change.  Mindset alone—obviously—is not enough to ensure transformative changes have positive impact.  Much important thought, science, and process has been developed on change management, and that work will continue to be refined and evolve.  While this is not the forum for a deep dive on change management, below are some paradigms that may help you frame your and your team’s mindset towards embracing change that is likely to have a positive impact on your organization.  Whether these or other paradigms resonate with you and your team, consider which sand dunes are on your radar today that you can deliberately take action to help your team navigate positively. 

1. Keep the Guiding Light Turned On: Set a Clear Vision.
Change always starts with having and articulating a clear vision.  Why change?  What are we trying to accomplish?  Top leadership must set a clear vision and messaging for the goal(s) of change at the outset and throughout the process.  Without clear vision, it is far too easy for mission drift to overtake the initiative and alter the trajectory and outcomes.  When anticipated change is or may be perceived as disruptive to the status quo, having consistent and clear articulation and reminders of the vision are absolutely critical to keep the team moving forward.  
Figure 1 contains a straightforward and profound model defining needed elements for managing change that has resonated with many teams.  As the model shows, vision is certainly not the only needed element, but it is arguably the most important.

2. Steps in the Right Direction: Drive Realistic Expectations to Move the Team Forward.
As futurist Roy Amara stated, in what has become known as Amara’s Law, “we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”  The well-known Gartner Hype Cycle (Fig. 2) illustrates this concept.  This is a big picture idea that has important lessons for an individual initiative to drive disruptive change.  When driving something new for an organization—especially disruptive changes that leverage emerging technologies or processes—experience shows us that Amara’s Law and the Gartner Hype Cycle are at play.  
Keep your eyes on the long-term potential for positive change but understand and set realistic expectations for the short-term.  Things will likely not always go smoothly.  There will be missteps or backtracking.  That happens when you’re trying something new.  The key is to create a safe space and make the process of learning from mistakes efficient as possible. “Fail quickly,” and make new mistakes that help the team move forward.

3. Focus on Results that Matter: Measure ROI on Dimensions that Resonate with Stakeholders.
When leading through major changes, it is essential to keep key stakeholders engaged and informed on progress.  These are the individuals that can either champion an initiative to keep moving forward—even when the going gets tough—or they can kill the initiative in its tracks.   An analogue to Amara’s Law is the J-Curve which can be instructive in describing the discrepancy between the usual track of change (Amara’s Law/ Gartner Hype Cycle) and stakeholders’ expectations (See Fig. 3).  
Stakeholders are understandably interested in Return on Investment (ROI), but ROI can be measured in various ways.  Early on in a change initiative, it may be more important—and may help stakeholders to stay engaged and see progress—by reporting on different metrics than what are likely to be the focus of longer-term ROI analyses.  For example, early metrics may focus more on qualitative measures of operational changes, cross-functional alignment, insights/ lessons learned, and narrative stories of success.  
Prioritizing early focus on projects more likely to generate measurable ROI—aligned with the overall vision and that will resonate with stakeholders—can help.  Figure 4 contains an example of a Prioritization Matrix used by some organizations to identify projects that balance the complexity of implementation with the projected return on investment. 

  Figure 3 - The J-Curve Effect
4. Remember the Goal is to Thrive, not just Survive.
In the 2021 book “Change: How Organizations Achieve Hard-to-Imagine Results in Uncertain and Volatile Times,” John Kotter et all offer many thought-provoking insights for leading through change.  One that particularly resonates with me is the base observation that our human hardwiring sets up an inherent struggle between our desire to Survive (“fight or flight”) and our yearning to Thrive.  “[T]he vast majority of people tend to seriously underestimate the power of our built-in survival instinct and how it can inadvertently overwhelm our capacity to swiftly see opportunities, innovate, adapt, lead and change for the better.”  Id.
This is not an either-or proposition.  Our survival instincts are needed to help us identify and deal effectively with threats.  But, if we’re only ever in reaction mode, we may seriously limit our willingness and ability to be open to innovation.  Having a deliberate Thrive mindset means being open to change, proactively looking for new opportunities.  This mindset can be infectious and fuel a team to keep moving forward, and can inform how law firms, legal departments, and other organizations develop structure and resources, empower change agents, and position themselves to thrive in the face of disruptive, transformative change.
Brendan W. Miller, J.D. is a legal innovator: a curious, seasoned litigator and corporate attorney, technologist, strategist, and change agent. To Brendan, legal innovation is about continually being relevant for clients, by making the practice and effects of law easier, better, and more valuable.