Knowledge Management - includes Industry Participants

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Managing Culture and Shifting Mindset: Follow-Up Blog Post

By Brian Balistreri posted 02-14-2023 17:02


**Please enjoy this blog posted on behalf of the author Madeline Boyer, Director, Innovation Lab, Reed Smith LLP.

I have often said one of my superpowers as an anthropologist is to quickly assimilate into new environments. This ability to observe, identify, and model the norms of a new group was honed through my doctoral ethnographic fieldwork on coworking spaces in the early 2010s. It has been both a boon and a challenge as my career has evolved: it allows me to build credibility and understanding with relative speed at any new client or job but has also built in a bit of intellectual wanderlust. When I was in consulting, I never had a great answer to the question of “what is your industry focus?” My methodology was my focus, not any specific industry or corporate function. And so here I find myself (with no legal background), at a global law firm, applying that methodology to find the pain points, areas of friction, and opportunities to reimagine how Reed Smith works together internally, and delivers services to our clients. A diverse firm like Reed Smith fulfills that wanderlust in me, because each practice group, industry group, matter team, or local office all have their unique ways of working, opportunities to seize, and challenges to overcome. Different from my consulting work, though, I am excited to also work towards identifying themes and needs that scale across the firm to impact every attorney, professional, and client.

Hallmark to anthropological methods, or ethnography, is an approach known as “participant-observation.” This method encourages researchers to maintain an outside perspective to generate insights about their subjects via their note keeping and guiding research questions, but to also find ways to participate alongside their subjects to garner further understanding of their experiences from an “insider” perspective. The juxtaposition of these two perspectives is invaluable to fully understand a cultural group, be it a community halfway across the globe from you, a neighborhood homeowners’ association, or a global organization. The “participant” part is key because by becoming an insider through participation in the group’s activities and rituals, you can better understand the internal experiences, and hence, the motivations, of the people in that group. This methodological concept overlaps with many design schools of thought, such as Human Centered Design or Design Thinking. Anthropologists and designers agree that you need to be with your users/participants/stakeholders to build empathy and better understand what they need (whether they are aware of that need or not). Ultimately, innovation is about finding new (and better) ways to meet needs. Deep ethnographic understanding may lead you to find needs to fill that others haven’t yet found, or understand those needs better than others have historically, and is a natural pathway to innovation. It is also a pathway that enables more effective change management when you start to implement innovation initiatives.

I define culture as a collection of habits around how people in an organization think, act, and collaborate. Change management is about shifting people’s habits towards a defined future state, so it is inherently a cultural shift and should be managed with that in mind. As a cultural anthropologist, my inherent bias is to talk to people as much as possible, and I apply that mindset to all phases of innovation and change management: problem finding, problem understanding, solutioning and implementing. Innovating in a corner based on what you think your stakeholders want is a guaranteed recipe for resistance. However, if you have been listening to your stakeholders all through the process via interviews, observation, workshops, pilots, or otherwise, they will feel more ownership over the proposed changes that are coming their way. Further, your solutions will have already considered potential change impacts that you can plan to mitigate in your roll out to increase speed to value.

I’ve been working to reflect on what I can bring from my time in consulting, and what I need to rework to fit into the legal space. KPMG and Reed Smith are both professional services firms structured as partnerships with a strong reliance on the billable hour where meeting client needs is paramount. In both cases, the partnership structure can make it challenging to steer the ship in new directions, because there are so many stakeholders with varying clients, needs, experiences, and personalities that need to be in alignment. What has stood out to me as a difference, though, has been with respect to orientation towards experimentation and change. In consulting, partners engage with clients to advise them on what they need to change going forward. This creates an inherent openness within the partnership towards finding new ways of doing things to stay ahead of competitors. In the legal field, the reliance on precedents to inform reliable and successful legal strategy fosters a healthy skepticism of what is new and untested. 

Further, Reed Smith is no different to every other law firm in that the perpetual challenge facing new initiatives are lack of time, and that—rightly so—client needs will always take priority. Finding ways to work within that paradigm, rather than against it, has been a major focus of the Lab’s strategy to encourage a culture of innovation. In the Lab, we ask ourselves:

How might we…plan engagements around known client deadlines and other pulls on attorney focus? …maximize the value of time together by leveraging collaboration tools? …structure roles and responsibilities to reduce bottle necks? …do work asynchronously to keep things moving? …Identify which activities require lawyer input and what can be done without them?

Feedback from a partner on a recent workshop was that they were surprised by “how helpful and productive the session was.” It may seem like a low bar, but getting time with five attorneys to collaborate was met with hesitance. Now that the Lab has exceeded expectations, they will be open to giving more time in the future, knowing that it will be a valuable use of that time. Meeting attorneys where they are, and overcoming their skepticism by consistently creating value for them has been our path to success in driving a culture of innovation.


#Professional Development

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