Practice Management

 View Only

The Agile KM&I Manifesto

By Sachin Gupta posted 10-24-2023 11:37


Please enjoy this blog authored by: Sachin Gupta, Knowledge Management Attorney, Latham & Watkins LLP and Virginia Ong, Legal Innovation Manager, Greenberg Traurig

In the late 1990s, the software development world faced issues like delays, cost overruns, and products misaligned with user needs.  The Manifesto for Agile Development (“the Manifesto”), published in 2001, introduced a framework to address these problems by focusing on increments of functional software, embracing changing requirements, and cross-functional teamwork. Since its publication, the twelve principles articulated in the Manifesto have impacted various industries, from manufacturing to human resources.  By embracing the agile mindset, knowledge management and innovation (“KM&I”) professionals can also reap its benefits.  We will examine the twelve agile principles and discuss how each can be adopted for the KM&I world. We take each principle in turn with underlined text indicating modifications from the original agile principles.

Principle 1: Our highest priority is to satisfy attorneys through early and continuous delivery of valuable resources.

This is the overarching principle that captures the raison-d’être of KM&I. The programs exist to satisfy the requirements of our practicing lawyers. 

Principle 2: Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. KM&I Agile processes harness change for the attorney’s competitive advantage.

Legal developments in various practice areas can evolve quickly, requiring KM&I projects to adapt accordingly. Client-interests shifted from crypto in 2021 to metaverse in 2022 and generative AI in 2023. As those interests evolve, projects must also pivot to maintain focus on the most pressing issues.

Principle 3: Deliver valuable resources frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.

A major challenge in KM&I programs is attorney engagement, as their time is highly valuable. Client work takes precedence in law firms, but offering smaller, frequent solutions maintains KM&I program visibility. Quick wins showcase program value, fostering attorney buy-in. A regular release of smaller resources enables easier feedback incorporation, compared to extensive re-drafts. 

Principle 4: Attorneys and practice support professionals must work together frequently throughout the project.

Law firms have varying structures for practice support roles, including separate KM and Innovation departments, or distinct practice management positions. It is crucial to foster collaboration among these functions, as KM and innovation attorneys seek solutions to practice management challenges that may span multiple areas, such as training and business development. To promote cross-collaboration, some firms form cross-functional teams comprising representatives from each relevant department. These teams regularly discuss challenges and potential solutions from their unique perspectives. When used correctly, tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams can further enhance communication and break down departmental barriers. 

Principle 5: Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done.

It’s unrealistic to expect attorneys to participate in every aspect of KM&I, particularly at larger firms.  KM&I attorneys need to find their champions (i.e., motivated partners and associates) that recognize the value of KM&I. Most progress in a KM&I program will come from a select group of attorneys. Firms should genuinely support these efforts, offering billable hour credit and ensuring junior associates do not fear negative consequences for participating in KM&I projects.

Principle 6: The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a practice group is face-to-face conversation.

While the classification of Zoom and video calls as face-to-face communication is debatable, the key is to avoid over-reliance on written communication. Due to time restraints, attorneys may prefer responding to emails, but this can lead to ineffective communication. Face-to-face interactions, however, can address challenges more efficiently, as lawyers tend to avoid documenting unfavorable facts.

Principle 7:  Usage of resources is the primary measure of progress.

The legal industry focuses on quantitative metrics like hours billed, profits, and head counts. However, these numbers don’t indicate if the resources meet user needs. A successful KM&I program should be judged by resource usage, not quantity of resources or hours billed. An advance generative AI tool that has low usage is far less valuable than a heavily used plugin that helps attorneys file their emails. Similarly, twenty hours billed on KM&I project vs ten hours is not necessarily indicative of the quality of that project. Usage should be the primary measure of progress for KM&I, as a well-utilized basic tool is more valuable than an advanced, rarely used one.

Principle 8: KM&I Agile processes promote sustainable development. The KM&I professionals should be able to maintain a constant pace of productivity indefinitely.

To ensure consistent attention, KM&I must adapt to the pace of the practice.  During slower periods, KM&I initiatives can focus on creating templates, user-testing new software, and other projects that necessitate increased attorney involvement. Conversely, when the firm is busy, KM&I professionals can prioritize gathering precedents from deals and exploring more efficient technological solutions that require minimal input from practicing attorneys. This approach will help maintain a balance and keep KM&I in the spotlight regardless of the firm's workload.

Principle 9: Continuous attention to information management excellence and good design enhances agility.

When software developers introduce low quality code and shortcuts into their codebase, it can lead to “technical debt” which developers must address eventually. This debt can accumulate and grow exponentially, increasing remediation costs. Similarly, a KM attorney’s job involves not only creating resources, but managing them through metadata, documenting, and structured databases. Neglecting these tasks accumulates a similar type of debt, making resources difficult to find, update, and nearly impossible to collaborate on.  Implementing and maintaining efficient information management processes is crucial for enhanced KM agility.

Principle 10:  Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done — is essential.

Transitioning from practice to KM can make drafting templates in the abstract feel daunting, as it is challenging to account for every situation.  Instead of striving for perfection, the focus should be on creating usable resources and processes. As attorneys utilize these resources, feedback will lead to improvements over time, providing immediate value as well as gradual enhancement. 

Principle 11: The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

Attorneys, and in particular juniors, can be invaluable in identifying high-value KM&I projects as they can spot areas for improvement based on their daily experiences in practice. While KM&I attorneys are generally experienced, they may not be as in-tune with current practice needs. Nearly every bleary- eyed attorney facing a deadline has had a moment where they have thought, “You know what would be great to have?...” Involving attorneys in KM&I project ideation and design fosters ownership and increases project completion likelihood, while also encouraging continuous improvements. This approach results in more thoughtful and valuable KM&I projects. 

Principle 12: At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

Periodically evaluating KM&I programs is essential for identifying their effectiveness. However, law firms often overlook the step of reflecting on individual deals or cases at their conclusion, despite its potential to generate valuable, real-world insights that can inform a group’s KM&I strategy. Regularly conducting such exercises helps identify common challenges and design high-impact KM&I projects to address them. This process requires a collaborative culture focused improvement rather than blame, which may be challenging in the competitive law firm world but can yield significant benefits for practice groups.

The twelve principles from the Agile Manifesto adapt nicely to KM&I because at their core, they are about people, progress, collaboration, and change – topics that are discussed constantly in knowledge management and innovation.  They offer a framework in which a KM&I program can find its moorings and deliver consistent value to a law firm, and subsequently its clients, via a thoughtful and coherent strategy.  Such a framework does not currently exist for the KM&I space.  While one could certainly be crafted, as any KM&I professional will tell you, we always try to avoid reinventing the wheel.