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Aligning individual and organisational power can enable transformational change

30 May 2012

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By Manju Manglani, Editor (@ManjuManglani)

The transformation of law firms from traditional partnerships into professionally-managed businesses depends on the critical relationship of two forms of power: that exercised by individuals within the firm and the power embedded with the firm itself, an academic study has found. 

The paper notes that both forms of power play are important and have interdependent roles in achieving radical change.

 “Understanding the role of power in carrying out successful organisational change is an immensely important issue for those managing the process,” says professor Tim Morris of Sa?d Business School, who conducted the study with professor Thomas B. Lawrence of Simon Fraser University and Dr Namrata Malhotra of Imperial College London.

“Managers attempting to guide their firms through major transformations must recognise the essentially political nature of the process. They must unfreeze the entrenched political alliances that might otherwise block change without alienating colleagues who ultimately need to support the transformation.”

The research is based on an analysis of three London law firms going through major organisational changes arising from very different circumstances. The study makes two key observations.

First, transformation is best achieved by changing the patterns of authority within firms, in order to disrupt the traditional rules and assumptions within the organisation. In law firms, where influence has been distributed across a wide range of individuals and where centralised authority is weak, centralising decision making, power and authority can help with bringing about transformational change, the study says.

Second, achieving legitimisation of the power shift is critical. While centralising power and bringing an end to longstanding power bases is a necessary step to realise change, obtaining buy-in from key individual partners is crucial for that change to be legitimised.

The authors note that, to succeed, change must be firmly grounded in the cultural traditions and values of the firm. Persuasive words and symbols appropriate to the organisation and communicated by those implementing change can stimulate a cultural shift, prompting acceptance among those needing to be won around.

Emphasising the firm’s values can defuse opposition from those who would otherwise claim that they are being undermined. By championing change, influential evangelists can create the broad acceptance needed to cement the initiative, the authors note. Conversely, these individuals at the forefront of the change must know when to step back and let the new system work without undue interference.

Each of the firms examined in the research had differing degrees of success in bringing about change. The authors found that different factors were key to achieving their goals.

One firm, for instance, found it helpful to completely separate professional and managerial roles. Seeking to achieve greater efficiencies and take advantage of opportunities in the corporate finance sector, the firm put its partners’ activities under the control of a chief executive, formerly the managing partner, and its business services under the control of a chief operating officer.

The resulting division of authority and the firm’s new commitment to managerial control, rationalisation and productivity prompted a change to a more corporate mindset within the firm.

“The pluralistic nature of law firms demands that change initiatives take full account of the individual nature of the firm, its partners and practices, and are explicitly framed to appeal to the vested interests of individuals where power has been rooted,” says Morris.

“Managers have to think about power more broadly than they might be accustomed. Power should be thought of in organisational terms, working continuously through technologies, practices and systems, rather than as one-off isolated initiatives, or as focused on individuals.

“Change must be embedded in the day-to-day routines of colleagues while avoiding the dangers of over-focusing on systems. Every step is inextricably tied to a form of power, and failing to utilise that power appropriately will result in failure,” he concludes.

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