Dinosaurs and dancing elephants: better business performance
Chris Marston reviews how firms can optimise personnel in practice
Recent months have given a brutal demonstration of the challenge we all face in keeping pace with societal, economic, political and business change.
Who could have imagined 2022 would see the Russian invasion of Ukraine; we would be mired in an energy crisis of a scale not seen since the 1970s, experience widespread industrial action – even including the legal sector – and watch inflation hit double figures? And that 10 Downing Street would be home to three different prime ministers (so far).
It is hard to truly appreciate the extent and pace of change until we reflect back. Reviewing just these past few months brings home how much things have changed and the resulting impact on our day-to-day personal and business lives. Paradoxically, it seems wholly unexpected change is the one thing that is predictable these days.
Coping with change
Where we used to consider ourselves ahead of the curve if we embraced change management, a gradual process tackled through reflection and planning, now we find ourselves running faster than ever, as we try to keep up.
Dealing with a constantly changing environment has been high on our network’s leadership development agenda for some years. Digital transformation, market deregulation, and changing consumer expectations were just some of the headlines demanding our attention, before the pandemic gave new meaning to the pace and force of change.
To address those challenges, we focused on equipping our member firms to stay in front, to feel confident about making decisions without knowing all the facts, and to bring their teams along with them. When faced with the dramatic change occasioned by the pandemic, we recognised we needed even more. We launched an online leadership forum to provide a new space for conversation, debate, advice and reassurance, with managing partners and CEOs sharing and learning from each other, day by day, week by week, both online and offline.
With the emergency phase of the pandemic behind us, and the opportunity for face-to-face meetings restored, the obvious focus for this year’s annual LawNet conference was to invite world-class speakers to show us innovative ways of handling a fast-paced future and help our member firms tackle the unknown.
So, as we face yet more economic and political turmoil and change, all of which will directly impact our businesses in the months ahead, what can we learn from the experts: how should we drive leadership in this complex world?
Hearing from the commentators, futurists and academics at our conference, the message was clear. Be open to change, prepared to embrace and run with it, with a growth mindset, adaptive resilience – and the energy to lead at pace.
Concepts alone are of little practical use; we needed practical ways for our members to take action within their firms. So, each speaker drilled down to demonstrate how we could truly embrace their ideas to build organisational resilience, nurture talent and high-performing teams, and so make the breakthrough to better business performance.
1) Build a growth mindset with new voices and fearless questions
For our keynote speaker Matthew Syed – renowned broadcaster, thinker and commentator – the focus is on the power of learning from mistakes.
He emphasised the importance of having a growth mindset, founded on an organisational culture which is always open to learning, willing to adapt and to seize new opportunities. As he explained, that comes from the psychology within a team or organisation, with open minds, attuned to growth opportunities.
Such cultural agility is the cutting-edge asset, according to Syed. Firms need a mission-critical approach which involves trial-and-error learning, with innovation as iteration, a hunger to identify deficiencies in the organisation, and an appetite for customer feedback.
The risks are complacency, which can shut down dissonance and potential change, and having a fixed mindset, which can be suppressive and encourage people to focus on what they see as their limitations.
This can be particularly problematic for a profession trained to have the right answers. As Arash Dinari of Wolferstans, one of our members, said, after listening to Syed’s presentation: “A growth mindset can be quite difficult for lawyers. We are so used to coming from a closed mindset, where we don’t like to ask a question if we don’t know the answer. But Matthew’s approach – making a shift to a more collaborative approach, pooling ideas for innovation and progress – was about a real change in attitude and something we were certainly able to take away.”
One of the ways closed thinking is reinforced, according to Syed, is when leadership takes place in an echo chamber. There needs to be cognitive diversity on the team, with evidence showing a symmetry between such diversity and the development of a growth mindset within organisations.
This was supported by other speakers. For Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School, a tolerance of unorthodox views is vital, and we must find a home for the maverick voices in our organisations, giving them a place where they can be the spark of the unexpected for what we do next.
This particularly resonated for Paul Kite of IBB: “It was fascinating and the concept of the echo chamber was excellent. I could see how that comes into play and it made me think about how to conduct meetings and bring in more diverse thought processes in future.”
2) Resilient adhocracies will keep you dancing
A key theme was the role of resilience in facing up to the challenge of life and learning. As Syed explained: “It is inevitable we will make mistakes and occasionally have our strategic assumptions violated. I think having the resilience to deal with that, being able to extract the lessons and to grow, and not allow ourselves to be defeated is a really useful attribute for both individuals and teams.”
The theme was developed further by Birkinshaw, who looked at how to stay resilient and respond successfully to a fast-changing world, by embracing new ways of working.
Pointing to the disruption and challenges faced by the legal sector, Birkinshaw explained: “The shocks are greater than ever. Being agile, and therefore able to respond to new opportunities, is important, but resilience is crucial. It’s about surviving through thick and thin, withstanding shocks like the pandemic and beyond.”
Looking first at the huge pressures on organisations to adapt, he evoked an array of mythical, extinct, and fanciful figures to drive his point home. For many, the prevailing business narrative is about the dinosaurs and the unicorns: older, long-established companies are presented as dinosaurs, stuck in their ways and destined towards extinction under the remorseless ascent of the unicorns, the fast, adaptive innovators in their sectors.
But, Birkinshaw argues, rather than being dinosaurs, many are dancing elephants, harnessing their resilience to refashion themselves to better suit the future. Examples are the big banks who are not just surviving the disruption of new unicorn challenger banks, but actively thriving and putting on a strong performance. They may be elephantine but, thanks to their resilience, extinct they are not.
Seeking out the right behaviours is the route to achieving such resilience, he says: “Companies may gravitate towards an organisational model founded on bureaucracy, based on command and control leadership, but that is a little bit slow and a little bit cumbersome. A meritocracy is another option, with expertise and information flow prioritised, but it tends to favour knowledge over action.
“I think we need to embrace something more like an ‘adhocracy.’ An ad hoc approach which privileges action and creates a sufficiently fluid structure people are enabled to pursue opportunities in a much less encumbered way.”
According to Birkinshaw, adhocracy is the natural preserve of start-up companies and is often lost as organisations grow, but for those that can create such an environment within existing structures, it can provide an action-oriented approach that is both accountable and transparent, but with fewer levels of reporting.
This brings us back to those maverick voices again, as Birkinshaw explains: “Sometimes people with cool ideas are discounted, or have no platform, but in an adhocracy they can find their rightful place.”
3) Energy is everything: by sharing more we learn more
This brings us to another maverick – the role embodied by Tom Cruise in the Top Gun films. For our speaker Sophie Devonshire, chief executive of the Marketing Society, it’s the pilot not the plane that counts. ‘Maverick’ the pilot has personal abilities which enable him to achieve performance levels on the flightdeck way beyond those of his peers. In the same way, the success of a firm lies in the agility and energy of its leaders, and the pace they set for those around them.
Devonshire argues as the world speeds up, so leaders must set a pace that ensures they and their teams thrive and are not left behind. But this is not wholly about speed, as rushing around without clear direction can be negative. Rather than going nowhere fast, a laser focus on the destination, coupled with an accelerated route, is what makes the difference:
“We can feel overwhelmed by how much there is to be done, the impatience of the world, the always-on nature of business,” she explains. “Energy is everything in this but doing less can sometimes be a positive. Think slowly, act fast: the important thing is to move at pace in the right direction, so focus, prioritise, and edit continually.”
And like the fabled tortoise and the hare, Devonshire reckons strategic laziness and silence may be the way to winning the race, giving the example of mega-corporation Amazon starting each board meeting by reading papers in silence for 20 minutes. Leaders in a superfast world need their brains to be clear and taking time out for silence can contribute to clarity, while looking for the quickest, shortest, fastest route, often the preserve of the so-called ‘lazy,’ is generally a good thing.
Devonshire argues connections and networks have a vital role to play in stimulating performance: “Building human understanding and using every opportunity to learn and listen from others can be a great accelerator. When we share, we change things. There is a power in not operating alone. Just as IT networks speeds things up, so it is the same for people – networks allow you to borrow brains and be a thinking partner or a challenging critical friend, learning from the mistakes and successes of others. Together we can always achieve more.”
While Devonshire may have been preaching to the converted, as LawNet members attend our conference for the very purpose of learning, connecting and sharing, it would be short-sighted not to reflect on this message. From the operational side of the network, our strategy and delivery is always under review, so we can maximise value for our members in the dynamic future we face.
Forward motion is a given for us all: with velocity. Research undertaken by Devonshire, among the so-called unicorns and elephants, found the one thing upon which they agree is the perceived need for speed, because no matter the sector, disruptive companies like Uber and AirBnB can change expectations for everyone.
There is no going back. But with open minds, a willingness to embrace the unexpected and to listen to new ideas, we can keep dancing.
Chris Marston is chief executive of LawNet: lawnet.co.uk