Change the Frame

Think outside-in, not inside-out

Margaret Hagan of Stanford, posted this fabulous doodle on Twitter.

“We need new frames to get new answers.” — Margaret Hagan

She then posed the following question:

“How do we think about problems in fresh ways, in user-centered ways?”

What a great question! (And, while I have no desire to be a law student again, wouldn’t it be great to take her class?)

What are the new frames we need in order to better understand the problem? Our experience leads me to agree with Margaret: we need to look at problems in a user-centered way or, to restate the point I made in an earlier essay, look at them from the outside-in.

Wait a minute.

If you are running a legal department or a law firm, you may be thinking “We are all about understanding our client.” Every law firm talks about their client-centricity. We thought the same thing at Seyfarth. After all, we have been in business a very long time and client service is a core value of the Firm. Frankly, we are damn good at it.

As a result, when we started down our path of value innovation, we just assumed that this part of the process would take care of itself.

We were wrong.

What we learned is that there is a huge gap between even great client service and a commitment to true client-centricity. What is required for the latter is a whole different level of transparency and a willingness on all sides to embrace a true dialogue.

At its most powerful, that dialogue can result in the co-creation of a wholly different service delivery paradigm. If you are going to design a service delivery model that meets the needs of your client, then truly understanding those needs is a base-line requirement.

This seems like common-sense, right?

Client-centricity is hardly a new idea in business. Business-to-consumer businesses, particularly those focused on product design, have long been focused on the client/user experience. Translating that focus on the customer is trickier in business-to-business settings and even more complex in professional service environments.

One of the key tenets of Lean Six Sigma methodology, however, is the “voice of the customer” (in our world, the “voice of the client”). It is no more or less than you would expect from the term (although the results can be quite astounding). It is a process used to elicit the insights from the ultimate consumer of services, such that one can start with the correct service requirements, design the solution set and then continuously improve upon service quality.

When it works best, the voice of the client is a structured discussion about how the two businesses (law firm and law department) work in tandem to deliver top-level services to the end-buyer of services — the law department’s internal clients. It requires a level of process transparency and financial transparency to which most firms and legal departments are unaccustomed and, oftentimes, find scary.

It requires a willingness to have an honest discussion as to which organization is best equipped to handle certain parts of the work — and a recognition that the answer might be neither.

So, let’s just do some of that!

Hang on. This sounds lovely but let’s be honest about the various barriers at play. At its core, outside-in service design requires a real dialogue — meaning the voices of the key stakeholders. This is because outside-in thinking means designing and delivering services from the client’s point of view— considering the client’s service journey and the client’s end-to-end experience. This is much harder than it sounds, because everyone is hardwired to look at the world from his or her own point of view. Understanding other perspectives is an uncommon skill to begin with — and most organizations don’t take the time and effort to cultivate this critical competency in its client-facing personnel.

This is particularly true with lawyers. Like Kipling’s cat, we walk alone; by nature, we are creatures of the silo.

In addition, the organizational structure of most law firms, and most legal departments, is often a silent barrier to client-centricity. In the vast majority of organizations, the structure reflects the composition, specialization, or area of focus of the people who work there, rather than the people who are buying the services. In this environment, each team member is the owner of a small piece of the client experience. Each team member’s perspective is limited by boundaries that are difficult to conceptualize. While there are advantages to this structure, this environment makes seeing the whole field difficult.

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

In other words, we are predisposed to tackle problems with our own toolset, with our own repertoire of skills and knowledge. Navigating our own organizations to challenge and stress-test those assumptions can create perceived personal risk. Going back to the drawing board and asking what the best solution might be, and identifying an optimal toolset for this particular problem, can be scary.

As if this weren’t enough, there are three other factors that make the outside-in approach very difficult.

The artisan lawyer.

Most lawyers are simply unaccustomed to having a discussion about how they deliver legal services. They are stuck in an artisan mindset — fitting for the legal services market of the past but a barrier to solution design now. This artisan mindset goes to the heart of lawyers’ perceptions of themselves — credentialed professionals with very specialized expertise. There is a level of protectiveness around the delivery of services much like a covert operative would view tradecraft. In our industry, getting lawyers to recognize that this level of dialogue and transparency only enhances their value involves a significant change process.

The client is speaking, but who is listening?

Second, the very term “voice of the client” implies that someone needs to be talking and someone needs to be listening. This sounds obvious, but it was actually an important insight. As my longtime colleague Lisa Damon likes to say, the voice of the client requires that we listen and listen intently.

To that I would add — the voice of the client requires us to listen with the intent to understand, rather than the intent to respond.

This insight led us to three deeper realizations about the voice of the client. Firstly, the voice of the client is intended to capture both stated and unstated needs of the client; the reality is that the root cause of the client’s pain points aren’t always known to the clients themselves. Secondly, the lawyers must resist the temptation to provide an answer before the problem is fully articulated; in most cases, this undermines the fundamental point of the voice of the client. Thirdly, the real point of the voice of the client — and some would argue, the key to real innovation — is to identify and understand problems, so that you are not devising solutions in a vacuum.

Change is hard — for everyone involved.

Lastly, we have found that the required solution sets sometimes (okay, rather often) require change from all parties. Change is hard, and in some cases, it is too hard for some organizations and some people. It is simply easier to buy a piece of technology or to whittle at the edges than it is to get people to actually change they way they operate. This is a problem we have learned to deal with, and one of the capabilities we have built in the last decade is change management. A subsequent essay will talk about the components necessary to drive and support sustainable change in the context of the legal industry. The difficulty of change, however, has also taught us that a Lean transformation, or a broad transformation of any kind, is not necessarily the right answer for every organization.

Outside-in, inside-out: it might sound like semantics, but the difference is enormous. After all, everything is not always a nail.

Take the time to find out what, if anything, actually
needs fixing in your client’s world.