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It is difficult to refute Dr Heidi Gardner’s findings in her recent book SMART Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos.

Increasingly complex client issues, “VUCA problems – volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous”, demand comprehensive solutions that integrate highly specialised, diverse expertise. Most importantly, clients pay more for these solutions and stick with the firms that provide them.

The issue is not whether collaboration works, but rather where to begin. We’ve talked before about how to get lawyers to collaborate. For most firms, though, it is a fundamental cultural shift to move towards a collaborative way of working, and that change process can feel overwhelming.

So we’ve set out 5 practical steps you can take to get started and set the foundation on which to build a culture of collaboration.

1. Put collaboration in context

To quote Dr Gardner, “Smart collaboration is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.” It is crucial that senior leadership sets the context by communicating the clear business priority that collaboration is meant to enable. For example, is your firm seeking to become more sector-aligned? Are you implementing a strategic client program? Do you want to drive greater international integration and consistency of service? Articulate the vision from the most senior level so that everyone in the organisation understands that collaboration is not simply a “soft skill” or “nice to have” but rather is a critical means to achieving a fundamental element of the firm’s competitive strategy.

2. Share Group information

It is almost impossible to identify opportunities to work with others without access to what others are trying to achieve. Leverage your existing team structures to increase information access. Ask your Practice, Sector or Client teams to articulate their top five priorities for the year ahead, and then establish a transparent platform through which these groups can share their plans.

With access to information and the expectation that priorities should be shared, it is much easier to incorporate a host of activities into “business as usual” team activities that promote trust and knowledge, both critical to collaboration. You might decide to:

  • Set a standing agenda item in group meetings to review another group’s plan for opportunities.
  • Establish a rotation in which a team member joins another group’s meeting to deliver an elevator pitch for their Practice/Sector/Client expertise and to learn more about the host group’s expertise.
  • Bring group leaders together twice a year to share best practice, discuss common challenges, set priorities, and to generally advance execution of the firm’s strategy.
  • Create a forum for Sector leaders and Client team leaders exchange insight and experience, which can then be leveraged by their respective teams.

3. Start small with Partners

Ask your partners to identify one or two areas in which they would be more likely to succeed with help from others. Then support them in sharing their goals openly with colleagues, and connecting them with those who can help – industry experts, those with relevant contacts, or lawyers with complimentary technical expertise. Finally, celebrate success resulting from these connections by highlighting wins on the firm’s intranet, internal newsletters or other communication vehicles.

4. Budget for collaboration

Set aside a portion of your firm’s marketing budget for collaborative initiatives and campaigns. Designate BD resource to work with partners and teams to develop and support these efforts. Again, communicate and celebrate success to demonstrate the ROI on collaborative efforts. When done well, returns from collaborative efforts always far outweigh the initial outlay, so this will be money well spent.

5. Use technology

Dr Gardner devotes a section of her book to collaborative technology platforms (“CTAs”), commenting that “for professional services firms, 98 percent of the benefits of [CTAs] stem from improvements in collaboration.”

Firms often struggle with information management and access. You have financial systems, CRMs, intranets, HRIS, and the like, but is comprehensive data easily accessible to those who need it most? How would an individual partner, or even a Group leader, use your existing systems to seek out cross-practice opportunities, identify clients ripe for expansion, or access others with specialist expertise?

Consider how your existing systems can be better leveraged to support collaboration. Conduct an audit to identify information gaps, questions you cannot answer, and data you cannot easily access. Use this as the starting point to define the type of system that would allow people across your firm to turn information into insight, and insight into opportunity.

Commit to success

There are some quick wins on the road to collaboration, but, in truth, you need to play the long game. It takes time and investment to build a collaborative environment and to understand where collaboration is most effective, and where it’s not.

Kick starting collaboration is all about setting the foundation. Ensure people understand the context for collaboration, why it’s important to your firm. Give them the tools and information to spot the right opportunities, and encourage their continued commitment by recognising success. A bit of momentum and a few early success stories can ease the path towards embedding a truly collaborative culture.

About ObjectiveManager

At ObjectiveManager, we have developed goal-setting software to help professional services firms and their people define strategy and improve performance through continuous feedback to power growth.

By simplifying the way firms conduct the entirety of their strategic planning from Sector/Client programmes to Partner Remuneration, we help them improve collaboration and optimise conditions for growth. Our innovative software turns individual gains into big business impact by making individual and firm-wide objectives visible, constant and actionable.

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