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The Change Challenge for Professional Firms

David Maister, author, ex Harvard Business Professor and professional firm guru, clearly laid down the challenge to professional service firms such as accountants and lawyers in his book "True Professionalism" (which is now over 10 years old!) He is frequently invited to address gatherings of professionals to speak about how he sees the market place changing and what the latest trends are. He points out that this is a waste of time because what is required is not the ability to predict the market, but to adapt to it in the shortest possible time. This means that the key to success in this rapidly changing market place is to master Change.

"It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory." W. Edwards Deming

As far back as 1982 the following trends in the professional market place were predicted:-

I think most would agree that these challenges look very contemporary, and somehow 25 years have passed without them being resolved.

He points out (and it is certainly my experience too) that many professional firms tend to be rather change resistant. Certainly plans have been drawn up but implementing them is another matter. He claims they tend to be full of visions and goals but rather short on details about how they can be achieved.

He makes what I think is a crucial observation and I quote "As evolutionary biologists have taught us, the more adapted (ie. Comfortable) you are in your current environment, the less likely it is that you'll be adaptive to environmental changes" If you think about this carefully, the people who are best adapted to the current environment are most likely to be successful within it and therefore to have power. So today's winners have far less incentive to 'rock the boat' and possibly disrupt a winning formula.

He suggests that it is crucial to get good at listening to your clients and their real needs, and then implementing new management systems to make sure that you can deliver these. Professional firms are full of smart people who often know what needs doing but they need the systems in place to make this not only easy but mandatory. He recommends experimentation to try new ideas ands see if they work both in terms of the market and for the business.

People who have risen through the ranks in a professional environment are often professional experts, but a business requires managing and leading and these skills are not taught as part of those professional qualifications. Furthermore, the ability to talk the language of business builds trust and rapport with clients and prospects who are, of course, business people too.

It is essential to change the way you measure and reward success to align with these new goals; smart, ambitious professionals will not do things which adversely affect their pockets!

He talks about the importance of creating a culture that actually welcomes change. One of the ways he recommends is to invest time and effort in listening to market, and I would add, to your own clients and staff. Don't be afraid to be innovative. Not every idea will work but the more things you try, the more likely you are to learn things that do work. If your culture attaches more value to not making mistakes than innovation or learning, then what you will get is a slow fossilisation. For the firms to change and grow, so must its people. Personal development, as opposed to just professional development, becomes a key strategy.

"When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves." Victor Frankl

If the leaders and managers in the firm act as brakes on change rather than facilitators of it, then of course, what you will get is short term results rather than long term growth. Accountants are very good at running spreadsheets and shaving the odd percent off overheads; it takes a different sort of leader to invest in people who can grow the top line.

Here are a few questions you might like to ask at your next management meeting:-

If you take this challenge I can pretty much guarantee you some very interesting meetings!

"Change is inevitable - except from a vending machine." Robert C. Gallagher


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