Proactive Leadership: Conducting a Strategic Plan “Premortem”

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Having worked with members of your law firm’s Strategic Planning Committee (SPC) for a number of months, you’ve finally come to the point where you have a draft of a strategic plan that has been approved by the partners and now just needs some attention directed toward how certain components will actually be implemented.

Your fellow Committee members have already pointed out a number of actions they feel are critical and definitely need to be properly executed in order to make the strategic plan a success.

As an example, one such action item states:

A set of ‘Client Service Standards’ needs to be developed and codified in writing, and these Standards have to be accepted and consistently used by all attorneys in every practice area.

There is some discussion and concern amongst the members of your SPC as to how this is going to be effectively implemented. The group’s concern emanates from a sense that it has traditionally been very difficult to get some lawyers to perform consistently, even so far as getting in their time-sheets on a regular basis is concerned. What to do?

As everyone knows it is common practice to conduct a “postmortem” or lessons-learned session upon completion of any major undertaking. If your endeavor achieved its goal, the questions typically focus on what went right, what was done well and how the success might be sustained. If your initiative fell short or failed to meet expectations, your postmortem efforts tend to focus on what went wrong and how the initiative got off track.

That said, this may be a time to think about conducting a ‘premortem.’ A premortem is a process to identify the potential roadblocks, before they have a chance of derailing your implementation efforts.

I confess to borrowing the term “premortem” from a 2010 McKinsey article; however, this fascinating article supports my belief that a good way to help ensure effective execution of your strategic planning specifics is to ask postmortem-type questions before, rather than after, the fact.

This may be a time to think about conducting a ‘premortem’ — a process to identify the potential roadblocks, before they have a chance of derailing your implementation efforts.

Here is how a strategic planning premortem could be performed.

First, ask your SPC members to assume that their draft strategic plan (or some critical but contentious component of the plan, like the action item identified above) has either failed to be executed or has been totally rejected by the partnership.

You can instruct the group to take two minutes and write down all the reasons why they think the undertaking failed. This exercise asks the members of your group to be self-critical, before they prepare to move forward in implementation; and more importantly, gets people to voluntarily engage in devil’s advocate thinking before the specific action item even gets started.

In some instances, your fellow Committee members may lack the foresight to spot shortcomings, or they may be so confident that they don’t see the need for a critique. In those situations, you may benefit from bringing in some objective, trusted partners to read, review and serve as devil’s advocate to help identify any areas of the plan that may spark contentious debates.

Second, have the SPC members then determine different ways and actions they could proactively take to prevent the implementation of the specific action item from floundering or being rejected.

Ask every SPC member to suggest at least one action they believe could help reduce the likelihood of the plan being rejected — including possible revisions to the plan. You may likely hear, as I did when conducting this exercise recently, a number of creative ideas such as:

“We could enlist a group of our more senior partners who are well-respected throughout the firm for their gifted client service abilities, as our ‘blue-ribbon panel,’ to help construct the client service standards based on the kinds of actions that they take on a regular basis.”

“We could gather together a group of key clients to provide input into what our client service standards might include.”

“We could publish the service standards on our web site and in engagement letters such that every client was made aware of the standards and knew what to expect from the lawyer serving them. This would serve as a catalyst for ensuring consistent behavior from amongst our lawyers.”

Conducting a premortem can help you identify potential problems that otherwise would not have surfaced until they caused major damage to the strategic implementation efforts. This process is intended to heighten your Committee’s sensitivity to potential areas of contention and then prepare to either counteract or address those areas in a proactive manner.

The goal is to prevent potential problems from occurring in order to increase the likelihood of success. For the amount of time invested, a strategic planning premortem is a low-cost, high-payoff activity.