Posted on October 20, 2020 by J. David Harvey
When the pandemic reached the US earlier in the year, we all thought we would be back to working normally by the fall. That did not happen. Currently, most firms are now planning for summer 2021 as the earliest to be operating at anything like what we considered normal pre-COVID. On the bright side, the legal industry lends itself well to working remotely. Its currency is the legal documents that can be developed, edited, and honed to perfection from anyplace someone has a computer and a decent WiFi connection.
Yet the virtual world leaves some gaping holes in the way law firms need to operate. Especially when it comes to team collaboration, we must all deal with an environment that is not natural for fomenting human interaction. We have all been on Zoom calls with ten or more people with frequent talk-overs or long periods of what seems like awkward silences. A room full of people who know each other — together in the flesh — sparks natural energy that we can no longer tap for at least the immediate future. That makes understanding the dynamics of team collaboration that much more critical.
Dr. Heidi K. Gardner, a renowned collaboration expert in a recent Harvard Business Review article, discusses what organizations should do, especially when in a crisis. She suggests they pull together experts with unique, cross-functional perspectives to solve rapidly changing, complex problems with long-term implications. However, just the opposite often happens. Anxiety makes people more risk-averse in a crisis; thus, they are less likely to seek differing perspectives. They tend to fall back on actions and solutions that have worked in the past — what researchers call “threat rigidity.”
How can your organization overcome threat rigidity? One way is to understand how individuals interact in a team environment. Dr. Gardner and her team have developed a new psychographic evaluation that seeks to measure behavioral tendencies. Launched last month, the tool, called the Smart Collaboration Accelerator™, is similar to a DISC-style assessment. Lawyers individually answer a short series of questions to gauge their behavioral preferences in seven dimensions, measuring:
• Level of inherent contextual trust in others
• Attraction to more complex problems and innovation
• Balancing risk with opportunity in working with others
• Frequency and nature of communication with others
• Need for control of one’s environment/work
• Taking the initiative and anticipating events
• Prioritizing working in groups or on one’s own
In addition to the individual report, a “Team Leader Insight Report” provides insights into a team’s dynamics.
Not surprisingly, understanding one’s preferences help identify an individual’s tendency to deal with others on a team. It also allows lawyers to understand how to “flex” their collaboration behaviors, depending on the context, team dynamics, or individual role.
For example, one behavioral dimension is the dynamic between complex and concrete thinkers. Those with a preference for the complex tend to enjoy abstract concepts, value new ways of working, and seek innovation. On the other hand, concrete thinkers tend to be skeptical of new processes and prefer to deal with practical ideas and applications. Knowing that you have at least one complex and one concrete thinker on your team is essential because they bring different problem-solving strengths. The complex thinker should be mainly engaged in brainstorming sessions and reengineering a complex problem. In contrast, the concrete thinker will be vital for thinking about the existing process and how to address implementation. A leader who understands her team’s preferred behaviors can help the group to leverage members’ potential.
Dr. Gardner’s research from Harvard Law School has shown that collaboration across boundaries (practice, geographic, or others) enables firms to earn higher margins, inspire greater client loyalty, and attract the best talent. All of this can still be achieved in a virtual world, but it takes greater effort and mechanisms like the Smart Acceleration Collaborator™ to overcome threat rigidity. Those firms that invest time in understanding their teams’ behavioral diversity — and how their lawyers collaborate — can reap the rewards and be well-positioned for the eventual economic recovery.
About the Author – J. David “Dave” Harvey is the founder and President of Harvey Global Consulting LLC and an affiliate consultant for LawVision. Drawing on 20 years of experience leading business development efforts with AmLaw A-list firms, Dave advises law firm management, partners, associates, and marketing and business development leaders in successfully prioritizing and executing on their most important client development and marketing priorities. He also coaches individual partners and associates in defining and achieving their business development goals.