“Alexa, how do we create a roadmap for our law firm’s future?” Strategic long-term planning is an important part of any business, and in the ever more competitive world of law firms, it’s become essential. Any firm that hasn’t mapped out where it wants to be in the short-, mid-, and long-term is essentially counting on good luck and inertia to carry it through. I dare say that crossing one’s fingers and hoping not to be lapped by the competition isn’t the strongest approach available in the business world.
So we know firms need a business plan, but how is a firm leadership team supposed to sit down and actually draft one? The instinctive move for many attorneys would be to first take stock of their firm, their colleagues, their clients, and their assets, and then identify the firm’s strengths and weaknesses. From there, leadership could choose to lean into the firm’s strengths and/or shore up those weaknesses, and build their strategic plan around meeting those goals. That approach would be entirely reasonable, defensible, and within an attorney’s traditional skillset and analytic framework.
But it’s also exactly the oppositive of how at least one of the world’s most successful businesses handles the exercise.
Start At The Finish
I’d like to discuss a radically different technique for drafting a strategic plan — one that could take law firms outside their comfort zone into new, exciting places. It might not be the right fit for every firm, but I’d bet good money it’s an exercise most firms or practices would benefit from pursuing.
The technique is called “Working Backward,” and it was pioneered at Amazon. This planning method, geared toward developing new hardware and software products, led to the development of the Kindle, AWS Cloud Services, the Amazon Echo with Alexa, and other products that helped Amazon become a part of the daily life of millions of people around the world — and Jeff Bezos the world’s richest person.
Working Backward starts at the end. The planning team begins by drafting the press release for a hypothetical product, along with an FAQ that goes into detail on the product’s capabilities, functionality, and utility to the target customer. So there’s no confusion, the product they’re drafting the press release around in no way exists.
From there the idea is shared both within the company and to potential customers to gauge responses and determine whether the proposal creates a vision of the future that people want to see become a reality. If it’s not exciting people, the idea is refined or jettisoned entirely. Once the team has an idea at a point where it begins to electrify readers, then and only then does the team begin thinking about how to actually put something together to make good on the promises of the hypothetical press release. High-level solutions are generated, which in turn lead to a more detailed roadmap. Finally, once everyone has a strong concept of where they’re going, pen is put to paper — or code to database — and the work of creating the new product actually begins.
To detractors and skeptics, Working Backward in the Amazon method could easily seem like a glib, surface-level way of developing moonshot ideas without thinking about what it actually takes to bring those ideas to market. A defender of the concept would reply, “yes, that’s the entire point.”
Working Backward is designed to avoid engaging in the how and why too early, because too often teams focus on what they already know they’re able to do. That kind of thinking tends to limit a team’s ambition and scope. That’s great for incrementally improving existing processes, but undesirable in building big strategic goals.
Working Backward is focused instead on the actual goals and desires of the customers who are ultimately going to vote with their wallets on whether this initiative succeeds or fails. If you can’t write a press release that excites your customers and internal stakeholders, then no amount of time spent working on and developing that idea is going to solve the problem of basic market indifference. Working Backward allows a team to fail early and cheaply, iterate its concept, and refine or pivot its way to finding a concept that will actually move the needle.
Done right, a draft press release that clients love and internal teams are excited to work around becomes a guiding star. By holding off on actual development and logistics until the team has a strong idea of where it’s going, the actual development of the planned initiative can speed along swiftly and purposefully.
A Back Door Into Productizing Your Firm
A reasonable attorney might note that Amazon developed Working Backward for creating physical products or discrete software offerings, whereas we operate in the much fuzzier, bespoke world of legal services. It’s easy to build a press release around a widget, but much harder to build one around paid professionals giving advice and drafting documents.
I respond to this in two ways. First, there’s nothing inherent in Working Backward that limits its use to physical products or software development. Beyond that, though, I’d argue that this product-based method could be an ideal way for a firm to begin thinking about productizing its offerings. It’s hard to build a compelling press release around “Partner Gives Wise and Timely Advice” or “Associate Completes Research More Quickly and Efficiently.” It’s much easier to generate excitement and sales off concepts like “Law Firm Rolls Out New Flat Rate Structure” or “Law Firm Debuts Industry-Specific Tool That Cuts Costs and Achieves Better Results.”
By focusing and workshopping based on developing a product that our clients actually want, we can force ourselves out of our comfort zones and into developing exciting new solutions. If the system doesn’t lead to a brilliant, engaging new strategic plan, it probably didn’t cost much to figure that out. Failing early is a virtue, and you’ll have plenty of time to pivot to a new method for drafting that strategic plan. You’ll also probably have learned a lot about your firm in the meantime.
The firms that do succeed at Working Backward, however, might suddenly find themselves with a distinct, saleable product and a competitive edge in an increasingly crowded market. Draft the right press release and figure out how to fulfill it, and you might begin to put daylight between you and your competitors.
So why not give it a try? You might just find that working backward helps you find a path forward.
James Goodnow is the CEO and managing partner of NLJ 250 firm Fennemore Craig. At age 36, he became the youngest known chief executive of a large law firm in the U.S. He holds his JD from Harvard Law School and dual business management certificates from MIT. He’s currently attending the Cambridge University Judge Business School (U.K.), where he’s working toward a master’s degree in entrepreneurship. James is the co-author of Motivating Millennials, which hit number one on Amazon in the business management new release category. As a practitioner, he and his colleagues created and run a tech-based plaintiffs’ practice and business model. You can connect with James on Twitter (@JamesGoodnow) or by emailing him at [email protected].