OT: Brilliant Way to Increase Tips

This is just brilliant.

I’m not sure it has any application to Legal Project Management, or the business of law.

I’m not even trying to make a statement on the concept of tipping.

(Might I wonder, though, if the penny in the iPhone box was all that one person could spare after paying Apple’s aspirational-goods pricing?)

I’m only noting that it’s a very clever idea.

Imagine the possibilities in this divided country. Instant polls! Vote with your change!

(Or maybe not. Customers getting into arguments at the register might not be good for business. And where would all the Microsofties put in their vote for Windows Phone? You do remember Windows Phone, don’t you?1)

By the way, someone asked last time I used it about the abbreviation OT in the title of this article. It stands for Off Topic.

A hat tip to the blog Not Always Right, which contains an unending stream of embarrassing customer moments for those seeking schadenfreude.

A Crucial Interview Question

I was talking with a client yesterday about interview questions, discussing ones that elicited useful information. We got to speaking about questions from the candidate, and I said there was one question I always wanted to hear… and almost never did.

This question is a terrific question for project managers to ask their clients, as well.

What keeps you up at night?

Sure, it’ll likely elicit a weak jest about progeny… before it turns serious.

For a job candidate, it’s a terrific question. It allows the candidate to gauge the potential future manager’s needs – and the types of problems you might be running into. And a manager who can’t answer it – or who won’t, or who is disingenuous – may make you realize you’re not looking at your dream job.

But it also gives you the chance to say, if appropriate, “Here’s how I might be able to help you sleep better.” What special skills do you bring to bear on the problem? Why are you the person they should hire?

The Project Manager Version

Hourly Labor RatesOne of the hardest jobs of a project manager is ascertaining the real problem. This difficulty is particularly prevalent in legal, where clients – whether lawyers or not – want to talk about legal rather than business problems because they’re trying to be helpful.

A client’s real problem is whatever is (metaphorically) keeping her up at night.

Maybe it’s competition. Maybe it’s production-line snags, or internal politics, or finding the right staff, or, as Hamlet says, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Ask this question, understand the answer, and you have a signpost that will help guide you to client satisfaction.

Sure, sometimes you’re just solving a little thing, smoothing away some irritant. However, much of the work you do will touch on the client’s big workday fears. Ease those fears, and boost your client satisfaction.

[For the record, I do recall one candidate asking this question over the many hundreds of interviews I conducted over the years (at Microsoft I was often brought onto interview loops as part of a final screen for candidates for other departments, not just my own).]

SmallLaw Pick of the Week


My March column for SLAW, the online Canadian Journal of law practice, won the SmallLaw Pick of the Week last week.

The article, The Third Tool: The Off Switch, is a brief intro to one of the time-saving techniques that I recommend. Legal Project Management Field Guide goes into more detail on this third tool, and The Off Switch not only goes much deeper, but covers a dozen other tips and techniques to make your days significantly more productive.

Thanks to the folks who give out these awards. The editors of SmallLaw, a free weekly email newsletter for solo practitioners and those who manage and work in small law firms, give this award to one article every week that they feel is a must-read for this audience.


What Can “the Law Business” Learn From Radio Shack?

I passed a nearly-gone Radio Shack outlet last night. Everything was 70%-90% off. An inveterate tinkerer and early adopter, I still couldn’t find anything I wanted, let alone something I needed.

But it got me thinking.

What’s Our Business?

What business was Radio Shack in?

I think it was – and had always been – a high-end notions store, with a little of this, a bit of that, something from everyone within a certain population. Need a resistor or a diode? An adapter for some ephemeral bit of electronica? A connector for your TV or stereo? A battery powered toy?

For a long while, they were about the only place to get such things. Go back almost 40 years. Want a computer? Your choice was the expensive Apple II or the not-quite-so-expensive2 TRS-80. Note the picture. Elegant? No. It said, “for specialists” all over it. Like everything else in the store.

They built repeat business from those with specific one-off needs plus a small population of incipient engineers. They never served the public at large.

They served a need, but never figured out how to build relationships with the broader customer base.

Was Radio Shack’s business that different from a law firm’s?

That’s a serious question. And a tough one.

Who’s the Competition?

Radio Shack had little real competition until the age of the Internet.

There had always been a certain amount of mail order (e.g., Edmund Scientific) and a few local shops3. But Radio Shack never had to worry about a competitor.

Until disruption happened. Twice.

The first was the explosion of the personal-computer market, jump-started by the IBM PC – and the acceptance of the idea that computers were useful for individuals and small businesses. Suddenly, the underpowered, over-ugly TRS-80 and its descendants were chasing a market, rather than leading it.

And the profit margins Radio Shack had been counting on disappeared.

The second disruption came in a box.

With a smile.

Now hobbyists and those needing one-off novelties could get them at a lower price. More importantly, they could find what they wanted, since Radio Shack displays – like those of any notions shop – could be arranged only in a single way that made sense to a small proportion of shoppers, the hobbyists.

Radio Shack never accounted for the competition. Yet it was clear by the mid 1990s their model was doomed – a long, slow death, but unless they could change, there was no way out.

They didn’t change, of course. Adding overpriced phones bought a little time, but no security.

Can law firms be disrupted in the same way?

What is a law firm’s barrier to entry?

What happens if the “unauthorized practice of law” rules are redefined, or bypassed? What happens if clients start demanding serious change – not the fits and starts of the past half dozen years, but real change for 90% of their matters? For corporations, how else might they place everything but the bet-the-business issues requiring high-end specialization? For individuals and small business, how much of the work could go through pseudo-law-firms such as a modified LegalZoom or a law office in Manila or New Delhi with a single representative in Montana or New York?

Before you answer too quickly, recall that Radio Shack swore it couldn’t happen.

But it did.

Are Law Firms in the Notions Business?

That’s a serious question – metaphorical, but serious.

Let me be intentionally provocative:

Radio ShackLaw Firm
What They SellA variety of items that were (at the time) hard to findA variety of services that are (at this time) hard to get elsewhere
Customer Driver1. Need
2. Relationship (weak binding)
1. Need
2. Relationship (weak binding)
Shopping ExperienceDisorganized, often requiring sales helpDisorganized, almost always requiring sales help
Organizing PrincipleMade sense internally, but obscure to most customersMakes sense internally, but obscure to most clients
Growth OpportunityIn 1977, computers… but quickly overwhelmed by other players?? (Industry consolidation is not a growth opportunity)
ThreatIBM, Apple, AmazonLegalZoom, “law factories,” in-house changes
Threat ResponseAwful ads in Thanksgiving Day NFL games“Unauthorized practice of law”
FutureLittle to noneTBD
“But I need that stuff. Where do I buy it now?”Amazon (which doesn’t resemble Radio Shack at all)Perhaps in various places that don’t much resemble today’s firms…?

I don’t know the answer. I’m an observer, and this is to some extent outside my area of specialization.

But I am an observer of the business world, having run businesses on three continents, and having worked for many years running businesses within a very large and highly profitable multinational corporation.

I believe law is vitally important to civilization, and in a minute I’ll close this article with my favorite quote from A Man for All Seasons, by Robert Bolt. We depend on laws.

What’s not as clear to me is the extent to which we depend on the current organization of the law business.

And I have the same fear as Robert Bolt’s Sir Thomas: If we as a society do not organize the law business to fit the times, who will stand for us should the business be disrupted violently from outside forces?

   William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!


Why Traditional Project Management Doesn’t Work for Professionals – Reason #487

I renewed my membership in PMI today, the Project Management Institute. Among the questions I was asked, on the way to supplying my $129, was, How did you first learn about PMI?

PMI How Did You HearLook at the list of options, a list that appears to be 200+ items long. (I scrolled all the way down to see. I do this stuff so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.)

Who is actually going to page through all that — except someone without a life, or perhaps an obsessive project manager who cannot distinguish the inconsequential from the important?

A project manager with infinite time can afford to be infinitely obsessive. The rest of us must pick and choose. Good project managers evaluate risks and priorities quickly but thoughtfully. Just as they must focus on the risks with the biggest exposure rather than treat each one equally, so they must focus on prioritized tasks as well.

Scrolling through a list of 200 items to fill out a piece of inconsequential info isn’t something good project managers are likely to prioritize.

The worst part is that some project manager probably did a traditional requirements-gathering gig around this website. Hard work, but no understanding of real needs, or user (client, customer) behavior.

Oh, I also encountered reason #488 before I could give them my money. The credit card they had on file had reached its expiration date. So what does a user most likely want to do at this point?

Right. Update the expiration date. Card companies don’t normally change the card number when they send a new piece of plastic with a new date.

But of course this site had no option for updating the info. I had to enter everything again. Not a big chore, but unnecessary and user-unfriendly. Again, some project manager went out to gather requirements, and missed a blindingly obvious one.

I wish I could say this type of bad project management was rare. But in the real world, it is anything but.

PMI should be embarrassed by the way their site demonstrates a lack of effective project management.

The good news – you don’t have to work like this. Becoming an effective legal project manager is not hard. Indeed, one of the reasons I teach seminars and write books and articles is to improve the level of project management in the professional world.

Let me teach you and others in your practice how to perform effective Legal Project Management.

Getting Project Managers Started Young

Toddler reading LPM BookWhat do you think? Too young to learn about managing projects?

Well, maybe.

But on the other end of the spectrum, for sure you’re never too old.

What are you waiting for? Let the children show you the way – or at least let this child point out the right book!

Project Management: A Team Sport

Bear at YellowstoneHere’s a (possibly Photoshopped) photo making the rounds today. The version I saw had the value-added title, Tour de Yellowstone.4

It made me think about project managers – legal and otherwise – who think their job entails a significant amount of working-alone time. Work too much alone, and you get… the picture.

First, consider the old joke suggested by this photo. If the rider were working as part of a team, he would no longer have to be faster than the bear.

Just faster than one of his companions.

(That’s not good project manager behavior, of course. Just a good punchline.)

Truth is, when the bear hits the road, part of the project manager’s job is to deal with the ursine issue. The project manager who hasn’t been working openly with and among her team will find coping with the bear much harder. She’ll be dealing from a position of weakness, lacking context and missing at least one bit of critical information.

And the team won’t have her back, which might have minimized the problem in the first place.

Because the bear will be there. Every project is full of bears. A lucky project is one where you face only one bear at at time – and they’re not all grizzlies and Kodiaks. It takes a team to identify the bears early, before they rise up from their plantigrade stance, open their jaws, and salivate over lunch. (That’s you.)

The best project managers are those who build the best teams – most cooperative, most competent, most complementary. Most effective. To mix animal-kingdom metaphors, it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. Do the best players flock to the project managers who are successful, or are the projects successful because the project manager has an open and welcoming style that attracts the strongest players? In the end, it doesn’t matter.

Be a good team leader, be open, listen well, learn from both success and failure, and share the credit (while inhaling any blame), and you’ll build an effective team.

Only then are you ready to take on the bears.

You know, maybe the grizzly in that picture will get tired first. The biker looks young and strong, after all. But he could slip or skid, and grizzlies are faster than you think (35-40 MPH). And they don’t necessarily hunt alone.

Bear down, and build a great team.

Because as Ian Matthews put it on his early-70s album, Some days you eat the bear, and some days the bear eats you.

Sign of the Times (2): The “We Don’t Care” Sign

Here’s another sign from my neighborhood.

Crunhcwrap signLook carefully at the adjective describing those sliders. The “wrap” part I get, but what’s a “crunhc?”5

The sign was up for about a month. (They just changed it out.) In that time, someone had to notice and tell them.

Or not.

Either way, not good.

If someone told them and they ignored it, what does that say? And if no one told them, what does that say about their relationship with customers? Yes, it’s “only fast food,” but pride is still pride.

What do you do that you wish someone would tell you about? Think of it as spinach-in-your-teeth syndrome. Do you make it hard for your team to tell you that you’re doing something… suboptimally? (Okay, doing it wrong.)

Find ways to be more approachable, more amenable to suggestions. You’re all on the same side – ultimately, the client’s side, but the practice’s (firm or department) side as well. You’re a team.

As members of a team, we all have many ways in which we can improve. We learn either slowly, as time passes, or quickly, when people help us get better.

Make sure you’re open to people on your team helping each other get better. Your pride may suffer a bit at first, but the work you produce will improve significantly. And believe it or not, you’ll feel better about it, especially when it comes to crunhc crunch time.

[Those who’ve read the back page of my books know I live part time in Seattle and part time on a rather rural island about seventy miles north. These signs are from Seattle. Because the islands have no fast food places, and in fact no chain stores of any sort other than hardware stores and gas stations affiliated with national brands. (No traffic lights, either.) Somehow, not even a Starbucks!]

Sign of the Times (1): The “Assigning a Task” Sign

Some odd signs in my neighborhood raise interesting project management issues.

Accurate Safe SignFirst, there’s this.

Simple enough, right?

A safe and lock company moved to a new location, and wants to be sure that neighborhood denizens…. Um, I’m not quite sure what they want.

The invitation to visit is clear enough, but visit where? 

There’s no address.

Nor is the lock company visible from where I took this picture. In fact, the store isn’t visible from anywhere on the street the sign faces.6

So I applaud their good intentions, but the execution is lacking. Indeed, this sign reflects a problem I see when project managers assign tasks.

The “Assigning a Task” Sign

Over the decades, I’ve coached many people – project managers and people managers – on how to give assignments effectively. In fact, there is a specific technique for giving an assignment that quite dramatically can lower the amount of rework and write-offs that flow from poorly given assignments.

Wait, you say. How hard can it be to say, “Do this”?

Harder than it seems. Or as Shakespeare puts it:

Hamlet: I will come by-and-by.
Polonius: I will say so.
Hamlet: By-and-by is easily said.

It’s easy to say, “Do this,” but it’s not so easy to actually give the assignment in a way that maximizes the likelihood that your delegate will carry it out with the results you want (and without stuff you don’t want) in the optimum amount of time.

My most recent book, Legal Project Management Field Guide, digs deep into an easily mastered technique for giving assignments effectively. I also cover this material in all of my full-day and longer courses (and in some shorter ones as well, depending on the client’s needs).

The sign pictured above points to one of the simple things you can do to strengthen the way you assign a task: Make sure you include all necessary information.

Which sounds simple, but when you’re rushed, trying to get on to the next task on your list, it’s easy to forget a critical piece. And because you rushed, you may have given the delegate the impression you don’t want to be bothered with questions. So the delegate will assume the problem is on her end, not on yours, and will do her best to proceed in the absence of that information. Which means she’ll guess. Or she’ll stew about out. Or she’ll spend a lot of time trying to figure out what you meant. Or she’ll knock on your literal or metaphorical door in non-metaphorical trepidation. Or all of the above. All because you told her to “come visit our new location” but didn’t tell her where it was.

Two simple tips can reduce this problem.

First, make sure the delegate has the project charter. (Here’s one more reason charters contain so much value. See Legal Project Management Field Guide for more on charters, or search for previous articles on this site.)

Second, when you’re done, ask the delegate for a readback. When the delegate tries to describe the assignment in her own words, it’s likely (though not guaranteed, of course) that she’ll discover missing pieces in the logic chain. It all sounded so easy and connected when you described it, because you didn’t harp on (or think about) the missing parts. Now, however, as she tries to describe the work, her brain switches into a different mode, and the holes often become clearer.

So don’t give out tasks the way this sign parcels out information.

[And as for the sign itself, what’s up with the random capitalization? And underlining New, because they’d already put the rest in italics? This sign has been leaning against that post for some years, too, so the location is hardly new. I didn’t look to see whether it was locked to the pole (which is likely illegal here but unlikely to generate an issue). They’re a lock company, so of course if they locked it, they’d use a great lock… though they’d then look bad if someone picked the lock.]

It’s About Time: Read My Latest Article for SLAW

My March column for SLAW, the online Canadian Journal of law practice, is available, called The Third Tool: The Off Switch.7

It’s a brief intro to one of the time-saving techniques that I recommend. Legal Project Management Field Guide goes into more detail on this third tool, and The Off Switch not only goes much deeper, but covers a dozen other tips and techniques to make your days significantly more productive.

So hop on over to SLAW and read an intro to the third tool… and begin saving time.

  1. I actually have a Nokia Windows Phone, and it’s quite good – especially since I bought it unlocked for $50. If you want one, click here and select No Contract. No LED flash or front-facing camera, but it’s a solid contender.

  2. Even then, about the only place with higher prices was Apple.

  3. I remember a late-60s place outside Albany where people “parted out” surplus hand-wired circuit boards.

  4. I’ve been unable to locate any copyright information. I’ve cropped and shrunk it in an attempt to play fair in case this is a copyrighted image.

  5. This same Taco Bell couldn’t spell quesadilla a few months ago, either.

  6. The company moved at least a few years ago. Only yesterday did I actually discover the new location. That’s not a bad result if you’re putting a safe somewhere, but it’s probably not the intended result for the company trying to sell you that safe.

  7. Funny, The Off Switch is also the name of my second book. Coincidence? You’ll have to pick up the book to find out.