Do you ever feel like you are spending your day firefighting and wish you could spend more time planning and executing all the great ideas you have? Do you wish the business came to you first to ask for input so they could be prepared rather than rushing in once the alarm bells are already ringing? You are not alone. These are common refrains heard from legal operations professionals. Here are some ways to change that and go from a tactical resource to a strategic partner.
Make Time for Strategic Planning
Even if the majority of your role calls for real-time execution, you can still showcase your strategic side. First, make sure you are spending time thinking strategically. I would recommend blocking out time at least once a month to do this work. During each of your thinking sessions, focus on just one idea. If you have too many ideas, your sessions will not be as productive. If you have multiple ideas you need to work through simultaneously, do so in multiple sessions. Or, if you don’t have any ideas, identify a need or frustration in your department. You can focus on a broad need (i.e. how to organize the department most efficiently) or a more narrow need (i.e. how to understand the company’s legal spend). When choosing what to focus on, choose something that you would be comfortable sharing with someone else. This will ensure that you can demonstrate the great strategic thinking you have done.
Once you have selected the need you are going to think about, divide your time into three parts. Spend the first part brainstorming around all of the details of the specific need. Identify the problem and the potential causes. You can also identify related problems. Jot down the impact of the issue with as much detail as possible.
In the second third, brainstorm potential solutions. Jot down anything that comes to mind. If this is an issue you have already thought about, you may even be able to identify how long each solution might take and/or the potential associated cost. If you have this information, note it. If not, that is ok too. The focus of the first two-thirds of your time should be to let the ideas flow.
In the last third of your time, organize your thoughts on the first two sections. I find it easiest to do my organizing in a presentation software like PowerPoint, Google Slides, or Canva. You can follow the below outline or check out more details in my prior blog on getting your ideas approved at your organization.
- Problem Statement – Identify the issue in 1-3 sentences.
- Impact Statement – Identify the impact of the issue. You want to quantify this in some way, although at the early stages you might just put a placeholder or blank in here.
- Cause(s) – Identify the top 3-5 causes of the problem.
- Potential Solutions – How much you put here will really vary, but try to at least get your top idea into writing.
- Next Steps – Identify the next steps. If you’re not sure here, leave this blank. When you have your first conversation (more on that below), you can add information here. If you are clear about what you want to do, spend time on this section. This is an area where you can make any asks you have.
Once you have completed your strategic thinking time, decide whether you want to share this plan. You may not do so with each monthly idea but you should share at least two outputs of your strategic thinking each year if you want to demonstrate your strategic ability. When you are sharing, I recommend starting with your boss. If that feels too vulnerable, you may decide to share with a co-worker first, but you will want to go to your boss next. Make sure you make clear that the goal of the session is to get their feedback. During that presentation, ask for feedback on the idea, next steps, as well as who else’s input might be valuable. If things go well, you will likely go forward with presenting to others. If your boss feels like this idea is not viable at this time, make sure you ask if there are any other similar projects that you can get involved in?
Note that it might feel like a letdown if your boss says this isn’t the right time for this project. Keep in mind, however, that your goal was to showcase your strategic thinking and you will have accomplished this goal by presenting.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the primary obstacles I hear from people who “want” to do such an exercise.
- I don’t have time. I hear you – this is not something that is necessarily part of your day job, and if you’re fighting fires, you’re likely at your maximum capacity. However, think of this as a career investment. If you want to get out of the firefighting mode, invest in this work even if it is outside of your typical work hours or job responsibilities.
- I can’t take on the solution I’m suggesting. You can always have this discussion with your boss. It may be that there are resources that can help you or perhaps someone else takes on driving the solution. Either way, you will be able to showcase your strategic thinking.
- I’m worried that I will damage my reputation because this isn’t part of “my job.” Each organization is different and values this type of work differently. I will say that if this is something you really enjoy and is important to you, and your organization or role doesn’t value this work, you should consider whether your passions align with your current role.
How to Show Up as Strategic in Tactical Situations
If you can’t take on the strategic thinking right now, or if you want to press fast forward on you being seen as a strategic resource, there are ways you can show up strategically in your day-to-day interactions. When someone comes to you with a specific request for action, pause and ask yourself these three questions:
- “why” are we doing this;
- “what” broader impact will this have; and
- “how” does this relate to other things going on inside the organization?
Take the example of a lawyer coming to you holding their latest law firm bill – fuming! “I just heard that we are paying twice on our matter for Firm ABC than Jane is paying on her matter for similar Firm ABD. Firm ABC’s rates are ridiculous – please negotiate them down right away.” You could absolutely pick up the phone and call Firm ABC. Or, you could think about the above questions. In doing so, you may realize that we are due for an annual firm rate adjustment across all our firms and that this firm has a very specialized area of expertise. If you share with this lawyer that the department has an overall rate discussion coming up that would potentially impact all of their matters, rather than just this one, as well as positively impact other matters with this firm. You can share that your preference would be to not make a phone call now but instead work this into a broader more strategic conversation with the firm. This second response showcases how you are thinking about the bigger picture and longer-term consequences for the organization. It also shares with the lawyer that you have proactive measures that you are working on that positively impact their world.
These are just a few ways to showcase your strategic thinking skills even if you’re in a tactical role. I am sure there are other ways as well. If you have some ideas, I would appreciate hearing them. You can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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