The practice group advantage

  • December 11, 2014
  • Patrick J. McKenna & David H. Maister

We once asked a firm leader: "Do you sense that you are losing your best young talent from those groups that you would consider your best organized, or from those groups that are slightly dysfunctional?" This person paused for all of two seconds, looked at us and said, "You know, I think you're on to something there!"

We have since posed that same question to at least 50 firm leaders, and without exception, we elicited a similar response. Their reactions suggest that dysfunctional groups are costing firms large amounts of money.

What can and should develop is a virtuous circle. A firm develops a strong group and, as a direct result, that group gains a market profile; that profile attracts the better client work, and the better client work then attracts the more talented players in the market.

As a group leader, your initial organizing task is to help guide your people in a direction that is in the best interests of their personal careers as well as your group's future. Loosely organized individuals, accountable only for their own performance, are less likely to succeed in the marketplace than a well-managed team engaging in collective activities with collective responsibilities.

But before you can make your group work, you need to determine together: why does our group exist? A general understanding of the group's purpose is insufficient. All too often, group members sit around asking, "What are we supposed to be doing at this meeting? Why are we here?"

We suggest that you pose the following question to your group: "What benefits should we expect to get from working with a group of like-minded individuals, pursuing a common purpose that we could not get if we were each working on our own?"

The most common responses that people are likely to give include:

  1. Improved value to clients by delivering to them the collective wisdom, skills and accumulated knowledge of the group

  2. More effective business development by pooling and coordinating individual efforts

  3. Better utilization and development of junior professionals through collective decisions on staffing of client work, allocation of resources and mentoring.

  4. Collective development of tools templates, databases and other practice aids

  5. More rapid and effective dissemination of expertise and skills among the group

  6. Better client service through a greater ability to put the right people on the right job

  7. Better market image through development of a collective reputation

  8. The comfort of belonging to a small group rather than becoming lost in a very large number of people

  9. Informal coaching on a one-to-one basis rather than relying on annual firm-wide bureaucratic performance appraisals

  10. Improved profitability by focusing as a group on ways to enhance performance

  11. Creation of a critical mass of time and resources to develop innovative service offerings

This list is not intended to be exhaustive. But responses like these encourage your people to think through and identify the benefits of working together. After adding your own objectives, you might want to examine this list by asking the members of your group:

  1. Which of these benefits will be easiest to obtain? Hardest?

  2. Which will be the quickest to obtain? The slowest?

  3. Which disrupts your culture least? Most?

  4. Which represents the biggest impact on your success? Smallest?

  5. Which requires the most change in behavior? Least?

  6. Which requires the most activist role for the leader? The least?

Your answers will determine the shared objectives under which you will operate. A group becomes a team only when people can collectively determine the benefits of working together.

Patrick McKenna is a partner with Edge International, while David Maister is Chairman of Maister Associates in Boston. Together, they have authored a new book to be published in April.