As plans and budgets are getting finalized for the coming year, the fourth quarter can be a relatively stressful time of year for all kinds of professionals – including lawyers and legal technology professionals. For those interested in driving tech adoption and innovation within their organization, it may be a good time to rethink how to address issues your team may be having with a project or a new tech solution. I was recently in a mentoring session when a question came up about how to raise or escalate an issue when at an impasse, and I think it’s a topic that many people have to grapple with — particularly when there’s new technology involved. This month, I’ll be stepping away from the white noise of artificial intelligence to share thoughts to help with navigating complex issues when innovating.
Successful innovation involves people, processes, and technology. For a new legal technology to be successful, it inherently will affect people and the way work is accomplished. Managing and leading change is often the reason an innovation project fails. The technology itself is typically not the problem, although it is easy to lay the blame on technology alone. Taking a fresh look at how to resolve issues related to change may help drive forward innovation.
Most everyone leading projects or change has experienced situations where team dynamics create a major blocker on an initiative. You know what the issue is and want to solve it, but there is resistance. And if you’re the person responsible for that team or project, you are accountable for the success or failure of the effort. In short, you may be between a rock and a hard place.
Once the issue has been identified, it often feels like the only solution is to escalate it to management. But shining a light on the issue may make others uncomfortable or even look bad. Depending on how you handle the situation, it could alienate you from the team members needed to support the success of the project. If you handle the situation poorly, it could be career limiting. But if you handle the situation well, it could be a career enabling move and can benefit your organization. Navigating and escalating sensitive issues requires emotional intelligence, and resolving issues where there is resistance from team members requires soft skills and a focus on relationships.
Here are three techniques to help move legal technology innovation forward when confronting issues within a team environment.
Involve Others And Listen
Ask team members questions
Some questions you can ask your fellow team members include: “What do you think?” “How do you feel?” “Why is this project struggling?” “What do you think is going to happen if this fails?” “What would you do if you were in my position?” “I need your help and insight. Do you have any advice for me?” “Why do you think we have differing views on this issue?”
You may be surprised at their answers. Perhaps there are facts or unspoken issues you weren’t aware of that can help provide common ground — and asking for their input also demonstrates that you care about their perspective and are taking it into consideration. It is also OK to ask questions privately. People are more willing to provide open feedback in a private setting if there is trust.
Ask people who don’t have a stake in the project
Do others in your organization have a perspective on the project or the project goals? Are there people you can trust who are not associated with the situation? What does an objective person with no involvement think about it? Perhaps there are different perspectives, or maybe someone can ask a question that you can’t. If you have a coach or mentor outside your organization that you’re consulting, be sure to anonymize the situation so you don’t share confidential information.
Sometimes, those who are too close to a situation can lose sight of the big picture. Even a logical person can get emotionally invested and lose objectivity. Recognizing when you are in uncharted territory is important. Perhaps there is a need to get some extra distance and personal distraction over a long weekend to regain more objectivity.
Ask yourself questions
Is there new learning from the people you spoke to that are in the know? Is the issue really important? Is the impact of the issues measured in millions of dollars, or is the issue really more about style or approach? If it is the latter, it is wise to let the issue go.
Revisit the goals of the initiative
As projects progress, it is easy to forget what the desired business outcomes were in the first place. Take time to reread the project charter and, if necessary, ask those that approved the project to reconfirm what success looks like — there may be more than one way to achieve success.
After asking questions and stepping back for some self-reflection, you may find a way to resolve an issue without the need to escalate; and that is a good thing. If, however, the conclusion is that senior management needs to be involved, you may need to escalate.
Techniques To Escalate
Escalate as a team
More voices are better than one. You may be the project lead, but a team that speaks in unison will be better received. The team may not be collectively as bold as you desire, but finding some common ground may help provide a forum for others to ask questions and see the broader challenges.
Come equipped with solutions
It’s important when raising issues to have alternatives and potential solutions. This shows initiative and provides confidence to senior management. Raising an issue alone puts the onus of finding a solution on senior management. Help guide senior management and present them with decisions they can make to move the initiative forward or pivot if needed.
If possible, escalate outside of your management chain
Let’s say a team member disagrees with you or isn’t making your initiative a priority. If you find yourself at an impasse, consider suggesting a meeting with you, your team member, and their manager to help resolve. In other words, escalate up your team member’s management chain. This may be a safer place for the other individual. Ask questions and focus on your collective needs, and a positive resolution may occur. If there isn’t a positive resolution, you’ve demonstrated initiative and have more information to help others in management weigh in if additional escalation is required.
Innovation can be challenging at times. To be successful, one must focus on positive business outcomes. Some problems are outside of your control. Take time to reflect and thoughtfully engage others to build a bridge. This will help improve the likelihood of success for the team, your organization, and for you personally.
Ken Crutchfield is Vice President and General Manager of Legal Markets at Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory U.S., a leading provider of information, business intelligence, regulatory and legal workflow solutions. Ken has more than three decades of experience as a leader in information and software solutions across industries. He can be reached at email@example.com.