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How Lawyers Can “Get a GRIP” on Collaboration

Posted in Law firm practices

cropped istock-cliff-photoThis post is targeted to Leaders – to all you Practice Group Leaders, Project Leaders, Team Leaders, and even Firm Leaders – whose role is to get assorted performers to pull together effectively in harness.  But you followers and worker bees should feel free to listen in, because, after all, you are the object of your leaders’ efforts.

In our last post, we reviewed Google’s Project Aristotle, an intensive research project that identified factors that create excellent collaboration in teams. While Google’s People Analytics Division was able to spotlight some prerequisites for a climate of collaboration (“psychological safety,” empathy, and “equality in terms of conversational turn-taking”) it did not define practical action steps for implementing effective collaboration once these prerequisites are present.  So all across the landscape of the legal profession, frustrated leaders’ voices continue to cry out, “All right, already. I get it.  But what exactly do I do?”

In this post we want to provide you with a nuts-and-bolts template [See Below] of beguiling simplicity for getting those cats you’re trying to herd to work more constructively together. You Practice Group Leaders and Project Managers should laminate it, stick it in your desk drawer, and pull it out when planning, organizing and/or managing any activity that requires two or more people to work effectively together. Try it, you’ll like it.

Fundamental Collaboration Principles

For a start, disabuse yourself of the notion that legal teams are collective organisms, like colonies of coral. They are not affinity groups, geared to the satisfactions of membership, inclusion, acceptance and empathy. Legal teams are results-generating machines, built of many different moving parts whose purpose is to produce excellent outcomes, not reward relationships for their own sake.

You also must appreciate that while group productivity appears to be a “team” activity with “team” rewards, it’s inevitably built on the attitudes and behaviors (and, of course, fears) of a bunch of individuals. Only when we aggregate a bunch of individual behaviors do we see an outcome that appears to have a collective purpose (this is like summarizing millions of separate stock transactions and saying, “The stock market was bullish today”).

Skilled leaders know, implicitly or explicitly, that they should never move that dial from “radio station WIIFM,” whose mythical call letters stand for, “What’s In It For Me?” As one lawyer put it, “my antitrust litigation team is really a bunch of egos connected with central heat.”

Once you understand that collaboration depends on individual attitudes and motivations, you can see that an individual lawyer can and will collaborate only if three conditions are met:

1) s/he believes it is safe to collaborate;

2) s/he is motivated by the potential rewards of collaborating; and

3) s/he understands what to do in order to collaborate effectively.

We examined the first two of these conditions – factors that deal primarily with incentives, motivation, and team culture — in our prior post about Google’s Project Aristotle. Now it’s time for action.

Okay, Let’s Go Do Something

If a practice group leader or team leader can get past basic motivational issues and assemble a team of contributors willing and able to function collaboratively, will they automatically function together like a well-oiled machine?

Well, No. Not unless all players’ trust and commitment is supported with a clear and concise understanding of exactly what they are supposed to do.

In shaping and then managing a consistently high-performing team — of any kind, of any size — it is essential that the leader have a functional road map, a “team GPS,” so to speak, that assures that every team participant is fully informed regarding all relevant factors in the “collaboration equation.” [NB: the time-honored “hub-and-spokes” leadership style that legal leaders so love, with an omniscient leader at the hub surrounded by a bunch of ill-informed, “need-to-know” performers arrayed out there at the periphery, is a terribly inefficient and motivation-killing approach to management].

Getting a GRIP

Enter the GRIP model.

Below (and in a link to a downloadable pdf), you will find the GRIP template, which is simply a logical sequence of questions that elicit and communicate practical information crucial to planning and evaluating collaborative activity. It’s not rocket science, although we first discovered it being used by a team of rocket scientists at GE aerospace as a shorthand form of “critical path analysis.”

GRIP has four components:

Goal Clarity (G);

Role Clarity (R),

Quality of Interactions (I), and

Quality of Processes and Procedures (P).

It is better and easier for leaders to attempt to engineer GRIP into team collaboration from the beginning, rather than try to trouble-shoot it in after the team fails to jell, buy-in and collaborate. If all the GRIP questions have not been asked and answered before a project kicks off, implementation is likely to suffer gaps, redundancies, confused performers, turf wars, political jousting, and a tendency for things to stray off course.

In many cases, the answer to a particular GRIP question may be easy or self-evident. Ask all of the questions anyway; unexamined assumptions tend to bite hard and deep. Each of the GRIP questions is important, and any unasked question or untested assumption is a vulnerable spot waiting for Murphy’s Law to take hold.

In addition to the focus it brings to planning, the GRIP model also can serve as a point-by-point template for evaluating team performance at the end or trouble-shooting problems along the way.  How’d we do on each step to collaboration?  Did we have a GRIP?

The GRIP model of team collaboration “cascades.”  That is, without the first item – Goal Clarity – nothing else downstream will work worth a darn: no strategy = no direction and uneven results.  With good Goal Clarity but poor Role Clarity, failure and friction among performers are inevitable.  If both Goals and Roles are clear, but everyone is in the dark or bummed out — if the quality of Interactions has been neglected or communication suffers — morale will soon flag, and compliance or acquiescence is the best that can be hoped for.  Babel ensues. Finally, of course, absent clear Processes that map desired activity, define performance standards and measure progress objectively, all the other team virtues are just nice-sounding lip music.

Note that the GRIP collaboration does not prescribe specifically what to do in response to each question; its job is to flag what must be done. But none of the action steps illuminated by GRIP questioning falls outside the repertoire of any competent leader’s skills.  In other words, GRIP is an action-organizing model, reflecting the truth that more collaboration is eroded by lack of direction and poor delegation (and lawyers are notoriously lousy delegators) than by sub-par legal knowledge or experience.

The Costs of GRIP, the Benefits of GRIP

Performing a GRIP analysis – even on the fly – has some costs: it takes some time and runs counter to lawyers’ natural drive to dive in and begin billin’ them hours. But the benefits of even a quick-and-dirty GRIP analysis are worth the effort: the model is clear, it’s consistent, it’s logical, it eschews jargon, and it’s easy to remember.

So there you have it: if your team members don’t know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it, if they’re dropping the ball or stepping on each others’ toes, if they are talking trash or not talking at all, or if they don’t know either how they or their team are doing, there is a solution: Get a Grip.


Getting a GRIP on Collaboration Template

[And, here’s the Legal Leadership GRIP Template]

  1. G: Goal Clarity: Has the leader communicated and reinforced GOAL CLARITY?
    • Do all team members understand WHAT our objectives, outcomes and deliverables are?
    • Do all team members understand WHY we are pursuing them now?
    • Are the Goals and objectives communicated CONSISTENTLY?
    • Do we all AGREE on the team’s goals, objectives and priorities?
  1. R: Role Clarity: Has the leader assured that at all levels there is ROLE CLARITY?
    • Have we INVENTORIED our skills and experience to determine the capabilities at our disposal?
    • Do we all know what each of us is supposed TO DO at all stages of the team’s activity?
    • Do we all agree that we are the right person for our role? Do we “have the right people on the bus?”
    • Do we understand the CONNECTIONS and RELATIONSHIPS between our roles? Do we all know who is accountable to whom — both on the org chart and on specific tasks?
    • Do we all understand the BOUNDARIES of our authority, responsibility and accountability?
    • Do we know how we will allocate AUTHORITY, RESPONSIBILITY and ACCOUNTABILITY?
  1. I: INTERACTIONS: What about communication, morale, “buy-in” and trust?
    • Are the team’s COMMUNICATION CHANNELS & PATHWAYS clear and consistent? Do team members know when, how, how often and about what to communicate with each other?
    • Is the POWER STRUCTURE & PECKING ORDER clear, fair and enforced?
    • Does the leader DELEGATE tasks and responsibilities easily and effectively?
    • Is the leader assuring that ALL VOICES are being heard? Does the leader champion diversity and insist that all STYLES accepted and respected?
    • Can the leader articulate and enforce the group’s positive behavioral NORMS and VALUES?
    • How will DISAGREEMENTS be resolved?
    • Are individual performers’ motivational incentives supported?
    • How will the team on-board and ASSIMILATE new team members?
  1. P: PROCESSES: Does the leader understand and communicate what to do, how to do it, how we interact with others and how we’ll measure progress and performance?
    • Does the leader have clear and concrete plans, priorities, procedures and standards for EACH DELIVERABLE?
    • Does everyone one the team we have SUFFICIENT RESOURCES? (PTM = People, Time & Money)
    • Has the leader specified how the practice group will MONITOR and COORDINATE our efforts?
    • Does the leader — or his designates — provide frequent,  behavior-based FEEDBACK? (Form, formality, frequency, causes and consequences)
    • Does the leader have the courage and perspective to TEST OUR ASSUMPTIONS and REALITY-TEST progress?
    • Has the leader thought through CONTINGENCY PLANS if things go off course?
    • Does the team regularly perform POST PROJECT REVIEWS to support continuous process improvement?


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