Why training for a marathon is like running a law firm
I've never actually trained for a marathon (yet) and neither have I managed a law firm (yet, but who knows in the age of technology driven ABSs) but bear with me …
At the start of 2015, I announced to the team that Exen's charity for the year would be the Jane Tomlinson Appeal, a local Yorkshire charity originally set up by the inspirational fundraiser Jane Tomlinson CBE. I had in mind that as a group we might enter for a 5k run or maybe even 10k during the year as part of our fund raising, so I was a little taken back when the team decided our number one event would be an Exen team half marathon. Now, I like to think of myself as reasonably fit, but 13 miles as my second ever "proper" race, with the first one being almost 30 years ago? Could my just turned 50 year old body actually run that far, and more worryingly could my long worn-out knees cope with the necessary training? But on the other hand how could I not take part? I've never been one to lead from the sidelines - if something needs doing, we all muck in together, so that was it, I was training for a half marathon!
So where to start? Naively, I assumed that a pair of trainers and a bit of determination was all I needed for such a simple sport as running. How wrong could I have been? Apparently in the 25+ years since I last took part, running, like most things in life, has gone all scientific and high tech.
So what have I learned over the last 4 months’ training?
The need to plan
So first of all I was told I needed a training plan. It's no longer enough to go for a run a couple of days a week and hope that as the weeks progress you can manage to stagger a bit further each time. No, today's science (and common sense really) tells us that we should:
- Start with our goal (complete a half marathon without a. embarrassing myself, or b. injuring myself)
- Decide where we are now (struggling to run more than a mile without significant pain - the knees remember?)
- Determine the timeframe for this change (date of the race would be good), and
- Produce (or find on the internet!) a plan to move from here to our goal in that timeframe
And this is where the parallels with business start. If you want to grow a business (law firm or anything else) the starting point is where are we now, where do we want to get to, and by when?
Set your goal
An important factor here is realism. I could have set my goal to be "run the Leeds Half Marathon in less than 1hr 40 minutes, but I understand my body and my lifestyle and deep down, despite my competitive streak, I knew that was unrealistic. Similarly in business any strategic goals should be ambitious, but they should also be framed in a true understanding of the current situation (I would recommend Jim Collins' excellent "Good to Great" for a comprehensive analysis of this idea).
This needs to be measurable, and it can't be one dimensional. What do I mean by that? Well I could have said that my running objective was to complete a half marathon, but that's not a complete description. The other caveats I included are really important. It is possible that with no training at all I could have staggered around a 13 mile course at a little over walking pace. However that was not going to meet my personal target. Firstly my pride (call it ego if you want) would have been hurt by not achieving the time I know I should be capable of. And secondly the chance or causing extensive significant (and possibly long term) injury would have been quite high.
In business terms, a goal of increasing fee income by say 30% over 2 years might sound like a sensible objective, but in reality there are other implied constraints that need to be articulated.
For example, is that fee increase a positive outcome if it also introduces one of the following side effects?
- 20% of regular clients have taken their business elsewhere because of a perception of over billing
- Fee earner turnover has increased by 50% (attributed to unreasonable targets)
- Long term debtors have increased by 20% resulting in an increased overdrafts despite rising fees
There is no right or wrong answer to any of these questions, but all should be considered when setting goals for a business, and importantly, they should then be monitored to ensure the whole target is being met.
So my law firm goal might be better expressed as
"To increase fee income by 30% over the next 2 years whilst achieving
- 95% client retention
- 5% staff turnover, and
- Lockup at or below current levels"
Where are we now?
So where are we now? In business terms, this is where we get into the realms of measurement. What do we measure, and how do we measure it? Well given the example goals above, we need to measure each of those elements on day one, and regularly as we proceed.
Here, a realistic assessment is needed of our strengths and weaknesses – where does attention need to be focussed?
For my run, 16 weeks was all I had before the date of the race. For a business improvement plan, the timescale is likely to be less influenced by external factors, but there does need to be one. Lack of a target date, gives everyone the excuse to roll on objectives month by month, year by year.
So having set our starting position, our goal and our timeframe, the final element we need is a plan. And what does that plan contain? Well we need to
- List the activities we plan to carry out
- Determine how we will measure their success
- Set intermediate goals
Importantly, any plan needs to be flexible. As the well-worn military expression goes, “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”, and in the case of my running that has certainly been the case. Things happen that were not expected – injuries, illness – these just can’t be planned for, and neither can external events that impact on the running of any business. So an important part of any plan is to regularly review progress, reflect on achievements and adjust activities and timescales accordingly.
Research / Advice
An interesting lesson from my running experience is not to assume you are the first person, or business to attempt whatever it is you want to achieve. There is lots of advice for runners, including template training plans, on the internet. As always, some of this is more useful and more reliable than others. Similarly it would be naive (or possibly arrogant) to assume any law firm undergoing business change cannot learn from the previous experiences of others, be it within the legal sector, or any other sector of professional services or commerce.
Measuring and Monitoring
This is where it gets really interesting for me. Measuring performance is what I do for a living. So how thrilled was I to discover that there are now smartphone apps that will measure your running performance in real time?
I chose to use Strava, which amongst other things allows me to measure distance, time, incline, split times and a whole host of other attributes of my training. Not only that, it allows me to compare my own performance over time, and also to compare myself with other runners both within my “team” and across the world.
This was where my thinking on training vs law firm management started:
Could I have completed my training without the app? Yes, certainly. People have run competitively for thousands of years without such assistance.
Did it give me an advantage which improved the effectiveness of my training? Without a doubt.
So why would I choose not to use such an effective tool? And why do law firms continue to try to drive business improvement without utilising the benefits of automated performance monitoring tools?