Elementary school children learn something that talented adults often forget: systems awareness. Remember the song that goes, “the knee bone’s connected to the leg bone, the leg bone’s connected to the hip bone,” and so on? That’s a form of systems awareness: if the knee goes out of whack, you can bet that the leg and the hip will suffer too.
Systems are present in client representations. Imagine that you’re representing a client on a tax matter. Isn’t it natural to recognize that the outcome of the matter may affect not only the client’s tax liability, but potentially
his business, her marriage, or its employees as well? Lawyers are trained to recognize the ripples that flow from client matters, but what about other issues?
Your practice, your office, the personnel serving your clients – all of these are systems. Make a change in one area, and it’ll impact other areas as well. As a leader, it’s up to you to recognize the effects of your changes, both prospectively and retrospectively. Doing so will help you to anticipate and avoid problems and to design outcomes that positively impact a particular system.
A few years ago, the executive committee of a law firm decided that a live person should answer all calls received during business hours. To implement that policy, the office manager created a detailed system that regulated which secretaries could go to lunch or on break at what time and which lawyers’ telephones each secretary would cover. Seems sensible, right? Unfortunately, some lawyers didn’t want to have “strangers” responding to client inquiries, and morale among assistants plummeted since they were no longer free to take lunches and breaks together without careful planning. In other words, the system was disrupted. The plan failed miserably, and the hours spent in creating it were wasted – all because no one considered what impact the planned changes would have on the attorney/assistant system.
Systems awareness is also useful in evaluating how to accomplish professional and personal goals. Barbara hired me to improve her client development activities for her family law practice. She found it difficult to get in her billable hours and her rainmaking activities, much less optional interests like exercise and visiting with friends, or even being involved in her children’s extracurricular activities. As we reviewed Barbara’s activities, she remembered that she’d received a number of referrals in the past from people she’d met when she served as den leader for her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. We discussed a variety of activities she could add in, but Barbara kept returning to her prior Girl Scouts experience and finally decided to get involved again.
By resuming Girl Scout activities, Barbara deepened her connection with her daughter, put herself in a situation to meet parents who might need help with family law matters or know others who’d need help, and even got in some exercise. Barbara added extra time to her schedule to do this, but because the time yielded payoffs in several areas, she was able to leverage the time to get benefits that she might not have realized otherwise. Barbara became aware of the “system” formed by the intersection of her personal and professional life. (You might remember a recent review of Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life, which suggests experimenting with 4-way wins, which takes advantage of systems awareness.)
To increase your own systems awareness, consider the ripple effects of changes you make or action you might take.