27 September 2015

For Leaner, Better Legal Projects, Start with Scope

Read on for Part 1 of our blog series on the Triple Constraint—check back soon for Parts 2 and 3!

As in-house counsel continue to search for ways to manage within their ever shrinking budgets, it is natural to look at the project workload with outside counsel and start cutting budgets for these projects. 

There is an inherent risk in cost pressure: shrinking budgets may lead to firms taking short cuts towards their delivery or that quality may suffer. Firms skilled in applying legal project management will see this challenge differently. Delivering greater value under this pressure means that legal teams need to think and work differently—and that’s where the legal project manager comes in.

The triple constraint, explained 

Any project manager worth her salt can tell you what the “triple constraint” is: simultaneously controlling the budget, schedule, and scope of a project, all while delivering the same high quality results. The challenge in managing this triple constraint is that changes in any one dimension will affect the other two.

Reduce the budget and either the scope or schedule must change. Shorten the schedule and you will either have to increase resources (and subsequently the budget) or reduce the scope. 

Controls to any dimension can also keep the other two dimensions in check. Of course, this is much easier said than done. Cost overruns, schedule delays, undefined scope, poor quality or any combination thereof: more often than not, projects do not achieve this delicate balance of the triple constraint. 

All 3 are important, but make scope your foundation.

Make no mistake: all three elements of the triple constraint are important to any project. That being said, your best bet for getting all three right begins with scope.  Nail it down and keep it that way. 

The art and science of scope definition

The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines scope as “…that which is required to ensure that the project includes all the work, and only the work required, to complete the project successfully.” Let me emphasize the key idea: all the work that is required, and only the work that is required. We'll come back to this point.

Managing the project scope is primarily concerned with defining and controlling what is and what is not included in the project.  In a service business, the project scope encompasses all the work that needs to be accomplished to deliver the promised results.

So why place project scope at the top of the list? It would not be unheard of for a project sponsor to ask questions such as “So how much will it cost?” or “When will it be done?” In order to have any chance of successfully answering these questions, we must first establish a shared understanding of what “it” is. 

Let’s go back to PMI’s definition: all the work that is required, and only the work that is required. In essence, the scope definition is a critical opportunity for sound planning.The best project managers will be able to facilitate meaningful dialogue to define project objectives and success criteria. In essence, the scope discussion is an opportunity to establish alignment about the most important question of all: what value the project team seeks to deliver to its end-clients.  These are the considerations that should inform what work falls appropriately in scope. 

The art of doing exactly what is required, and no more, is a foundational principle of thinking Lean.

Bringing that idea to life is a key focus for the LPM team at SeyfarthLean Consulting, and the scope conversation is a key first step in translating maxim to practice.

Scope conversations are value conversations

Think of a scope conversation as a conversation about business value. The decision of what's in scope (and, of equal importance, what is not) should hinge on impact—on the client's overall business objectives and cost pressures. The scope conversation is the best time for in-house teams and outside counsel to establish alignment on expectations relating to goals and costs. While a law firm may want to employ a ‘win at all costs’ strategy, the client perspective may result in a different definition of "winning." A shared understanding of how any matter fits into the bigger picture is the starting point for a healthy scoping conversation.

Your objective is to frame the boundaries of the project so that the client and the firm are in complete alignment on what is, and what is not in scope, at the outset. Establishing business rationale for why and how those determinations are made will establish a solid foundation for future discussions should adjustments become necessary. (And it's like that they will.)

Scope should be an open discussion, not a one-way street or a negotiation. Worst case scenarios, must-hit versus nice-to-have deadlines, acceptable alternative outcomes: openness in these areas promotes a more collaborative dynamic. A foundation of trust is necessary to open up avenues to creative solutions and true "win-win" approaches. Where might additional spend may be warranted and under what conditions? Your level of comfort with alternative staffing approaches? When clients and outside firms can discuss these particulars, the scope conversation can lead to a project plan that truly captures legal strategy. 

Scope matters to legal matters: a practical example

Legal matters are projects.  The triple constraint is very much in effect, and successful scope definition and management can ensure operational controls while maintaining and enhancing quality. 

For too long, legal budgets have been based solely on how things were done on the last engagement or project that bears similar characteristics. 

This invariably leads to problems as case teams fail to take the time to understand not only the nuances of the matter at hand, but also the business objectives of the client. Missing in these rehashed budgets: information on the risk tolerance of the client, settlement objectives, desired outcomes and most importantly how the client will define success. 

Take an exempt status audit as an example.  If a budget is based strictly on the number of positions included, the number of documents to review and the number of interviews to conduct you may end up surprised at the overall cost.  Taking a ‘scope first’ approach would not only examine the items listed above, but would also discuss the client’s position on the following. 

  • Whether we need to interview incumbents and supervisors or just supervisors? 
  • Whether we are interviewing incumbents and if yes, what percentage of incumbents in a position do we speak with?
  • Can we do any form of statistical sampling to reduce the number of persons to be interviewed and still manage the risk?
  • How/where the interviews are to be conducted (in person, by phone, or some combination)?
  • Can the client provide a resource to facilitate scheduling, not only for cost considerations but also to manage organizational dynamics with internal clients?
  • Is there a real need for a full ‘opinion letter’ or will a preliminary assessment be sufficient?
  • Alternative means to address any expected push back from the business?

Many of these questions blend legal analysis of the risks at hand with practical considerations relating to execution of the work. In addition to core project management competencies, data management and statistical analysis can also add value. This is one reason that interdisciplinary teams with diverse competencies extending beyond subject-matter knowledge of the law is important to delivering greater client value. Taking the time to better outline needs, business objectives, and expectations in the form of a detailed project scoping meeting/call will allow in-house teams and their law firms to better develop a project approach that that is in line with your business needs and any financial constraints. The scope statement also becomes the place to turn to if and when changes occur.

These questions inform the creation of a more detailed and useful project plan—and they afford the project team an opportunity to make considered decisions: what tasks are actually critical; what new approaches or skill sets might help us work smarter as well as faster; what organizational dynamics and business constraints do we need to consider for legal project success. This is the real-world, pick-and-shovel work of working Lean: working for client-defined value, building consensus on a truly “right-sized” approach, and translating that approach to an actionable project plan, complete with tasks, resources, deadlines, and budgets.

In your next legal project, take the time to have a scope conversation, and focus that conversation on the value story you want to tell after project completion.  One common problem in legal services is that the time and budget of a project are ‘locked in’ before the scope has been defined. Given that more and more legal project budgets must be fixed, in-house counsel should expect their law firms to sit down with them at the beginning of an engagement to have a serious discussion about project scope. Examine the project scope and the alternative ways to either deliver within the budget or set a reasonable budget based upon the scope.