Daniel Schutzsmith: Follow Thy Checklist and Prosper

During FITC Toronto 2015 I had the opportunity to hear Daniel Schutzsmith talk about project management in creative enterprise. In case you’ve never attended an FITC event, part of FITC is about dreaming big and fearlessly taking on life-changing projects. Another part of FITC is about actually getting them done. (For a full conference re-cap, click here.)

Daniel Schutzsmith’s talk was strongly in the second category. The main theme was that in a creative enterprise (or legal one), chances are that you’re not running short of great ideas. What may be missing, Schutzsmith says, are the processes that help you consistently deliver great results.

Checklist
Use a consistent check list for routine tasks and quality assurance

Background

After working for 17 different studios and co-founding digital creative design agency Mark & Phil, Schutzsmith shared his wisdom on what it takes to bring process into creative firms. The first step for entrepreneurs and agency owners is to get processes out of their heads. Answering over-the-shoulder questions on how to do things works when a company is five people or less. Larger teams quickly swamp managers, eating up precious time with questions that have been answered many times before.

That’s why Schutzsmith recommends we all live by DRY: Don’t Repeat Yourself. Documenting processes in an organization is that simple. In the early days, it actually helped save lives. Doctors eventually adopted a “checklist mentality” after realizing that doing every operation from memory led to some awful mistakes. Now every routine operation runs by checklist, and so should your business.

Clean Up the Mess

To start, Schutzsmith recommends documenting roles in your business. People generally like knowing what’s expected of them. Writing down what’s expected of each team member helps develop a work ethic and builds morale. It’s positive on all counts.

After roles are mapped out, everyone’s attention should turn towards the business. Schedule three sessions over beer or coffee, ideally at least a week apart:

  • Talk about everything that’s going wrong.
  • Talk about everything that’s going well.
  • Decide what the team would like to see working better.

That helps align everyone towards making things work better. Maybe there are things going wrong you’ve never thought of. Invite the usual gripers and the quiet ones. Find out how to clean up the mess before you’re running tight against a deadline.

Plan the Process

After your team has identified critical areas for improvement (for example, sales, HR or training new employees), it’s time to make a process. The final product should be documented, ideally in something simple like a checklist or flowchart. Schutzsmith recommends you find someone on your team who can help get this done. They can’t be too process-focused; it’s important to make room for creativity and freestyling. Similarly, he recommends defining tools but making space for people’s unique favourites. Balance is key, all with a DRY mentality.

A great example Schutzsmith featured in his slides was a checklist for the complete sales cycle. This list could be integrated into a CRM system, so initial contact with a prospect dropped the list in a client manager’s inbox. Processes don’t need to be stifling—ultimately they make time for more creative things.

Share, Evolve, and Scrap Every Process

Once your firm has a basic handle on its processes, Schutzsmith recommended they be openly shared, discussed, tweaked, and ultimately… scrapped entirely.

That’s because processes are living, breathing things. Sure, they change. They should be reviewed every six months. Steps might get obsoleted as teams find better ways. And they should be. Schutzsmith recommends that teams go a step further and throw processes in the garbage every five years. Building on the same skeleton only works for so long. If the entire process isn’t re-invented, we risk becoming dinosaurs.

Schutzsmith ended the talk with a call to action: go do it. Just write down a process. So what’s next on your list?

Design Firms Do Conferences Differently: FITC Toronto 2015

This past Sunday, April 12 through Tuesday, April 14, Toronto hosted the 14th annual Future Innovation Technology Creativity (FITC) conference. Now in its 14th year, FITC caters to a more design-heavy technology group, featuring equal parts technical workshops, wild parties and inspirational talks. I was able to attend the event as an “official blogger,” or volunteer media personnel. I really enjoyed the introduction to the world of design and digital art–the people who make tech beautiful and easy to use.

Why was I there? I wanted to learn more about creative firms and the challenges they face, because I’d like to have creative agencies as clients one day. If I learned one thing, it’s that a traditional legal marketing approach (focusing on expertise, stuffy speeches and pinstripe suits) is completely foreign to people in the design community. The experiences they share are more raw and honest.

When I arrived at FITC, I noticed right away how different it was from an ordinary conference. The design-conscious organizers made the Hilton’s basement conference zone look like a rock concert. Party lighting brought some energy to the otherwise neutral hotel concourse. The dress code was casual but stylish. Mohawks were not uncommon. Attendees included coders, designers, artists, and entrepreneurs, and they were all friendly.

FITC’s 14 years of success showed. The event ran like clockwork, with large teams of volunteers registering, ushering, collecting feedback, and directing the day. In particular it was nice to see breakout rooms for sketching, dancing and creative pursuits. FITC isn’t all about sitting down and listening–it was more like a supportive community coming together to share lessons, jobs, tools, and good times.

As part of my role, I got to cover a few specific talks:

  • Gavin Strange, Bristol UK-based animator for Wallace & Grommet’s creator Aardman, talked about pushing boundaries with “one-nighter” projects and new media.
  • Shawn Pucknell, FITC’s CEO spoke candidly about bankruptcy, failure, and how to survive.
  • Kim Alpert, a creative strategist and artist, talked about breaking through limits and refusing to be defined by anyone’s expectations.
  • Finally, I learned about Flickr’s ongoing growth and transformation following its acquisition by Yahoo. It was a great story about shifting competitive landscapes and leadership.

For anyone interested in design, technology or startups, I highly recommend connecting with the FITC community. Ideally I’d like to attend next year as a volunteer again or a speaker. If I do, one thing is for sure: a standard legal precedent walk-through won’t cut it.

Finally, big thanks to the FITC organizers for inviting me as an official blogger this year, it was a great experience.

I Failed in Law School and You Can Too

Originally published on Canadian Lawyer 4Students online

Nobody is perfect. If you came to law school believing that you were, chances are that the first year gave you doubts. Every year law school classrooms get filled with brilliant, hardworking and competitive young professionals. Being just one in the heap can be a difficult adjustment, especially for those who came from places where they were considered exceptional. It certainly was for me. I failed at more things in law school than any place I had before. Those failures helped me learn that missing the target is alright. I failed in law school and you can too.

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For most of us, failure is felt quickly and often in law school. Anyone familiar with the grading system knows that actual “F’s” are uncommon, but ask any law student and the feeling is rampant. We often mentally assign ourselves “F’s” for failing to meet our own expectations. Whether it’s about grades, body image, career, extra-curriculars, or relationships, law students tend to have high expectations live up to.

Law students’ monumental expectations start much earlier than 1L. They likely coincide with being asked to beat out thousands of applicants to be allowed to attend. Maybe our first acceptance package goes to our heads—we expect to be able to keep up the “top ten to twenty percent” pace indefinitely. The tragedy is that once we join the top ten to twenty percent, our success is redefined as the top ten percent of that group. Comparing ourselves to others is a losing game; it can only end in disappointment.

Before I graduated, I fell into the “other law students” comparison trap many times. Early on I spent most of my energy trying to be like the “others” out there. If you spoke to me about who I was measuring myself against, I would describe the group of law students who had it all: great relationships, lots of friends, supreme fitness, straight A’s, buckets of energy, and made law review. Whenever I dropped the ball in one (or all) of those areas, which I did frequently, I felt like I was way behind.

The problem was that that group does not really exist. If I had actually stopped and broken it down, it was actually an amalgamation of all the people in my class. I had magically combined many uniquely talented individuals into one person. In reality, nobody has it all figured out.

Job number one for law students should be to drop unfair comparisons. They are a distraction. Eventually I learned to measure myself against my own standard. For example, I had to learn the hard way that a heavy class schedule and multiple volunteer commitments did not leave enough time for a solid relationship. I started noticing how much I needed to sleep, study, relax, and see my family to feel successful. I also started noticing that I learned better outside class and away from the library. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that relationships take steady work to stay strong.

I only started improving in law school after I started focusing on my own priorities. Avoiding social comparison during law school helped me focus on what really mattered for my success. Refusing to compare myself to others still takes constant work. These days I still set goals and push myself, but my goals are grounded in reality.

Learning to measure ourselves by our own standard is the first step to overcoming a feeling that we are failures. Experiencing actual failure still feels terrible. It sounds cliché, failing a few times in law school helped me create some of my best successes.

My first law school failure was an actual “F” on a midterm. I attended class. I studied for the test. I read everything. Other people passed. I had no excuses. Even if it was not life-changing, it was a big deal. The first big deal in a legal career with many bigger deals ahead.

The real tragedy was what I did next: I avoided getting feedback. Instead, I ignored it and focused on the classes I thought I had a chance to improve in. At the time, that helped me avoid feeling like a failure. Later that year I came up against the same professor’s exam. I struggled and felt awful. Facing my failure earlier may have made that second test much easier. More importantly it would have helped me grow into a better law student.

Getting used to the idea that we can fail is important. In law school tests are temporary. In law practice the consequences can last a lifetime. Turning away from failure means we risk making the same mistakes later on. Failure intolerance makes us hesitate when we face challenging goals—the possibility that we could make a mistake is paralyzing. Procrastination is comforting because it prevents us from ever trying our very best, so we avoid true failure. Instead, if we make failure acceptable, we become free to do our very best and learn from mistakes as they happen.

It took me a long time, but I eventually built up the courage to acknowledge my failures head-on. That became critical during my legal job search. I was rejected from more than a hundred jobs and positions in law school before I secured a job at a great firm. The rejections were often impersonal. However, I also had rejections that felt devastatingly personal—after spending months networking and getting to know the recruiters and interviewers. My worst week started with multiple rounds of interviews, handshakes and dinners at several first-class law firms, and ended with the emptiness of zero job offers.

The last thing I wanted to hear was how I personally lost such great opportunities. The failure was deeply painful. I actually tried my very best and did not measure up. On the advice of a career coach, I eventually got the courage to follow up with a well-known recruiter I respected very much. I asked how I could improve. She candidly shared several key weaknesses that had proven fatal. It was difficult to listen to, but it helped me mature immeasurably. It is easy to walk away from failure with the belief that we bore no responsibility for the outcome. Instead I walked away with the very uncomfortable feeling that it was mostly my fault.

The upside was that owning my failure helped identify what I could control. Motivation to do better next time was still possible. The universe was not against me, nor was it 100% my fault. There were just some things I needed to improve before I could get where I wanted to be.

After picking myself up and getting back on the job hunt, I eventually landed a job at an excellent firm. A few rejections helped me improve enough to make a match. Learning to seek out and incorporate feedback helped me make my last semester in law school my best ever. I wanted to write this because I thought I spent most of law school trying to succeed. In reality, I spent all of law school learning how to fail. And you can too.

Failure Should Be a Graduation Requirement

Every university and high-school student should be required to fail one course before graduating.

It’s easy to focus on achievement, and reward those who meet (or exceed) expectations of performance.  Our school system feeds its success obsession using standardized tests, pass rates, and college admissions as a measurement of its effectiveness.

The problem is that many of the highest achievers graduate without ever being challenged.  They never learn how to take risks and fail.

Failure Hitting the Ground

The pressure to have high pass rates have made it tough to actually fail in Ontario high schools.  I’m not saying we should celebrate the failure to show up to class, or failure from a total lack of effort.

Real failure is about trying your hardest, and still not making it.

If every student were challenged to that level, we’d have the opportunity to teach real life lessons.  How to ask for help.  How to come to terms with your weaknesses.  How to push on when you feel like giving up.

With admission averages to many competitive Ontario university programs continuing the “upward spiral” that began over a decade ago, it’s no wonder students are allergic to failure.

At my alma mater, the University of Waterloo, you only have a 40% chance of receiving an admission offer to civil, mechanical, or software engineering if your high-school grade point average (GPA) is between 85 and 90%.  If your GPA is between 91 and 95%, the probability of being admitted jumps to 85%.

I’m not an engineer, and frankly, I would have never been able to make into a program at Waterloo if I had applied.  Even with such high admission averages, Waterloo was failing an average of 20% of its first-year engineering classes.  This bothered people so much they suggested making changes to the first-year curriculum in 2010.

As a residence don for 1st year engineers at Waterloo, I witnessed first-hand what failure would do to some of those 18-year olds.  Adult responsibility for their own learning hit many of them like a truck.  Some reacted by doubling down and studying seriously for the first time in their lives.  Others escaped into virtual worlds online.

For those of us who overcame it, failure was the best lesson of our lives.  My first lesson with failure didn’t come until I took a Japanese course for credit, and was blown out of the water by classmates who had studied it as a second language in Hong Kong and China.  Failing test after test taught me how to push myself harder, to ask for help, and how to take responsibility for something marked with the letter “F.”

If every school required students to fail at least one course, it would make failing okay.  Students would be encouraged to take risks, and get seriously challenged without the risk of their average slipping to an unacceptable 89%.

To have the F count as course credit, the student should have to (1) reflect on why the failure happened, (2) make a plan to overcome it by using all the resources at their disposal, (3) develop a “plan B” if their first plan doesn’t work, (4) follow through with the plan, and (5) reflect on the experience.

What do you think?  Would this ever work?  Would this have enriched your overall experience in school, or should we wait until people graduate before they’re allowed to fail?

TEAMwork: Interdisciplinary Learning at its Finest

April 1st 2013 marks the end of my eight-month experience in the Technology Engineering And Management (TEAM) course at Queen’s University.

Every law school should have a course like TEAM.  It allows law students to work with engineering and management students, and trains legal minds to look for ways they can add value in real-world projects.

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What is TEAM?

TEAM is an interdisciplinary project course.  Senior students enrol in the course from chemical engineering, commerce, and law.  Each student begins the term by bidding on projects proposed by industry partners across Canada and the United States.

Students are matched to projects based on their interest and experience.  Teams of 3-5 students are formed for each project.  The TEAM class runs anywhere from 18 to 20 projects a year.

Former projects have included the retrofit of a manufacturing plant, innovative carbon capture processes, feasibility of a new oil pipeline upgrader design, geothermal energy production, and environmentally friendly oil sands worker housing.

How did TEAM start?

The TEAM course was designed by Barrie Jackson , an ex-Shell employee and Queen’s Adjunct Associate Professor, in 1995.  He realized that engineers never work in isolation, and should learn the business and legal side of their work.

TEAM’s great work continues thanks to the tireless efforts of Dave Mody, an Adjunct Lecturer and “Engineer in Residence” at the Chemical Engineering Faculty at Queen’s.  Dave meets with student teams weekly to guide and mentor student groups, and to share his 17 years of engineering and design process experience.

What was my experience like?

I was lucky to be matched with a fantastic client known in the energy industry worldwide.  Their head office in Canada is in Calgary, so our team was flown out to get briefed on our project in November 2012.  Next week, on April 2nd we’ll present our final presentation and report.

Our project is a concept design for an environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable remote housing unit for resource development workers.  We had a few different personality types and learning styles on our team.  It was a great leadership experience.

Have you ever had an interdisciplinary project that inspired you, or taught you things you didn’t expect?  Post it in the comments.

The legal angle of my project was on the aboriginal consultation requirements, and the environmental-regulatory requirements for an energy development project.  The nature of the project touched many areas of law, and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.

 

The Innovative Advocate: Canada’s Legal Future

The way legal services are delivered in Canada is changing.  Increased competition and a demand for lower prices has pressured law firms to slow hiring and deliver their services more efficiently.  After finishing my first year at Queen’s Law I started thinking about how law students can help firms meet the demand.  It starts with an open-eyes look at where our industry is moving.

Lawyer blended with a computer and USB port

The reality is that corporate in-house clients are demanding routine process work be done for less, putting pressure on law firms to deliver their services faster with less overhead.  2012 also marked the first year that non-lawyers are allowed to own law firms in the UK, dramatically expanding the capital available for those firms’ investment and growth.

Here at home, lawyer-only firm ownership still reigns in Canada, but mergers with international players push our largest firms into ever-greater levels of competition.  Lawyers-turned-entrepreneurs in Canada are in turn growing their shares in the consumer market by launching online legal services.

New entrants to the market still haven’t quenched the demand for lower legal costs. Canadians face serious access to justice issues, and even middle-class litigants find themselves increasingly forced to represent themselves in court.

How are law students responding to these challenges?  Traditional not-for-profit work in legal clinics like Queen’s Legal Aid and Pro-Bono Students Canada is popular while in law school, but how many students continue their pro-bono efforts post graduation?  How does this solve the problem for clients who aren’t poor but still can’t afford legal advice?

I believe the change starts with how legal services are delivered.  I believe it starts by getting students thinking about innovative ways to bring the law to Canadians.

Law-students for Technology and Innovation (LFTI) is a student-run organization Nikolas Sopow and I created this year at Queen’s Law.  We’re passionate about finding better ways to deliver legal services.  We’re law students, but we’re not afraid of the changes coming to the Canadian legal scene.  Within three weeks we recruited four more executives to our team, and we’re still growing.  By 2015 we plan to have LFTI clubs at every law school in Canada.

Our projects this year are as diverse as our leadership team.  We’re hosting a speakers’ panel in Winter 2013 titled Technology on the Legal Frontier: Current and Future Ways to Practice Law.  We’re fundraising for computer literacy skills in Kingston by hosting a LAN party for video-game enthusiasts.  We’re blogging on the latest legal tech to hit app store shelves.  And we’re letting everyone know how the delivery of legal services is changing, so our classmates are prepared when they graduate.

Needless to say I’m excited at what LFTI has set out to accomplish this year.  Being prepared for the changing legal environment in Canada is about more than making a living as a lawyer.  It’s about making legal counsel affordable, providing greater access to justice, and ensuring Canadian firms remain competitive in the global market for legal services.

What areas of legal service delivery do you think could be improved?  How does legal education need to change in order to keep up?  Be creative, and ask tough questions. The innovative advocate is Canada’s legal future.

  • Ivan

Note that this article was published concurrently on LawIsCool.com

Two Links Worth your Time

Finding what’s relevant online can be a real challenge at times.  The speed and urgency with which RSS feeds, social media titans (e.g. the Seth Godins, Chris Brogans and Guy Kawasakis of the world) and Twitter pros push content have the power to make even the most tuned in info-sponges feel like river weeds being held under by the current.

If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, here’s a simple way to find content you care about: ask 2 friends to share 2 links they feel are important, and pass them along.  This method was inspired by Six Pixels of Separation‘s Mitch Joel, who makes a weekly effort to post “6 Links Worth your Time” with help from 2 friends.

Here are mine this week (which happens to be National Volunteer Week):

James Lockyer – a professional bio on one of Canada’s great legal heroes, James Lockyer of Lockyer Campbell Posner, based in Toronto, Ontario Canada.  Why is he a hero?  Lockyer spearheaded the late 90’s wrongful convictions movement as a reaction to “get tough on crime” policies and irresponsible media coverage that locked innocent people behind bars.  People like Guy Paul Morin and David Milgaard are two of his most famous clients — both convicted of heinous crimes they didn’t commit.  Stories of wrongful convictions like this one are heartbreaking, and it’s because of champions like James Lockyear that the stories don’t have to end in tragedy.

Governor General David Johnston – a fairly comprehensive bio on Wikipedia of Canada’s newest GG, and former President of my alma mater, the University of Waterloo.  Johnston is a hero of mine because of his distinguished academic career,  his dedication to public service, and the way he remains approachable despite it all.  A true leader, he helped grow Waterloo into the city and academic hub it is today.  He had this message for Canadians on National Volunteer Week — a message he has practised in the past, and continues to uphold in one of our highest appointed public offices.  If only more Canadians could be more like the Right Honourable David J.

If you’re not inspired after reading about these two gentlemen’s distinguished careers, please share a link or two of people who DO inspire you — I look forward to learning about them.