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Make the leap from idea to action
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Make the leap from idea to action

Practice Excellence: Put your ideas into action

1st Aug 2016
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“We don’t have better ideas than other firms. We execute more of them.”

That simple comment from Chris Lamont when he collected the firm’s 2014 Practice Excellence Award nailed one of the biggest hurdles accountants face when they contemplate where they want to take their firms.

To execute an idea, you need to understand what you want to achieve. This article looks at how to get things done from the perspective of firm owners and managers who want to emulate Lamont Pridmore and improve the services they provide.

We went back to Lamont Pridmore to find out how they go about pursuing Practice Excellence and consulted experts and key texts to try and illuminate the gap that lurks between idea and execution.

Put clients first

One of the cornerstones of AccountingWEB’s Practice Excellence Programme is that all the good things you want for your firm are driven by satisfying the needs of your clients.

Most ambitious accountants harbour a desire for more and better clients and more profits, but value pricing and professional service crusader Ron Baker argues, “You’re not in business to make a profit.”

It’s a view Chris Lamont shares: “If [you’re doing something] to make money, it’s probably the wrong thing. Profit comes as the applause after everything else. It isn’t the driver. Work out what sort of practice you want to be. Ask yourself what your role in the profession is going to be, who you want to act for and why you’re doing it.”

From talking to people like Lamont, Baker and other practice consultants, we boiled down their thinking into a four-step Practice Excellence action plan, starting from what you want to achieve:

  1. Think through what is right for your clients and your firm
  2. Investigate your options - with clients and team
  3. Make a decision and plan how to go about it
  4. Then follow it through.

It sounds simple - like most management action plans. The hard part is step four. First we’re going to see what Lamont Pridmore does and then hear what some well known practice experts have to say.

How Lamont Pridmore does it

Cumbria-based Lamont Pridmore very deliberately fosters a culture of continuous improvement. “There is no standing still,” says Lamont. “We’re always trying to develop products and client services. It’s an inbuilt way of improving, from the cleaner up to the chief executive. We’re continually trying to think of new things.”

The firm does this by regularly setting awaydays to formulate plans, he explains.

“It’s how every office runs. We get away to think through all the options. And when you’re able, implementing them,” he says.

The arrangement doesn’t necessarily mean neglecting clients - but communicating with them and making sure they understand that you’ll get back to them.

The main condition for clear thinking is to stop worrying about what’s going on within the firm. To drive this approach Lamont Pridmore partners and managers delegate as much as possible to junior colleagues. “They want to be pushed by doing new things themselves. When they get a taste of that, everyone supports each other to deliver the change,” Lamont says.

Make the time

Lamont Pridmore’s continuous change ethos gets an endorsement form practice consultant Heather Townsend, who advises accountants to schedule thinking and planning time in their diaries.

“If you run 110% all the time, you don’t have time to execute your strategy. Always have some wiggle room in your diary, and your staff’s. That gives you time to implement your vision.”

After working with a lot of accountants, Townsend is aware of traits that hamper their efforts to implement change. “A lot of typical accountants are good at [dealing with] the present - getting through the workflow and planning,” she says.

“But when it comes to implementation we need to find a way for the accountant planning and doing things in the moment to plan more for the future.”

This is also the time to demonstrate leadership. Contrary to the stereotype of delivering stirring speeches and visionary insights, Townsend continues, “My belief is you can get there by playing to your strengths, not being who you are not.”

If the practice is run by people who are good at planning and tackling specific work packages, build practice development plans into 30-day, 60-day and 90-day packages. Ask your team: “What do we need to do this month to implement our vision?” she suggests.

Habit - the key to change

If you’ve read these points before, there’s a reason. They tend to work - if you make the commitment to follow through. According to David Maister, the doyen of professional services consultants, a lot of firms end up investing money on training telling people things they already know”.

Having worked with a huge number of practices, he came to the conclusion that “every professional action plan and mission statement is identical: client relationships, client service, fulfilling need…” This uniformity is not because the professionals who prepare them are stupid, but a sign that they understand what best practice looks like.

Until he had a heart attack, Maister used to smoke 30 cigarettes a day. The experience of changing his lifestyle prompted him to come up with his “fat smoker” theory for professional change - and the title of one of his books.

His advice for someone facing similar health problems is: “Eat less, exercise more.” Or for a university student who wants to do well: “Go to class. Do the homework.”

These are not especially creative solutions; they’re correct diagnoses for tackling particular challenges. Putting them into practice is hard and starts with making small, incremental changes. As Chris Lamont found, perseverance “doesn’t become a habit overnight.”

Paul Shrimpling, founder of Remarkable Practice, devotes much of his time to altering habits among clients.

Because of the way the human mind is wired, 50-94% of our waking hours are profoundly influenced by habits. “Old habits never die,” he says, citing an experiment that found it can take people 286 instances to develop the habit of drinking a glass of water with every meal.

“If you continue to do what you’ve always done, you’ll get less. The world is changing. You’ve got to change something,” he urges practitioners.

A new habit for practitioners - meeting clients

Shrimpling’s advice echoes Maister’s. Where the “fat smoker” was obsessed with getting healthy to save his life, Shrimpling’s obsession is meeting clients.

“If you want to raise fees and the capital value of your firm, the obsession you need is to hold more meetings,” he says.

“Do client meetings dominate your firm, or does the technical work dominate? Technical work is going away… Zero per cent of your firm’s profits and capital value are tied up in technical side of your work,” he argues.

Practice growth is all about relationships, and how clients experience the service you provide, he continues. Meeting them and staying in contact gives you more opportunities to communicate the value of what you do. “Does this work dominate your firm?”

Speaking of building good habits, Shrimpling touches on a topic closer to home for accountants: measuring and tracking progress. “Who’s tracking the number of meetings your firm has with clients every week?” he asks.

Building performance indicators around your chosen obsession is a mechanism for reinforcing the behaviour, and assessing the impact of change.

In Shrimpling’s example, if a firm or partner increases client meetings from four to five a week, that adds up to 40-50 more meetings a year. And if you can improve the quality of those meetings, he adds, “You’ll get double payoff.”

One step at a time

You don’t have to adopt Shrimpling’s path to practice growth, but his methods reinforce Chris Lamont’s suggestion to approach change the same way you would eat an elephant: one mouthful at a time.

Can you and your team come up with as simple an idea as holding more meetings to take the first step in a new direction? And can you stick with it until it bears fruit - or the evidence you collect about its impact tells you otherwise?

That’s what multiple Practice Excellence Award winner Aynsley Damery does. He talks about his firm Tayabali Tomlin as a laboratory, where the team is always trying out new experiments in how the firm serves its clients. That commitment to innovating bears fruit.

You may not have the capacity to push things to that level at your firm, but bear in mind David Maister’s key message about how to start on that path: “You have to be really sure about what you want to change and come to the conclusion that you have the drive, courage and determination to change. That’s what strategic debates really ought to be about.”

What techniques do you use to make change happen at your firm? Share your ideas below to encourage other AccountingWEB members to explore new directions.

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