Getting a project or initiative off the ground is an important leadership competency, and yet may die in the planning process or simply do not gather enough inertia to get off the starting line. At a meeting this week in Washington, I heard Kim Keenan, President of the Washington, DC Bar Association make a remarkable presentation on the establishment of pro-bono legal clinics in the District. Her description of the process was a solid primer for getting new initiatives off the ground.
Stay Focused on the Outcome
Ms. Keenan described a number of interesting challenges encountered as their efforts scaled. Facilities, information, traffic management, promotion, compliance and a host of other roadblocks could have at any time limited or even shut down the program. The stories of overcoming these challenges were entertaining and inspiring. It was clearly passion for the outcome that played the key role in finding answers. A tough challenge can shut a project down, or inspire creativity and initiative- depending on how inspiring and important the outcome of the work is to participants. Ms Keenans own clear dedication to the vision of the project was both clear and infectious in the room.
Get People Who Care About the Work Around the Table
While no one knew much about how to get started, everyone who was willing to give up time to give up billable hours and get to committee meetings had some interest in the topic. The challenge of fanning a spark of interest into a flame is far easier than trying to create an initial spark where there is none.
Focus on What You Can Do
Reaching back to her first committee chairmanship, Ms. Keenan described the painful experience of several meetings in which she listened to attorneys arguing for 3 entire meetings about what they could not do, and why they could not do it. When she realized that it was her job to move the committee along, she changed the game by re-engineering the 80/20 rule. “Look…” she said. “We can agree on 20% of this. Why don’t we just start working on that and figure the rest out as we go?”
I know that I have often written here about projects that failed by rushing to action. But how long can you imagine a group of attorneys showing up for committee meetings that accomplish nothing? Getting to action that opens possibilities creates an emotional investment in the work, connecting back to why they were there in the first place
Reinforce the Impact of Small Steps
Ms. Keenan described the impact of getting the first bare-bones clinic underway by saying “Getting a small step done makes the impossible seem possible.” The early work of the clinic was by all reports rough around the edges; however, it had two big impacts besides the work itself. First, judges who had become accustomed to being frustrated by poorly prepared pro-se clients began to notice that people who had been helped at the clinic were better prepared to be in court, which made their lives much easier. Second, the participants could see the impact of their work and were far more energized by seeing the benefits of their efforts than worried about what was not yet done.
The initial idea was to find a way to help people show up in Landlord/ Tenant court better prepared. They got a small corner of the court-house and started matching volunteer attorneys with clients in need. Today, the clinic and several others like it are thriving and hundreds of lawyers donate time and services to assist those who need help on a civil matter but cannot afford it.
Not bad for what started as arguments about what could not be done.