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Melissa Shanahan

#210: Answer Meetings: A Container for Finding Solutions

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As an owner, you’ve probably felt as if you’re the only one catching problems in your company. You might approach your team and ask them what went wrong or how to avoid similar obstacles in the future. Sometimes they have an answer, sometimes they don’t, but they’ve likely left the conversation feeling personally attacked, even if that wasn’t your intention.

This is where an internal practice that Melissa calls answer meetings comes in. There are many variables that lead to a disconnect between your understanding and your team’s understanding. It’s impossible to have a growing organization where that isn’t true. And it’s your job as an owner to offer a space for them to think through systems, processes, and challenges in the way you do. 

Listen in this week as Melissa offers prompts for identifying problems and solutions through answer meetings. You’ll hear the positive byproducts that have resulted both for herself and her team through this practice, and why it’s the secret to creating win-win-win results for your clients, your team, and your organization as a whole. 

If you're a law firm owner who's thirsty for figuring out exactly what you're aiming for and making a really well thought out, deliberate strategic plan to get there, and then having accountability and coaching along the way so that you can really honor your plans, then join us in Mastery Group.

Show Notes:

What You’ll Discover:

• What an answer meeting is.

• 5 prompts for identifying problems and finding solutions. 

• The positive byproducts of answer meetings that Melissa has experienced as an owner.

• What the act of having answer meetings has done for Melissa’s team.

• The signs your answer meetings are working effectively.

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#86: Fall in Love with the Problem with Tucker Cottingham of Lawyaw

Tara Gronhovd

Voxer

Clio

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Full Episode Transcript:

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I’m Melissa Shanahan, and this is The Law Firm Owner Podcast Episode #210.

Welcome to The Law Firm Owner Podcast powered by Velocity Work for owners who want to grow a firm that gives them the life they want. Get crystal clear on where you're going. Take planning seriously and honor your plan like a pro. This is the work that creates Velocity.

Hi, everyone, welcome back to this week's episode. I am thrilled to have you here. It's the middle of June, which is wild to me. And time's flying. We are almost at the end of Q2, so we are working hard with our clients and members over here preparing for the Strategic Planning Retreats, to plan Q3 and beyond. But Q3 is where we really nail down the effort that is supposed to happen, so that they're on track with where they really want to be, in the plans that they've made that are longer game plans.

So, it's just an exciting time. This is what we live for over here. This is everything is centered around no matter who we're working with. And it's the work that lights us up. So, we're really in heaven right now, working with everyone and getting everyone prepared.

I encourage each of you, as listeners, if you're not a member or a private client, I encourage you to take some space to reflect so that you're very intentional about how you want to plan for and what you want to get done and the goals that you'd like to hit for Q3. You could do it all the way through the end of the year. You could do it for the next 12 months. But get very nuts-and-boltsy with the next 90 days, in terms of the priorities that are going to be addressed.

If you have goals, you have numbers that you'd like to hit, whether that's revenue, whether that's profit margin, whether that is number of new clients, maybe each of those things. You have something you were striving for, what are you going to do to make sure that those numbers are possible? What is the effort that you're going to put forth?

And your brain may come up with ‘I don't know’ at first, do not accept that. Sit still, and think and brainstorm. This is what I call “super thinking”. Think about your business, and for your business, and what will be the best thing for the business. What will be the best thing for the business is usually something that will be the best thing for everyone involved, as well. You want to think of these things as win-win-wins, a win for the business, a win for the team, a win for the client. And team, that includes the owner.

So, really think through what it means, what it would look like, to focus on things that would produce an outcome that would be a win-win-win across the board, and help get you closer to where you want to be. Alright, so do that for yourselves. If you're with me, we take care of that for you. We facilitate all of it. If you are not in my programs or working with me in any way, then do this for yourself.

Take the space. Go for progress, not perfection. It may not be perfect. You may not know exactly how to do this for yourself in a way that's truly productive. But trust me, sitting down to give focus to this, just being very intentional with this, and a bit of space geared towards it, will go a long way; instead of just running into the next quarter. So, finish out this quarter strong, and be very intentional about the beginning of the next quarter and what that means for you and for your firm.

Alright, today, we are covering something that I call internally, inside of my company, “answer meetings”. When I talk to clients about answer meetings, that we host internally, their eyes light up, and they realize, oh, we need something like that. And so, clients that have instituted what I'm going to share with you today, have experienced the same meaningful, productive outcomes that we have, that I have internally inside of my company.

So, I'm going to share it here on the podcast. Hopefully it provides a bit of inspiration on how to address some things that may be happening inside of your organization that you want to get your hands around and find solutions for. Well, let's start with what is an answer meeting? An answer meeting, as I have it defined inside of my company, is a meeting dedicated to finding solutions for things that went wrong internally.

And it's usually pertaining to client delivery. And now, sometimes the client could feel that it went wrong. Sometimes they can't. But it is up to us to identify where things went wrong, and how do we find a solution so that those things don't happen in the future. This was born out of necessity for us. We have grown pretty quickly over the last four years. And with that, as many of you know, comes a wave of things you need to learn how to deal with inside of your company.

So yes, of course, documenting systems and processes, and making sure that we are really dialed in that area. But how this would look is, and as you know, there's an evolution to processes into systems. So, we would have one, but something would fall short, there would be something missed. And we realized, oh, something needs to be shifted here.

And I would be the one dictating to the team what needed to be added, what to make sure… And over time, this really started to sound something like a message to my team that would say, “Hey, we should have done this before this. So, make sure that those steps are documented in that way, in the written procedure.” There was a lot of that.

As time went on and as we grew, and as new people came in, I found more and more of that stuff. Where I was having to say, “Hey, do this first, not this. Do this, not that. Make sure that it's reflected in the documentation.” But it was a lot. It was a lot of in between moments where I found myself saying that to the team.

Now, this can be frustrating for me, and also the team. For me, as you all can understand, as an owner, you start to feel like you're the only one that's catching these things. And there's many reasons for that. My brain is bent to look for certain things. And there was a disconnect between my understanding and the team's understanding. I needed a place to give them a space, a container, for them to think through these things, in a way that I think through these things.

This was also sort of inspired, a slow amalgamation of two ideas over the course of a few years. One, was a client, a few years ago, that instituted “fix it meetings,” that's what they called it. And if you're listening to this, client, you know exactly who you are. And the fix meetings were for that, for things that didn't go as planned or went wrong, according to the process or procedure. And they would have a meeting about it, to discuss it and make sure that it got back on track.

Now, there may be more to it than that, but they came up with this idea during a retreat. And it was a great idea. I think, to this day, they still have those meetings. So, that was the back of my mind. I really liked the idea of that.

And also, if you all remember, if you've listened to the episode I did with Tucker Cottingham. And this is probably three years ago that I did an interview. But Tucker Cottingham was the founder of Lawyaw. Lawyaw has since been acquired by Clio. Tucker Cottingham is still affiliated with them. At the time, they weren't. They were a startup. He mentioned, that with his team, sort of culturally, something that was kept very alive by him was this mantra or motto of “fall in love with the problem.” That is our job, is to fall in love with the problem.

It really stuck out to me back then, and it's been in my brain since then. Now, as my team has grown, and as I just mentioned a few minutes ago, there was a need for me to give some space so that my team can develop themselves to be more solution oriented. Instead of me just telling them what the solution is, and having it fixed.

So, what we came up with, through the help of Tara Gronhovd and her company Align, was this idea of what we called an answer meeting. Now, there is a spreadsheet that we have internally, that is set up so that when anything goes wrong and something just doesn't pan out the way it should have… And that could be a number of different things. It could be very, very, very small things. And it could be very big things; things that are bigger deal.

And in the spreadsheet, whoever is really the owner of that area or that responsibility… In the end, it didn't go as it should have. It didn't produce in the seamless way that we want. And we strived to produce, it didn't produce that result that was streamlined and efficient, and really on point.

So, there's a spreadsheet that this person can go to where the prompts are: What is the problem? So, they will just put the thing that happened that wasn't ideal. And then the next question is: What happened? Which almost sounds redundant; but say more about that, give more detail there.

The next question is: Why did that happen? I've talked to them about how to fill out the spreadsheet. They should go slow. They should really think about this as they're completing it. And when I say “why,” root cause is what we're getting to. What was the root cause of the situation? What's the “why”, the deeper why, on how this happened?

The next question: How did it affect the client? How did it affect the company? And then the final cell asks: What is the answer for the future? What is the solution to this, so that this doesn't happen again? And it gives them a chance to think through it. The reason that we started doing this, was because they would jump to solutions without thinking through things in this way.

And so, the solution was “cheaper,” if that makes any sense. Like, it wasn't as deep, it wasn't as well thought out, it was quick. But sometimes that's not always the best thing. Really thinking through this and getting underneath the problem, and understanding the problem, can be very useful with coming up with the right solutions for this instance. So, that it prevents it moving forward.

And the act of thinking through this has done a few things for my team, and for my company, that has been, from my perspective, pretty profound. The main benefit, the main miracle; that's what it feels like; that came out of this was that it fosters solution-oriented thinking for my team. They thought that they were solution oriented in their thinking, but this has taken it to a whole new level.

And I can honestly say, my team thinks differently now, because they've slowed down in moments that it's important to slow down. To evaluate a problem in a way that's going to spit out a solution that is the best thing for the company. And we talked about win-win-win at the very beginning of this podcast, the solutions they're coming up with are a win for the clients, they're a win for the team, and it's a win for the company as a whole.

So, I've literally watched them transform over the last, I guess we've been doing this now almost eight months, it has transformed. And it was a bumpy road to start, which I will talk about that in just a moment. But they do think differently now in how they approach their work. And they certainly think differently in how they approach these issues as they arise; they're faster at it. They are better at it. And the solutions they come up with are higher quality.

The second byproduct of doing these meetings, and them getting better at thinking about solutions, is the confidence that it has given each team member. I've watched their confidence levels rise over the last eight months. And that also helps quite a bit with their output, their productivity, their delivery on products, and how well they work together.

They tee each other up even better than they were, and I think they did a decent job of that before. So, all of this to say, that these meetings have changed how my team thinks. And because it's changed how they think, it's changing how they work. Now, we're not at some peak perfection, I don't know that we'll ever be there. But the improvement has been significant.

And as an owner, oh my gosh, that feels so good. It feels like progress in the direction that I always want to progress, but I couldn't quite figure out how to get it. Everything moves so fast. You know, as you grow, and you're trying to keep up with the growth, you get busier, things feel busy. I don't love to use that word, but that is how it feels. There is more to handle with the same amount of time. And you are balancing hiring with that.

We hire proactively, we don't tend to wait until we really need someone, we are proactive about hiring. And the pace still quickens. And so, as the pace quickens, and as you do get busier, things go wrong sometimes. It's impossible to have an organization where that isn't true. And as things go wrong, instead of me pointing it out and saying, “Hey, why did this happen? Hey, change the system or process. Make sure to add these steps.”

Actually, I didn't say that at the beginning when I was introducing the answer meetings. But one of the biggest things, it was becoming a sore spot for us inside of our organization, was when I would ask why did that happen? And that is hard for a team to answer when they don't have a mind for thinking through things with root cause analysis, and thinking through solutions.

So really, I mean, I was asking that question a lot. And I was the only one asking that question. That's what it felt like from an owners perspective, I was the only one asking that question. And it put people in a pretty defensive position.

Even though that wasn't my agenda, that's what was happening. It became very clear we needed a space to foster these conversations, and to help them think in the ways that I want them to think. Because it is best for the client, and it is best for the company, and it is best for the team. It's a win-win-win.

And so, because of inspiration of a couple of things over the last few years, plus our work with Tara Gronhovd, this was our answer to this pain point we were experiencing, and we called it the answer meeting. We were having it once a week when we first started. Now, we tend to have it bi-weekly, sometimes even less, depending on if there's not much on the list or hardly anything on the list.

Then we just wait and we have them once a month. Or if I'm leading a lot of retreats, because it's retreat season, sometimes we have them once a month at that point. But it's fine. It doesn't feel like we need them more. We're having them at an appropriate cadence for our company. And they're so healthy.

Now, I will say that it didn't always feel good to have these. So, at the beginning, it was a little awkward. We were adjusting to having these conversations. And I recently had a team member, Laura; shout out to Laura, she's our private client coordinator. She shared, in a retreat with a private client, when we were talking about this, because the client was going to institute this into their firm.

And she shared, that at first, for the team, she felt like, from her experience, it was awkward. Because she was experiencing some shame showing up to talk about a mistake that she had made. And talking through the solution, it almost felt like there was a light being shone on her mistake. She wasn't exactly sure how to feel about that. It felt awkward and embarrassing.

And I felt that, too. It was a little awkward at the beginning, because we weren't used to moving through things in this way. They were not used to thinking about things in this way. Slowing down to answer these kinds of questions, that is not how they were operating. And so, for them to do that it made them dissect and fall in love with the problem. Really get to understand what the problem was, so that we could come up with a solution that makes a lot of sense.

And as they practiced it, she did share also with the client, that quickly she began to love these meetings. Because our team is really supportive of one another. And so, these meetings become a place to help you sort through it. You do your best to answer those questions prior to the meeting, but then once you have done that, you can also have input from the team.

And the team has great input for one another. They have ideas, and so they come up together with ideas for solutions, that may be the best answer for the mistake that was made. So, that moving forward, we don't experience the friction that we did experience prior.

And I loved listening to her talk about these meetings. I sat back and I was watching her talk to the client about it. And the client was really into the conversation. I was like, wow! Everything she's saying is true. I hadn't heard that from my team's mouth. But I have certainly seen the byproducts; the positive, meaningful byproducts of having these answer meetings.

Which is what I said earlier, increased confidence, and they are more solution oriented in their thinking. I'm just proud of them for that. And I'm proud that we do these meetings. They have changed how we move through issues in a really beautiful way, in a productive way. To me, productive is beautiful. And not, productive as cranking out work. Productive as in healthy. That's what I mean by productive.

It brings us closer together as a team. It fixes something for real; fixes something, We get underneath issues. And we all feel, typically, really connected as we leave those meetings. Now, as an owner, I've got to tell you, having these meetings has changed my anxiety levels. It has reduced my anxiety greatly, because I know that these things are being taken care of. And I trust the process that we have in place, in order to manage mistakes really well, so that we come out on the other side better for it.

Before, it felt like it was all on me. My team did not want me to feel that way, but that is the way it felt to me. And now, it feels like we have a container, a space, where I can trust that these things are going to be addressed. I don't have to remember to keep it in my head. I don't have to remember to follow up, to make sure that they did XY and Z. I don't even need to be the one to tell them to do XY and Z anymore; on how to manage the mistake that happened.

All of that, they do now. I show up to the meetings and they lead the meetings. They dive in. They share, “Okay, this mistake happened. Here's why it happened. We realized that the template was…” They'll go into all of it. And they'll go into the solutions. It is so beautiful, as an owner, to have that space. Because you can rely on it to cover the things that stand out to you, that matter to you. And you know that they're going to be taken care of.

Instead of you having to hold it in your head, or fire it off at a meeting that you have. Like, “Hey, what happened with XY and Z?” That's not the place. You need a place for these things. And so, for us, we've coined it the answer meeting.

Oh, and one more tip I will give, because this is how we roll inside of the company when it comes to answer meetings. There'll be times where we're talking through things or I'll realize something isn't quite right. And so, I will send a message to a team member… And we use Voxer, which is a staple at our company. It is a primary method of communication.

And so, I will send a message through Voxer to say, “Hey, please add X to the answer meeting.” And whoever is in charge of it, does it. They go and they add it and they think through it. So, sometimes I am the one that finds the mistake, but I don't need to hold it anymore. I delegate to them the thinking through it, and the solution, like coming up with the solutions for it.

All I have to do is send a quick message of what I noticed, they put it on the answer meeting, and then it gets covered in the next one. And they've always thought through all of them prior to the answer meeting. So, by the time we get on the meeting, everything's been thought through. And at that point, it's just me giving the thumbs up to a solution.

The solutions are there; that they've provided as they thought through it. But the team also offers some brainstorm and support for the person who was thinking through their issue or their mistake. I have input, as well. And so, then we, together, decide what is the best solution moving forward. From there, it's done.

So, we actually had a lot of things on the list in the answer meeting, initially, when we first started these. And now, every answer meeting, there may be a couple of things. That is a true sign of it working. So, there's the tangible aspect, that I can see that it's working. But there's also the intangible, which is just my observations about my team members are growing. They are growing professionally. Their critical thinking skills are better. Their ability to find solutions is so much better. And their confidence has gone up.

Everything has improved because of these meetings. And so, that's what I'm doing the podcast episode on today. Because it’s something that’s impactful inside of my company. Private clients are also instituting it into their firms, and noticing really positive changes there. I'm sharing the podcast so that you can take some of this information, or be inspired and create this inside of your firm, in your way, in a way that works for you.

Maybe you call it something different than the answer meeting. Maybe there's an extra question on the sheet that people have to fill out. But whatever it is, I hope for you, that as an owner, you take something from this episode, and you institute it. Because it has been such a game changer for us internally.

Every single company has mistakes that are made. Of course, we try to reduce those as much as possible, and prevent those as much as possible. But sometimes they are going to happen, and how do we want to think about it? Culturally, how do we want to approach it? Getting something dialed for your firm could make all the difference.

Alright, everybody, have a wonderful week. I'll see you here next Tuesday.

Hey, you may not know this, but there's a free guide for a process I teach called Monday Map/ Friday Wrap. If you go to velocitywork.com, it's all yours. It's about how to plan your time and honor your plans. So, that week over week, more work that moves the needle is getting done in less time. Go to velocitywork.com to get your free copy.

Thank you for listening to The Law Firm Owner Podcast. If you're ready to get clearer on your vision, data, and mindset, then head over to velocitywork.com where you can plug in to Quarterly Strategic Planning, with accountability and coaching in between. This is the work that creates velocity.

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