What Law Organisations Can Learn From Icarus (It’s Not What You Think)
July 06, 2023
Probably every general counsel and managing partner thinks they know the story of Icarus. Seeking to escape imprisonment on Crete, Icarus and his father, Daedalus, sought to fly across the sea to freedom on wings built by Daedalus. Intoxicated by the thrill of flying, Icarus ignored his father’s pre-flight warning not to fly too high and instead soared towards the sun, whose heat melted the wax holding Icarus’s wings together, with Icarus plummeting into the sea and his death. It’s the paradigmatic tale of hubris, memorialised in the idiom of ‘flying too close to the sun’.
Except this isn’t the full story, which is more nuanced. Before takeoff, Icarus’s father did more than caution his son against flying too high: he paired that admonition with a warning not to fly too low (lest the sea’s spray soak the wings and make them deadweight), either, and instead for Icarus to follow his father’s flight path.
These additional details cast the story in a new light. Icarus’s failure is not a simple tale of flying too high – that was merely the apparent cause of his crash. His death was the result of the combination of high stakes, a narrow band for success, Icarus’s lack of experience, planning, or preparation, and his hubris in ignoring critical guidance.
Many leaders of law organisations are (metaphorically, of course) where Icarus stood before takeoff. They face existential risks from rapid changes in the legal industry, but they lack experience in navigating to a safe ‘destination’ for their organisation. As demonstrated by numerous after-action analyses, unless an organisation’s leadership already knows what to expect and when, peril awaits.
When it comes to transformational initiatives, a law leader needs assistance from professionals with specific expertise guiding law organisations through all stages of projects that deliver strategic value. These experts can not only develop a detailed plan but also provide crucial ongoing assistance.
A good roadmap is crucial because it provides value in multiple ways. These include:
- Putting your organisation’s plans in a strategic, value-orientated context
- Ensuring the solution incorporates research rather than guesswork and reflects the organisation’s particular needs
- Rallying organisation-wide support and enthusiasm around a single set of priorities and steps
- Hardwiring change management, knowledge acquisition, and continuous improvement
- Preventing missteps from defective implementation and minimising the need for rework
One critical caveat remains: all its benefits, no roadmap survives contact with reality. However much work you do to make sure you have created an optimal solution, feedback sessions are certain to expose flaws in your thinking and planning, including considerations that may not have occurred to you. It is crucial to view roadmaps as dynamic entities: they are meant to change and adapt as you learn. Equally crucial is to build into your change management process both a means to monitor for warning signs that an initiative is moving off plan and ample time to course-correct before it’s too late.
That the story of Icarus remains well-known demonstrates that spectacular failures are mesmerising – perhaps because they offer us the comfort of having avoided the catastrophic missteps of the brash. But inaction in the face of a slow but relentless strategic threat is itself a form of failure. The conservatism of the legal profession makes law organisations especially prone to this sort of ‘catastrophe-by-stasis’ because lawyers are trained to value precedent (as opposed to innovation) and typically have an aversion to risk-taking.
For leaders of law organisations, Icarus – or, more accurately, Daedalus – offers a way forward. By consulting and partnering with experienced experts in the organisational transformation of law departments and firms, a law leader can take flight with confidence. Guided by the right team, a law organisation can take a prudent path that avoids soaring too with overly-ambitious initiatives and aiming too low with ineffectual attempts to address growing strategic threats.
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