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High-performance teams at Total Attorneys

Are you interested in a different way of communicating about work, a different way of looking at work, a different way of thinking about work, a different way of managing, a different way of leading, a different way of working—using high-performance teams to create a better workplace? has an interesting example in Total Attorneys, a Chicago company that provides services and software to small law firms. In some ways, it’s a familiar story. Like many successful companies, as a startup in 2002, Total Attorneys was highly energized, as work was done on the fly, new products were developed, new markets opened, and new customers identified. But as the organization grew, departments were formed, processes and structures were put in place, work slowed down, and the staff morale deteriorated. In some cases, Total Attorneys moved so slowly that by the time its software was completed, the client wanted something different. By 2008, Total Attorneys had gone from being an exciting place to work to just another bureaucracy.

A year ago, Total Attorney’s CEO Ed Scanlan decided to do something about it and recapture some of the old energy and excitement. He broke up the departmental silos and formed small cross-functional teams that themselves decided how to do the work and even how much work to do. The teams worked in an iterative fashion, implementing a prioritized series of stories that would reflect what clients wanted to see developed. The work was done with radical transparency, both within the team, in daily standup meetings, and vis-a-vis management, in demos of the work completed that took place every couple of weeks of the work that had been done. With new products, clients were involved in the demos and can advise on needed course corrections so that the work is always focused on tasks of high priority.

Scanlan started the approach with the software developers, but it was so successful there, he soon extended it to the entire organization. For instance, the 85 call center employees were divided into 15 teams and co-located on the same floor as the software developers, to enhance direct communication. The result is a renewed spirit and energy. The morning standup meetings are abuzz with laughter. “We are constantly changing and doing things differently to hit our goals,” says Brian Pistorius, the firm’s 2008 salesperson of the year. “It makes a real difference to get a sense of achievement and recognition every three weeks rather than waiting until the end of the year."

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