Rik de Groot: Why it’s good to be agile

Even the most conservative lawyer can't have missed it: the onward march of smart, agile working. To find out more, Legadex's Luc van Daele spoke with Rik de Groot, Agile Organisation Consultant at Xebia, about how, exactly, the agile way of working can help legal services become more innovative.

Text Annemarieke Noordhoff

Despite the hype, agile isn't new. In fact, not only is it not new, it’s been around for more than 20 years, initially proving its worth in ICT, followed later by other staff departments. Xebia's Rik de Groot helps teams, managements and entire organisations adopt the agile way of working, including, and increasingly, legal teams in financial institutions: “I teach some teams how to deal with an agile environment, because there's often a wide gulf between the way a legal team works and an agile environment, but I also help legal teams to work in an agile way themselves. That pays dividends, because legal problems and issues are becoming so complex that lawyers have to become more and more effective in terms of how they use their time. This is one of the major benefits of agile working.

Enhance effectiveness
“Agile is an approach that helps teams to resolve issues. For example, if you have too few people, structurally, or if you want to be able to react to requests from the organisation more effectively and without constantly running out of time. Agile consists of two strands: on the one hand, the 'soft' side of mindset, leadership and culture, and on the other the more tangible aspects, such as processes, meetings, structure and roles, plus forms of implementation such as Scrum, Lean and Kanban. These are different methods that fit different types of organisation, but which share a number of recurring elements.

Help, our organisation has moved to agile working! What now?

Lawyers often assume that an agile working environment must be tantamount to chaos. You've just completed a contract and two weeks later they start doing it all completely differently. To prevent this, make sure you are present at key meetings as clear planning is an important part of the agile way of working. The 'refinement' and the 'sprint review', for example, are useful meetings because they'll tell you what stage the team has reached and the issues they've encountered. This will allow you to intervene in good time, such as before the launch of a cloud process. And if there's a risk to privacy-sensitive data, you don't want to only discover this at the contract negotiation stage. Your position will be stronger if you advise on risks beforehand.

Flexible and multidisciplinary
“The four key elements that recur in all the methods are a flexible strategy, multidisciplinary teams, working in short cycles and transparency through knowledge-sharing and visualising progress. Also, tasks and activities must be transferable, because you want to continue making progress even in peak periods or if someone is ill. To ensure this, you make transparent what has been achieved each day, even if it's only small steps because, for example, you're dealing with a complicated contract involving weeks of work. The underlying thought?  That problems are becoming too big and complex for one person to solve alone. This is especially true of the legal sector. You must dare to transfer, brainstorm, discuss and make knowledge transparent. To move away from individual autonomy and towards the autonomy of the team. That can be quite a change for lawyers used to working independently in their own area of expertise, but the fact is, you're more effective as part of a team.

New insights
“Working in short cycles and submitting deliverables – cases – daily automatically creates a need to make work measurable. How else can you allocate tasks and know what's been completed when? The discussions about this and the process leading to it are very interesting. For instance, you'll suddenly hear that a colleague takes two weeks to finalise a contract that you would complete in two days. How is that possible? Do you work more efficiently? Or does your colleague always get the difficult queries or contracts? Making what you do transparent leads to new discussions – and new insights that can help a legal team to work more efficiently. Lawyers often tend to keep information close to their chests, something that can work against them when the pressure increases because the most common reaction is to withdraw further and work even harder. This makes overperformance a significant risk given lawyers' huge sense of responsibility, and it can break them apart.

Setting priorities
“As long as the volume of work remains within manageable limits, teams see no need to work together. But if the pressure intensifies and the work becomes more than a team can handle, it becomes necessary to prioritise. Taking on more staff isn't the answer, because, as well as creating a top-heavy organisation, you'll also be working far more inefficiently. Meanwhile, the pressure from outside continues to grow. And if your organisation hits the news, and a consumer rights programme is at the door, it’s legal that has to talk to them. At the bank where I’m currently working, I see that the stricter legislation and regulations emerging from The Hague and Brussels are adding more pressure. All these expectations are forcing legal teams to work more efficiently. Agile can provide the answer.

Working with regulatory authorities
“The answer lies in cooperation, sharing insights and knowledge and learning to make choices. Not everyone in a team has to know everything their colleagues know, but it is important that specific knowledge or tasks are transferable. And that you know how much work the team as a whole can get through and that, based on this, you make informed choices, such as when or not to go for an out-of-court settlement. Or which contracts pose a big risk and which a small one. By making this clear to everyone, you help the organisation as a whole. My experience is that you can also go to your clients and even the regulatory authorities and tell them that what they are asking for is unrealistic; that you can do these things within the specified timeframe, and the rest later. But you can only say this if you know exactly how much work you, as a team, can deliver.

Team spirit
“The ability to allocate work and to be transparent about how much work you can do and the results it delivers both require trust. In other words, team spirit, because you are in effect making yourself vulnerable. And not just regarding your own performance – lawyers also often need to overcome an ingrained reluctance to share specific knowledge. This is why agile requires a new mindset. The team really has to believe in it. This creates a team spirit in which the members dare to share and be transparent about what they can produce and deliver. And that, in turn, requires a different kind of leadership. It's no longer about judging the performance of the team or its individual members; it’s about making sure the work is transferable and clarifying what you as a team can manage. Actually, this is also true even if you aren’t working agilely. This gives lawyers much more pleasure and pride in their work, and for the first time they can clearly see how much they are doing. As a manager, you help them by setting priorities and then letting go. Support and trust the team in how they do it. This requires a different mindset from management.”

Biography Rik de Groot

  • Studied computer science and later organisational psychology

  • Worked as an ICT consultant in the 1990s and early 2000s

  • Joined Xebia in 2005 and was appointed Agile Organisation consultant shortly after

  • In 2013, published the Agile: pocketguide voor wendbare organisaties, an ‘evergreen’ on

  • Has coached the legal and other teams at Rabobank, ING, Florius and other organisations


Practice what you preach

Consultancy and ICT firm Xebia, where Rik de Groot works, is a textbook example of the agile mindset. Its approach and structure are characterised by entrepreneurship and autonomy. In line with the 'cell structure' management style devised by Eckart Wintzen (Eckart’s notes, 2007), units never exceed 50 or so people. And if a unit grows too big or a team identifies new opportunities, they can start a new unit as long as they have a convincing argument. Xebia's head office in Hilversum, the Netherlands, reflects this dynamic mindset: graffiti and comfy furniture encourage people to think widely.


Why legal is choosing to go agile

  • Peer review boosts the quality of your work. Where you’re stuck wrestling with an issue, your colleagues may immediately see a way to resolve it.
  • You broaden your knowledge – including outside the legal sphere – and benefit from new insights.
  • Your team makes clear choices about what to tackle, enabling you to work more effectively.
  • You improve your relationship with those around you by stating in advance what is and is not possible.
  • You and your team’s other members work at the same pace and rhythm.