One of the more interesting client assignments we have had involved a small practice group in a middle-sized firm on the West Coast.  The firm charged us to find out what was "wrong" with the group and "fix"it or, if it couldn’t be fixed, the firm was going to dump the whole group.

When we arrived at the firm to familiarize ourselves with the issue, the tension was palpable.  Clearly this group had made enemies of the firm leadership.  We were told that the group was unprofessional and disorganized, although, when pressed, not many specifics were forthcoming, only the general consensus of the rest of the firm that the group was not conducting their practice at the level of excellence that was the firm’s tradition.

The dissatisfaction with this group became even more puzzling when a review of the firm financials and interviews with group members and a few of their clients showed that the group was quite profitable, with new work pouring in regularly, their clients seemed generally pleased with the group’s representation, and the lawyers in the group expressed some of the highest satisfaction ratings with their practice of all the lawyers in the firm.

What exactly was going on here?

The entire firm took the Meyers Briggs Trait Indicator (MBTI), an assessment that measures four different personal style preferences.  The mystery was instantly solved! 

The fourth continuum that the MBTI measures covers work management, including time management.  One side of the continuum is what is considered the "business standard":  working in a methodical, incremental way over a specified time period in order to finalize on schedule a project (these people are called Judgers or Js).  About 65% of lawyers are on this side of the continuum, as are over 50% of the general public.  Nearly all of the lawyers in our client firm who were not in the suspect practice group were Js.

On the other side of the continuum are people who work in a very different fashion:  they often think about the project, going far afield or engaging others’ opinions, during most of the time period before the project is due. Then some time fairly close to the due date, these people hunker down, possibly pulling an all-nighter or two, until the project is finished, hopefully without any glitches that delay the delivery beyond its scheduled date. The people on this side of the continuum are called Perceivers or Ps and every one of the lawyers in our despised practice group was a P.

There are benefits to both workstyles. Ps often bring a fresh up-to-the-minute perspective from outside the usual resources. And Js can be counted on to be methodical and organized in their approach.  There are also weaknesses to both styles.  Ps may get so focused on thinking and research that they may not calibrate their slide into first base accurately and end up with a Chinese fire drill stretching over many days and even then concluding with a late delivery.  Js may be so consumed with finishing in an orderly fashion and on time that they fail to find and consider some of the stickier, more problematic issues that might slow them down, but may also be the crux of the assignment.

The real problem lies in the interaction between the types. The Js judge Ps as much by the unmeasured, erratic pace of their completion as by the quality of the final work product.  While Ps consider Js to be too narrow, regimented and possibly out-of-date in their approach.

Which roles the types play–who has the supervisory attorney role and who is the associate–also impacts how their respective behaviors are viewed.  Often supervising Js find their associate Ps to be "lazy" or "procrastinators" because in week one of a three week project they don’t have the 3 page outline the J would have had at that point.  The P associate finds the J supervisor unnecessarily meddlesome–the associate has promised that the work will get done on time and it will, in spite of the J’s rigid ideas about time management.

On the other hand, supervising attorneys who are Ps are often famous for running their teams late into the night before a deadline, which particularly the J associates resent because they would have time-managed the completion in such a way as to be simply putting on the finishing touches during the last few days and possibly enjoying a night at the theater. 

So that was the answer to our client’s dilemma.  Was this practice group unprofessional?  No, they were simply Ps being  judged by J notions of efficiency.  Within the group, the Ps were well adjusted to each other’s style and the clients were satisfied.  It was only when the Ps were working outside the group–working jointly on projects or sharing clients with other groups in the firm–that tensions rose.

Did behaviors have to change to solve the perceived problem?  Awareness produces a huge shift on its own–it is the original and most effective change management tool.  Once the Js realized how the Ps worked, and that they could do so successfully by their clients’ standards, there was an immediate improvement in inter-partner relations.

But some behaviors did change.  The J partners stopped goading the Ps at the outset of the project to produce evidence of its commencement. The P partners made sure they communicated to the Js at regular intervals that their projected delivery was on schedule, or they made clear as soon as possible if it was not, and when it would be delivered.

There were no doubt lingering doubts on both sides of the continuum as to whether they could work together happily, but at least they learned as a firm how to do so successfully.  And there is no question in our minds as to whether the clients benefited from having both types on their projects–they definitely did.