Just Keep Swimming: Business Development Lessons from Finding Dory

Warning: There might be some spoilers ahead…but it’s for a Pixar movie, and they all follow the same basic story rules.

The key message in Finding Dory, Pixar’s sequel to the 2003 hit Finding Nemo, is a contrast between two approaches to life. On the one hand, careful cautious clownfish Marlon wants to rationally analyze every situation, think through the options, and make a calculated thoughtful decision about what to do next. For Dory, a blue tang fish with short term memory loss, the solution to every problem is to just keep swimming. Without giving too much away, the lessons in the movie are clearly biased towards the Dory approach.

As a consultant, I couldn’t believe we were teaching this to our children. Of course you need a plan! Of course you should rationally consider the different options! No, you can’t impulsively swim in any direction. But the more I thought of it, the more I realized that one of the biggest challenge my clients face is that they’re spending too much time thinking like a Marlon and not enough time swimming like a Dory. I’m increasingly convinced that action without a plan is more important than a plan without action.

When I work with law partners on business development, the most important thing isn’t helping them to define a brand, find new targets, or develop a marketing plan. It’s getting them out from behind their desks to start talking to clients and prospects, even if it’s just sending a few e-mails to people in their networks or meeting past clients for lunch. They’re busy with other work, paralyzed by fear of what can go wrong (a professional hazard among lawyers), or looking for some silver-bullet that will make business development easy. Their plans are high on thought and low on energy.

When I look at firms who are looking to launch new offerings, they rarely have a shortage of ideas, and most of the time there’s no single idea that’s strictly better than the others. But there’s always a shortage of execution. Uncertainty about doing things the right way holds them back, even when the questions they want answered aren’t things that research or analysis can tell you, they’re things you only find out when you put an idea in front of a client.

Wondering which direction is the right one can be paralyzing, especially when you see that your only path is risky (as is the case in the movie). A disciplined approach to think through the choice, or working with someone outside the firm, can help you clarify your decision making and align everyone around the right path forward. But ultimately, making the right decision is less important than making any decision. As Dory’s mantra goes, you need to just keep swimming.