I am very interested in innovation and how it relates to business practice. Recently I read an article called How Innovative is Your Firm, Really? from the Above and Beyond KM blog. While this is targeted at law firms, I see a lot of parallels with business in general. The 6 points outlined are a good way to judge the innovation at your firm or in your business. They are basic (as in anyone can understand them and relate to them), measurable and sensible.

Basic, measurable and sensible are 3 keys to success of any program. In this case, law firms have a better chance of succeeding with change if they think along these lines.

Purpose: “A clear, inspiring reason for the company to exist — beyond just making money.”  ‘ I think this is a difficult principle for law firms. I am not sure how many people have a burning desire to become lawyers for any other reason than making money. Those who want to help people and organizations go into public service and the money isn’t there. Higher ups in a law get to choose very worthwhile pro bono work, which is an added bonus. The law firm’s mission is a challenge. I think this point would probably be the hardest to formulate. I also think getting buy-in would be a challenge.

Experimentation: “Trying out new ideas and making evidence-based decisions about how to move forward.”   ‘ As a manager I always tried new tools and ideas to try and get the right mix of information out to people at the right time. Not every idea works, but failure (in the most positive sense of the word) is part of the process. The key is to encourage experimentation and also cut bait when something isn’t working. Stopping a trial is hard, especially when people have invested time and possibly money into a program. Rehashing the good and the bad so admin can learn from the trial is really important. It brings knowledge into the firm both about what works and doesn’t, but also about the culture of the firm, how long something takes to implement and other valuable lessons.

Vendors often need to be part of experimentation. They want the firm to buy a new product. I was keen to try new tools relevant to the practice. However, I found, over time, that the 30-day free trial wasn’t enough. We spent time with set up, or got a stripped down version. We had to manage logins or work could not be saved. Too much work for too little time. I was successful with some vendors in getting short term, relatively inexpensive contracts so we could try out the full version for 6 months. I often included clauses that allowed us to get out of the contract or get a full contract depending on how the trial went. It was win-win for us and the vendor. They got some money and potential for more. We got a better way to evaluate new tools.

Collaboration: “Working across business functions to approach opportunities and challenges from all angles.”  ‘ As you know, I am not a fan of silos. While this often comes out in content management projects, silos manifest in the form of departments as well. It is really important for the admin team to understand what each other does and how the departments can help each other. If there is no other reason, then a department manager can outsource something they are doing to an expert. IT can install software faster and more securely than a HR department team member. The library can set up news searches or find information about a potential client more efficiently than someone in finance who only logs on to Lexis once a month.  The same goes for partners who need extra tools or information. Collaboration also makes work more interesting and, dare I say, fun? People are social creatures, so collaborating can add a boost to morale.

Empowerment: “Providing a clear path to create change in all corners of the company by reducing unnecessary constraints.”   ‘ Empowerment in law firms is challenging. Management often wants to exert a level of control over everything that stifles creative ideas. Obviously, no firm wants everyone to go haring off in crazy directions, but providing a space for empowerment is a good breeding ground for ideas with potential. Be open to listening and hearing what even the most junior person has to say. I am sure even the mail department can provide insights into improving efficiency around shipping and receiving.

‘ Looking out: “Looking beyond the company’s walls to understand customers, technologies, and cultural shifts.”  ‘ Who is looking out? Is it the job of one person or department? Encourage everyone to look out and have a section on the Admin team meeting agenda where people bring things they saw or heard to the table. Ditto with the Management team. Allow people the space to give their opinion, both pro and con. This will also show management depths that employees have that they may not get to display in the normal course of their daily work. Actively discourage heckling or negativity regarding any ideas. Heckling and negativity will shift the power to those who do it and discourage others from participating. More importantly, management won’t get anything out of the exercise and the time will be wasted. This is an excellent case where “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” must be scrupulously enforced.

Refinement: “Elegantly bridging vision and execution.”  ‘ The proof is in the pudding. Ideas are great, but if you never bridge ideas into reality, then what is the point? Starting with smaller changes will give the firm experience on methodology and the effects of change. Also, the person with the idea may not be the best person to implement, but that person must still be part of the process. Evaluate your assets, especially in terms of people, and make temporary changes so that vision and execution are as smooth as possible.

I like to say that projects are iterative. Most organizations can’t get the perfect tool-program-policy perfect the first time. By putting something pretty great in place (putting up crap just to put something up can defeat the purpose of change) can get a new project rolling and inspire others to contribute to improving it.  With too many moving parts or too much change, programs will fail. By making small changes and working up to larger programs, the firm or business can make innovation a habit and part of the culture.

The article referenced comes about from Ideo and talks also about their “assessment and dashboard tool: Creative Difference.” I am interested in the general principles, so I haven’t, yet, reviewed Creative Difference, nor have I heard of any law firms using it. I am sure that law firms trying it out will be able to start to make the changes they need to make to avoid the coming law business crash.