“The leaders say: “Let’s be more innovative.” The staff says: “Bravo. When do we start?” The mid-level managers say: “Wait a minute, let’s think about that. What about… and …? Have you REALLY thought it through? Does this mean I have to change?” (Claude Legrand, co-author of ‘Innovative Intelligence – The art and practice of leading sustainable innovation in your organization).
Innovation. A much-misused word. A much-misunderstood word. A word that a friend of mine once described as the applause he received when (drunkenly) singing in a pub many years ago … think about it. But it is a very important word if what it is describing is actually innovative.
Almost inevitably it is a word that has been devalued by its routine hijacking by PR and marketing teams to describe even the most mundane software release as ‘AI’; which probably means the PR person previously worked in property where they learnt to describe that complete wreck of a house as ‘in need of a little modernisation. Last week I saw an ad for an apartment that said, ‘views towards the river’. I know the flat. It does have views ‘towards’ the river Thames. But there is a row of houses that prevent the potential occupants from seeing any part of the University Boat Race.
The phrase ‘views towards’ can be described as innovative use of words. But, apart from making me smile and despair in equal measure, it adds little to the sum of human development and it may be creative, but it is definitely not innovative.
Innovation is a mindset. It requires inquisitiveness, an ability to listen (particularly to customers), the connecting of dots, an unconscious embracing of change, bravery … But it also needs some grounded practical models to help people and organizations move forward. We found that a really crude, but helpful way to test ideas and think about innovation was to look at any initiatives that we were considering through a four-box lens:
To be really, really innovative an initiative should tick all four boxes, recognising that in relation to 3, ‘Other Industries/Trends’, it may be the simple transfer of an idea from another sector to an existing market (likely) rather than a global breakthrough that transcends sectors (unlikely). For example, outsourcing and managed services have been routine in IT, HR and Finance for decades, but it is only in the last few years that these models have started to become an acceptable norm in legal. The application of outsourcing/managed services is now changing the legal market, but it is hardly innovative and it probably tells us more about the legal market than it does about innovation that it has taken the legal 30 years to catch-up.
Using the table above, some of the key questions become:
- In what way is the initiative we are considering ‘innovative’ in the context of our organization?
- If it is innovative in our organizations terms, is it all also innovative when compared with what our industry competitors are doing?
- If it compares favourably with our competitors, how does it sit with other adjacent sectors/functions and wider themes? and the key question
- Does it solve real customer problems cost effectively and profitably?
There is a need to be really frank and candid when answering these questions. For example, the better management of email may be innovative for an organization, and it may increase efficiency and customer experience and should therefore be done, but it is unlikely to tick any of the other three boxes. It is routine and essential business model evolution not innovation.
A good example of an innovation that ticks all boxes is Kim Technologies. Kim was incubated by Riverview Law until its planned demerger in 2017. Kim is a no-code, configurable, cloud-first, Automation-as-a-Service ‘platform’, applicable to all functions and sectors. So why did Riverview Law acquire Kim in 2015? Kim is not ‘legal tech’.
It is not legal tech, but it can be applied to legal problems! Kim can be configured by individuals with no IT development or coding expertise to any work type, any workflow, utilizing any template, covering request management, self-service, case/matter allocation, case/matter management, case/matter tracking, document creation and automation, approvals management, live and trend dashboards, search, API integration …etc. Kim was a clear innovation by Riverview Law because it ticked all four boxes:
Of course, not all innovation requires technology. Too often we see organizations starting with some shiny technology and trying to find a problem to solve rather than starting with the problem and then working out what role, if any, technology plays in solving it. Innovation can be to do with the application of a totally different business model (e.g. building a company only using fixed pricing with all the consequences that flow from this approach), or the way you recruit, retain and measure team members (e.g. the move from inputs, to outputs to outcomes and what this means for the skillsets your organization requires). In both cases technology will play a key role in delivering this change but at their core these are cultural and operational innovations.
This brings me all the way back to the Claude Legrand quote. There are a lot of barriers and blockers to change, let alone innovation. In this context it is worth learning from other industries that MVP stands for ‘Minimum Viable Product’. Yet lawyers tend to define it as ‘Maximum Viable Product’; it needs to be 100% perfect before we will launch it. Lawyers need to accept that real innovation is messy and uncomfortable. A new model or technology rarely works really well first time. Mistakes will be made.
It is the mistakes, the pragmatic response to them, and sheer drive and determination that results in real and sustainable innovation.