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Law firms: is your innovation process working?

Law firms have been talking about innovation for years, but few have seen any true innovations emerge from their innovation process. Is the process the problem?

Rae Digby-Morgan

Service Design Specialist

In my last article, I discussed a series of areas that are holding the legal sector back from an innovation perspective. This time I want to focus on the innovation process itself — and why law firms often don’t achieve the meaningful impact on their firms that they should.

I’ve seen two common approaches to the innovation ‘process’ emerge in law.

The first, I’ll call ‘let a thousand flowers grow’: essentially, firms encourage everyone to generate ideas for new initiatives, and then wrap very little structure around them.

The greatest challenges to success here usually lie in the volume of ideas and the ability of the firm to progress the right ones (not just the most obvious or easily understood). Innovation teams can become stretched, loud voices tend to push their way to the front of the queue and it’s hard to drive towards a coherent strategy when the idea generation process is so open.

The second approach I’ll call ‘tablets of stone’ where a very rigid process is put in place and every new initiative is required to follow very specific — typically commercial — steps to have a chance of support and progress.

Here, innovation teams are usually required to drive the whole process, progress can be hindered by a lack of ideas (or willingness to suggest them) and a certain type of initiative is more likely to progress through the process.

So, what’s preventing success?

Across both approaches, I’ve seen a series of common factors constrain success. Here are just a few…

Legal, legal, legal.

I won’t labour the point about the narrow legal lens that is applied (I covered that in my last article) but it’s important to say that any innovation process with a narrow lens is unlikely to generate anything other than a narrow body of ideas.


People that don’t usually work with new concepts can become very wedded to an idea very quickly. Experienced practitioners become used to ditching exciting concepts and moving on when their flaws emerge. It’s important to be ruthlessly objective, and that can be really hard when this is your first foray or two into the innovation playground.

In the flowers model, people hang on to ideas for too long because they really want to be attached to something new and exciting. In the stone model, if they’ve got it through the early gate(s) they’ve already invested quite a lot in it and their reputation is on the line.

Sometimes this speaks to a lack of basic research technique — the ability to ask really open questions, for example — and at others it’s simply a lack of organisational rigour or strategy. More on that in a moment.

The wrong gates at the wrong time.

The first stages of innovation processes are often the reason they fail. Set too high a bar too early and some of the most progressive ideas will fall.

For example, one firm I know requires people with new ideas to make an investment request in front of a panel of the most senior leaders in the firm. It makes Dragon’s Den look like a cuddle from your mum. Horrifyingly intimidating, this process favours people who sell well and can quantify their idea early. That by definition leans towards ideas that are easier to put numbers against and those are very unlikely to be ideas that step far away from core business.

Unsurprisingly, I can’t name a single meaningful innovation that has yet surfaced from there, and there are probably dozens of great ideas living in people who know they won’t get them over the first hurdle. These are tablets of stone being used as weapons.

Spraying the hose.

Encouraging and empowering team-wide idea generation is essential in a modern organisation, but that doesn’t mean the process is meant to be random. Enable an open agenda and one of two things will happen: people will think too close to home or they’ll stray into thinking about things that may be exciting but bear no resemblance to where the firm is heading.

Innovation without structure just doesn’t work, and if there are no guiding principles or strategic frameworks in place the outcomes are simply too unpredictable. It is literally like spraying a hose of ideas and hoping something sticks. With no direction, any innovation process is likely to be nothing more than a vanity project, generating idea after idea that has little hope of progression. Eventually, those flowers simply stop growing.

Trying to be like startups.

Startups, for the most part, aren’t great businesses. They’re also terrible at having new ideas: the big idea they did have happened before they got off the ground. They’re the product of innovation not an engine of it.

Trying to use the language of startups, or instil the mindset of startups is a recipe for disaster. Today’s startups have the highest business failure rates in recorded history, and their success is measured by units of potential equity value instead profitable viability. They have no brand risk while they’re finding their feet or dying on them. Established companies do. They’re simply not the right parallel for innovation in any organisation that has something to lose as well as something to gain.

So how do you make it work?

The solution definitely lies in firms adopting a process, but a process built on broader foundations. The ultimate aim of any modern organisation is to develop an innovation habit, deeply embedded in its everyday behaviour — but that takes time, support and concerted commitment.

The starting point is to embed a base process that strikes a careful balance between method and madness; enough of each that more radical ideas are able to emerge alongside those more evolutionary, and where both can be progressed with enough rigour to ensure they’re good, and not so much that they’re killed off before their potential is really understood.

Ultimately, every firm’s approach (and indeed every organisation’s) should be highly individualised but we find that a few core characteristics underpin all of those that we help companies adopt. Here are a few.

Focus on potential, not proof.

Innovation needs gates, but if you set them high too early, nothing will progress. Equally, if you apply the wrong measures, the best ideas will fail. Our rule for the first gate is; does this have potential to help us achieve our vision and purpose?’, and the second; ‘is there customer appetite?’. The second is particularly important as it demands that you don’t ask for business plans or business cases. Instead, you ask for evidence that there is real-world customer appetite for something like you’re proposing. No appetite? Move on.

Process, not procedure.

Death by spreadsheet should be a recognised form of fatality. When innovation is governed and tracked via lines on a spreadsheet, it’s like pouring water on a fire. You don’t stimulate new behaviours by dragging people into systems little changed since Lotus 123 was all the rage.

Make things simple, open and as visual as possible. A whiteboard will help people to interact and think freely. A spreadsheet will make them feel like they’re preparing their tax return. This is a creative process and you need to manage it in new ways.

External input.

I know, I would say this, right? However, as in every other aspect of life an introspective view will only foster more introspection. In exactly the same way that others see your faults and qualities when you struggle to see them yourself, external experts come with a perspective that can open up new avenues and spot potential in things that you can’t see.

Equally, injecting expertise from outside provides fuel for thinking differently, so instead of asking someone to come and run another (yawn) ‘the-power-of-legal-service-design-like’ workshop, ask a psychologist to come and talk about cognitive bias, or a transformation director from a global manufacturer to discuss how to get people to leave old behaviours behind. You get the idea: broader inputs equals broader thinking.

Strategic guide rails.

The key to any successful innovation process lies in the strategic guidance it has to follow. Purpose, vision, principles, transformation statements, values… they sound like soft business characteristics when they are essential modern business tools. Without them, every innovation process will fail — because you’ll either have arbitrary, overly-numeric measures or none at all.

A set of core strategy assets is the ticket to the game in the age of digital business. Often wrapped up in Playbooks for the entire organisation to enjoy, a common understanding of these core strategic assets will empower people to have ideas and apply gentle controls to what they put forward.

Flight training.

Innovation is hard. Sustained innovation is incredibly hard. To build a robust innovation process in your firm will take time and an acceptance that you have to commit to it, and invest in it, for the long-term. It won’t happen overnight.

When I joined Wilson Fletcher after many years in the legal sector I was introduced to an approach to building the innovation habit that I think is perfect for law. It’s called flight training.

First, you need a plane: what we call creating those core strategic assets.

Then someone flies the plane for you to show you how it’s done and build your confidence that it can be done successfully. You might take a few flights before you’re confident that flying is a good thing and should start doing it yourself.

Next, you fly and there’s a co-pilot, actively contributing and ensuring that when you need help with some tricky weather or a problem you’ve not encountered before, there’s a steady, experienced hand there to help.

And finally, you’re doing all the flying and you just need ground support to occasionally keep you on course, teach you how to fly the latest model of aircraft or land in a new location.

Now apply that to your legal innovation process and consider where you are on that progression. My suspicion is that if you’re honest, many of you are flying half a plane with no support in some pretty stormy weather…


Rae Digby-Morgan

Rae Digby-Morgan is a service design specialist at Wilson Fletcher, a business innovation consultancy that helps established companies design the strategies, services and experiences needed to succeed in the digital economy.

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