Lawyers are struggling to embrace change and this is impeding innovation. Even for those who want to change, most efforts fail to deliver. How can we put in so much effort for so little gain? Maybe it’s because we’re not identifying the right problems to solve.
A survey of C-Suite executives found that 85% were bad at problem diagnosis. Lawyers are no exception. Surprisingly, our “issue-spotting” expertise isn’t helping us. To meaningfully address the problems within law, we’ll need some additional help.
It’s time for a new perspective and to explore the innovation-collaboration connection.
Are We “Fixing” The Wrong Problems?
It’s difficult for anyone to accurately identify problems “from within.” As insiders, we’re entrenched in our way of thinking and doing things. As our expertise grows, so do our blind spots. We’re trying mightily, but rarely accomplishing anything new. And we’re losing hope that we’ll ever make the right changes to adapt to the future.
According to Altman Weil’s 2018 Law Firms in Transition survey, only 5.6% of law firm leaders are confident their firms are prepared to meet today’s challenges. But, do we as attorneys even know what these challenges are? If we want to uncover and answer the right questions, we’d be wise to seek out collaboration with “outsiders” who can convince us to change our thinking.
Together, we can then identify the right challenges and make the right changes for the future.
Working With The Right “Outsiders”
To embrace change, we must be part of it. But, not 100%.
We need insiders to provide knowledge and make change happen, but also outsiders to challenge the perspectives and assumptions of the insiders. Collaborating with people we trust – who know us, speak our language, know how we work and succeed when we succeed – may be the key. But, our collaborators must also think differently enough from us to generate the productive friction required for true innovation.
Who else speaks our language, knows our work, and succeeds when we succeed? To start, the other non-legal professionals within our firms. So, when having your initial law firm innovation discussions, invite administrative professionals, IT support staff, paralegals, analysts, junior associates, etc. to join your teams. The less indoctrinated, the better! These professionals are your ideal, low-risk group to collaborate with. They have similar interests, but different experiences, enabling you to reframe old problems and generate new solutions.
This is the true value of collaboration.
Collaboration Done Right
We now understand that we need both insiders and outsiders to optimize collaboration. But, what exactly is collaboration, and how do we get it right? To start, collaboration is the act of working with others to jointly achieve a desired outcome. Benefits include:
- Obtaining broader perspectives to identify and solve better problems;
- Uncovering hidden assumptions to ask better questions and more accurately identify what to tackle;
- Drawing from a diversified and interdisciplinary talent base to generate superior ideas;
- Increasing loyalty and office morale as stakeholders feel more invested in their firms;
- Achievement of true innovation and breakthrough results.
Think carefully about your team. If you plan and seed your group to maximize differences, while drawing upon shared connections, you may be able to take a hands-off approach. Unrestricted work between collaborators also leads to better results. Comparatively, a loose approach to planning a collaboration team will lead to constriction and the stifling of innovation.
Building Your Innovation-Collaboration Team
You’ve decided it’s time to develop a collaborative problem solving team at your firm to think differently and unleash innovation. Here a few additional things to keep in mind as you go:
- Different is good. You want people on your team who are different, but with some shared interests. If they’re at your firm, they’re probably smart, so now look for different.
- Embrace diverse thinking and experience. Staff your team with people from different socio-economic backgrounds. Seek people with varied pre-law and non-law work experience. Invite those who are deeply involved in non-law organizations and hobbies.
- Seed the team with “boundary-spanners” who can communicate with people unlike themselves. They serve as cultural translators, connectors, and social lubricators, which builds trust and cohesion.
- Resist positive-only brainstorming and seek friction. Every person must be freely able to challenge underlying assumptions and values. This freedom and friction forces explicitly defining words and issues.
- Question everything. To get better answers, ask better questions. Try reframing the problem. Don’t just dig into the details of the stated problem, look at what may have been left out.
- Analyze the positive results, too. Consider instances of where the problem did not occur. This will uncover blind spots.
A Caveat, Some Sameness Is Necessary
We have just discussed how to build a better collaborative team to solve better problems. Now, a word of caution: difference is only good if there is a way to find connections (i.e., some “sameness”) between the different elements of the team.
Do not overlook this. There is an inverse relationship between the value of a team’s innovations and the similarity of team’s members. Wildly different teams have incredible breakthroughs—but also potentially higher rates of major failure. With no shared connection between collaborative teams, you may increase the risk that everything will fail.
So, get the full value of collaboration. Staff your team with people of related experiences and interests, yet different perspectives.
We’ve been trying to solve problems at modern law firms for 10 years with tons of effort and little success. Building better collaboration teams is one way we can properly identify our firm’s unique challenges. Collaborating and listening to others in this way will reveal the future of innovation and change law firms for the better.
About the Author
Ivy B. Grey is the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2020, Ivy was recognized as an Influential Woman in Legal Tech by ILTA. She has also been recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.