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How we did it

How we did it

By Greg Tucker

Innovation Leadership 

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Maurice Blackburn CEO Greg Tucker shares his insights into the firm’s culture-centred improvement program.

With the overwhelming obligation to have an innovation program in each organisation, it is time to strip the subject bare and provide some insights from one who has been mired in it, overwhelmed at times and stunned into inaction. Happily I survived all of this to implement a bespoke program, culture centred, around broadly based ideas generation. This is our story.

Why did we do it? We knew we had progressive staff and as we grew we were not enabling them to provide us fully with their insights and ideas for us to continue to be in the bow wave of change and improvement – a necessary position. Further, as we continued to grow, now to more than 1000 people across 32 offices, our sheer scale seemed to be separating us further and further from being able to introduce innovation throughout the firm. There was too much on. So we needed to do something else – but what?

Staff are key

First of all and fundamentally, you need to have the right staff – those that are prepared for, and committed to, continuous improvement. This means a workforce of energised people who, for whatever reason, see it as part of their role to improve things. It is helpful to have a strong common culture, a purpose, but probably not essential. Without this commitment and energy the whole thing will be an expensive failure, and probably a slow one as no one will want to admit to it not working.

Research

You could die reading all of the books and articles on innovation; you start off avariciously devouring everything you can lay your eyes on only to discover many of them are unhelpful, making the same broad brush suggestions. We were looking for hard edged, practical advice and ended up with diagrams and platitudes.

Just when I began to think that my level of comprehension had seriously diminished, two things happened. First, I met someone who had actually embedded an innovation mindset and process in a large organisation successfully and this connection provided some very helpful direction on the literature to read. Second, we went to specialist innovation consultants to provide us with the way out of the maze we were in.

If you do nothing else you should read Ten Types of Innovation1 as it is practical and has a detailed approach that could work in any organisation, with appropriate adjustments. Do yourself a great service and read this early in your innovation journey.

Definition

Don’t try to define innovation yourself, keep it simple. This is a waste of time; either adopt the simple and elegant definition of an organisation like Inventium “change that adds value” or, more broadly, just talk about ideas and what problems are there to be solved, and use a platform that everyone understands to direct the type of ideas you are looking for.

Outside help

Beware of consultants and generalist approaches – your solution will need to be tailored to your firm. As many articles will have you believe, there is a common approach to innovation that is the framework for any organisation. I am not sure that is true other than at a process level. It was certainly not true for our firm. For example, our people have a low tolerance for consultants who speak in generalities and are unable to translate it into specific actions for the company. If the structure and process is going to lead to the gossamer of ideas generation then it had better take into account the culture and history of the organisation as a starting point. Sure, consultants can be employed to do this, however, if you are not fully involved and committed, you can distance the whole adoption of innovation from the people who need to ingest it and breathe it. Figure out how consultants can be best used to advance the plan you devise. They should not control it, you must. If they do, the result is not likely to be authentic.

Leadership

You need to be able to visualise how this could fit within your organisation and be complementary to what goes on day to day. Harness this and commit from the top of the organisation down. It needs commitment, not more support, from the leadership group including some budget and resources to provide momentum to trigger and advance the ideas generated. The budget must be used to get ideas off the ground or to test them quickly and not as a mere extension of, say, the IT or marketing budget.

Ideas need to be researched and tested and, where appropriate, have input from others – collaboration. Simply going on gut instinct is no longer enough; if an idea looks good then it merits proper research, refinement and then trialling. Many organisations appear to skip the research step.

A good innovation program is about action. Most organisations boast good ideas. Acting on those ideas, and acting fast, is the defining factor of innovation as distinct from navel-gazing. This necessarily involves an appetite for risk. Risks should always be assessed and assumed with knowledge of the potential consequences. But be sure also to compare the risks of an untried initiative with the risks of doing nothing at all. In any fast paced modern industry today, those risks may be very serious.

This also necessarily involves an appetite for imperfection. Running a pilot, or building a prototype, you’re not expected to get it right the first time. And that’s fine. That’s part of the learning experience. Nothing beats learning by doing.

So be prepared to try ideas and fail . . . quickly if necessary.

We have had our fair share of failures; indeed you need to. Not only do you need to acknowledge successes, you also need to celebrate the attitude that leads to the ideas and gives things a go, even if they may ultimately not succeed.

A point that seems like too much detail but is actually core is, how to approach teasing out ideas that are being suggested? While this seems like a good problem to have the manner in which this is handled has implications for the health of the innovation culture itself. Let’s say there is an idea that you think, intuitively, won’t work however you can’t just dismiss it. It may have momentum on the ideas register and been liked by other members of staff. What do you do? There are a number of temptations, however, the better response seems to be to tease out the issue with its promoter first to understand the background to the idea. If it has any merit at all, then the promoter can be asked to do further preliminary research to work through the idea. This is objective research not mere reinforcement of the idea, acknowledging that there is a confirmation bias in play. This feedback to the ideator sends an important message: change starts with each and every one of us. Each one of us, no matter our role in the organisation, can make a step towards progress. It may be only a small step.

This type of analysis needs to be part of the ideas culture. If the research requires time and some resources then this is part of the cost of the whole journey. Without this step there is no real way to bring the idea to maturity. Of course, the research might lead to another version of the idea, and this needs to be seen as a positive evolution, not that the starting idea was wrong. Without some form of structure for ideas they may be dismissed without the right approach or thought.

In terms of all important leadership, it is essential to clear the decks of cynicism about having ideas small and large. Remember it is the attitude we are promoting, not only successful ideas. One way of beginning this is a self-deprecatory approach – what do we do wrong? Ask all staff one Monday morning – what are the dumbest things we do? Then wait for the feedback. Once there is confidence that management is responding to this and taking the innovation program seriously then you can move the company towards shaping conversations about key areas for ideas generation or the big picture items that need resolution. These are often called missions in innovation land.

Structure

So you can’t do all of this without a structure – preferably a slim line one that suits your workplace. Essentially we found a senior member of staff who wished to lead this initiative, our ideas guru. We set up an ideas group with some heavy hitters from across the firm to oversee the process and the ideas. Finally we launched our ideas portal, which we called “Basecamp”, on our intranet. This was done with fanfare and an active communications plan. Within two months of launch we had more than 200 ideas entered by staff.

Another benefit of Basecamp portal is the record of ideas put forward. Sometimes the reason an idea doesn’t fly is that the time is not right. Being able to keep track of ideas can mean they can be considered again when the time is right.

This next phase of the structure is to determine a handful of key projects or areas for innovation and to then educate the leadership group in these areas and communicate this to staff more broadly.

The intention of all this work is to provide an ongoing fillip to the business and, at the same time, enhance staff engagement. It is a version of a continuous improvement culture. Should you require further convincing that you need to take this seriously, look way beyond the legal sector for how other industries have made inroads into non-traditional sectors with great success. Objectively lawyers have got windburn from expansionist accountants who are now trying again to make inroads into the legal sector, having already expanded into broadly-based consulting practices working across anti-money laundering, risk management, IT and security to becoming respected economic think tanks and research houses.

This is only one aspect of the attack on legal services. An easy way to conceive of this, and to unsettle yourself, is to work through the underlying assumptions of your practice areas and then reverse them and see how you view the world then. What is the level of revenue on your financial statements that is objectively at risk and what are you doing about it? The results might be unnerving, however it is better to know this now than to be overtaken in your sleep.

1. L Keeley, Ten Types of Innovation, Deloitte Development LLC, John Wiley & Sons, 2013.


Disclaimer: Views expressed by commentators are not necessarily endorsed by the Law Institute of Victoria Ltd (LIV). No responsibility is accepted by the LIV for the accuracy of information contained in the comments and the LIV expressly disclaims any liability for, with respect to or arising from any such views.

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