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Empathise to innovate

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Empathy is key to building a firmwide culture of continuous innovation and collaboration, says Adam Billing. Fresh thinking from outside the legal sector will be needed to drive the next wave of growth in law firms.

One approach that a growing number of corporates are using to drive innovation is design thinking. This is a way of working that puts empathy at the centre of the innovation process, encourages cross-disciplinary collaboration and balances creativity with analytical rigour to ensure that great ideas don’t just get generated,  but are also successfully implemented.

In many law firms, innovation has taken the form of ad-hoc solutions created in response to specific client demands or regulatory changes. These ‘spot innovations’ have value, yet they often don’t have a significant impact on the firm as a whole.

Other firms have taken a more strategic, systemic approach to innovation. They are working hard to build genuine innovation cultures, where the process of identifying growth opportunities and quickly implementing solutions happens continuously as a fundamental part of the way the firm works. Today, most law firms are not yet set up to do this well, and examples of best practice in the sector are not easy to find.

Some forward-looking firms are beginning to search outside of the sector for new approaches to drive continuous innovation. While new to the legal sector, design thinking has helped to transform and invigorate some of the world’s most successful corporations today.

Design thinking

Design thinking is a human-centred approach to innovation used by some of the world’s most consistently innovative companies, including Google, Procter & Gamble and Apple.

It is human-centred because it starts with people and seeks to reveal meaningful insights into what they value and care about, in order to better understand how to innovate for them. It is fast paced, iterative and fiercely collaborative. It employs a wide creative and analytical toolset (including storytelling, visualisation, business modelling, rapid prototyping and structured experimentation) to develop solutions that create real value for the firm, its clients and its people.

It is not a cumbersome project management methodology, nor is it just blue-sky thinking. It is a practical approach to creative problem solving and innovation that helps organisations to:

  • identify emerging opportunities before competitors;
  • develop profitable new revenue streams;
  • implement internal and client-facing solutions that have bottom-line impact;
  • unlock the full potential of the firm’s diverse talent and teams; and
  • increase organisational agility and employee engagement.

The list of innovations that have been made as a result of design thinking is as long as it is diverse (see the box ‘Innovations inspired by design thinking’ for a few examples).

But, is design thinking a good fit for law firms? Let’s consider some of the methods and mindsets of design thinking that could enable law firms to drive growth and create sustainable competitive advantage.

Empathy is king

Design thinking, not unlike legal services, is all about people.

As David Maister noted, “above all, what I, the client, am looking for is that rare professional who has both technical skill and a sincere desire to be helpful, to work with both me and my problem. The key is empathy – the ability to enter my world and see it through my eyes.”

Empathy is also the key to making design thinking pay off. Opportunities for driving growth and competitive advantage are everywhere – the challenge is knowing where and how to look for them. Design thinking provides a framework for consistently identifying insights and systematically translating them into opportunities for the firm to create value.

The first step in any design-thinking approach is to assume a beginner’s mindset. Set aside any preconceptions about what the client needs or about the solutions that the firm can offer. The aim  of a client conversation shifts from ‘what are they asking for?’ to ‘what are they trying to achieve?’ The same applies to the way business functions like L&D and marketing serve their internal customers.

As Stephen Allen, director of service delivery and quality at DLA Piper notes, “to change anything requires us to make the complicated simple and the simple effective. This requires us to invest in understanding first what really matters to the client rather than jumping straight into ‘solutioneering’.”

Just relying on clients to tell you what they want isn’t likely to lead to innovation. This is a point well illustrated by Henry Ford, who famously said “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would  have said faster horses”.

By seeking to genuinely understand a person’s underlying priorities, pressures and aspirations, you can gain valuable insights into their unmet and unarticulated needs. This applies equally to clients and internal stakeholders, where achieving cost efficiencies within internal business functions and processes could be the focus of a team’s innovation efforts.

Solutions that arise from a design-thinking approach tend to be more innovative because they are inspired by insights discovered by interacting with other people. These interactions can help us to see the world through different eyes, reduce our reliance on assumptions and help us to mitigate personal biases.

These solutions also tend to have higher rates of acceptance. This is in part because the impetus for innovation is a real human need, not the fact that a new technology or capability is available. Starting the innovation process by understanding what is truly desirable – as opposed to what is technically feasible or financially viable (this comes later) – can help firms to focus their time and resources on the things that they know people will really value.

Creativity that delivers

Innovation is all about letting go of assumptions, venturing into the unknown and coming back with something new and valuable. This doesn’t come naturally for most people – and perhaps even less so in the legal profession, where quality work is defined by precision, certainty and the avoidance of risk.

Design thinking can give teams the confidence they need to stray from familiar paths, safe in the knowledge that they are following a structured process. It is simple and intuitive, and can be readily learned  and practiced. This enables everyone in the firm to play a role in the innovation process and helps to tap into the full creative potential of talent and teams within the firm.
Everyone in the firm becomes a ‘listening post’ for opportunities for innovation, both for client-facing and internal solutions that will save the firm time and money. And, when groups get together, they have a shared process and language for problem solving, allowing even the most diverse teams to collaborate more effectively.

Design thinking doesn’t create additional work for people or ask them to set aside extra time to innovate. Rather, it helps them to do their day-to-day work of serving clients and managing the firm in a more effective way. Teams spend less time talking and more time doing. They use creative techniques like empathy mapping, client personas and user journeys to better understand clients and work in short, fast iterations that help  projects to maintain momentum.

When brainstorming, groups are encouraged to think big, go for volume  and resist the temptation to dismiss ideas that don’t seem immediately feasible.  These often contain the inspiration for  more practical solutions that can be  refined later in the process.

Showing is preferable to just telling.  A team working on a business development strategy, for example, might be found on their feet contributing to a rough-sketch storyboard rather than simply sitting at  a meeting-room table.

While individual creativity is valued, the ability to let go of one’s own idea to support that of another is equally important. In design thinking, victories are shared and collaboration is essential.

The experience of corporates shows that incorporating these practices into everyday working not only results in improved outcomes, but can also have a powerful effect on employee engagement and talent retention.

Improved collaboration

Innovation is a team sport. It requires people to get their hands dirty, embrace ambiguity and learn that the best ideas often come from working with those who are different from themselves.

In design thinking, the more diverse the team, the better. Bringing together individuals from across practices areas, sectors and international offices can result in a wider, richer set of ideas. It reduces the tendency to do things the way they’ve always been done and draws on the combined knowledge and experience of the firm. The ideal team will also possess a mix of analytical and intuitive styles, as both are required at different stages of the process.

In many of the most innovative companies, employees now expect to be involved, even if only briefly, in the work being done by other teams. This is especially relevant to generation Y and millennial workers as they expect to collaborate and be constantly learning, and typically seek meaningful work where they can see their part in the bigger picture.

For law firms, there could be significant benefits from working in this way beyond the resulting innovation. Cross-firm collaboration helps to dissolve silos and increase awareness of the firm’s capabilities, risks and opportunities. There are fewer strangers in the virtual and physical corridors, making the firm a more personal, connected environment and establishing links that facilitate greater agility, cross selling and fee-earning potential.

Looking beyond the firm’s walls, some of the best new services and products can come from collaborating directly with clients. Involving clients in the early stages of service co-creation can provide an invaluable perspective into what really matters to them, resulting in solutions with greater buy-in and support as well as deeper and more enduring relationships.

Successful implementation

There is no shortage of great ideas in most law firms. Often, the challenge is seeing the best ideas through to successful implementation. Paradoxically, part of the solution lies in a firm’s approach to failure. The mantra ‘fail early and often to succeed sooner’, coined by IDEO founder David Kelley, is central to a design-thinking approach to innovation.

In most corporate and law firm cultures, there is a tendency for individuals and teams to work on an idea in relative isolation until they feel that it is ‘ready’ to present. Countless hours of meetings and discussion can go into a potential solution before it is shared with someone outside of the group. Over this time, individuals and teams risk becoming overly attached to these developed, yet untested ideas.

Design thinking recognises that no idea is born perfect and that often those closest to the idea are the least able to identify the flaws it might have. New ideas are immediately mocked up as rapid prototypes, shared and tested, allowing for teams to systematically root out and remedy hidden problems as early as possible.

Prototypes can be as simple as a rough sketch or storyboard and should be designed not to demonstrate the final product but to enable teams to test hidden assumptions and obtain valuable feedback early in the process.

Over an established timeline (typically measured in weeks as opposed to months), teams continue to experiment with ideas  in low-cost, low-risk ways, incorporating  the learning from each round of testing  in progressively more developed  prototype solutions.

Working in fast, focused iterations can help to keep good ideas alive, as well as to give teams the data they need to determine if other ideas should be shelved. It can also accelerate the idea-to-invoice cycle and improve the likelihood of the solution’s acceptance by internal and  external stakeholders.

Strategic growth

Design thinking has enabled some of the world’s most successful companies to continuously innovate, adapt and grow. It is not a silver bullet or a one-size-fits all solution. However, for those law firms willing to break from the status quo and pursue new routes to competitive advantage, design thinking could help  to unlock the next wave of growth as well as to build a culture of innovation, thus ensuring the firm’s sustained success.

As Mark Smith, a director at  LexisNexis, notes: “There is a lot of genuine innovation that can be  unlocked by learning from best practice in other industries and, because the legal profession is in many areas behind the curve, applying this learning to the delivery of legal services can unlock real value.”

As in any time of significant change and disruption, winners and losers in the legal services market will emerge over the coming years. Some firms will prove agile enough to anticipate risks and opportunities and respond to them before the competition, while others will cling to old models, ultimately proving unable to innovate and adapt. The time to take a more strategic approach to innovation is now – not after the storm of market disruption is upon us, but rather while the sun is still shining.

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