At its core, innovation introduces something new into your current processes and offerings. This means that the pursuit of digital innovation requires changing how you operate and challenging certain known truths of your business. Without a clearly defined culture or the ability to articulate your vision for the firm, your innovation efforts will run aground.
How does an organization’s culture affect innovation? A July panel discussion at ALM’s Legalweek covered how to ensure successful tech innovation in an industry that’s slow to change. To overcome resistance and help everyone understand the goal, you need to accurately describe what will happen. By broadening the initiative beyond technology, you create a culture shift that supports scalable innovation and operational excellence.
Vision statements might seem corny—particularly when trying to craft them with professionals who spend most of their day focused on the letter of the law—but they serve as a lodestar for innovative decision-making. You need to be certain as to what your firm is and be able to point to it on a wall when it comes to changing processes or implementing new technology.
Why Culture Is Key
It’s not so much about having the right culture as it is about the fit. What works for one firm might not fly for another, so it’s important to tackle innovation in ways that match your specific culture.
A culture that emphasizes the importance of staff and a commitment to the growth of individuals is going to have an easier time embracing newer technologies, though. If a firm were considering implementing software for reviewing redline changes or adding in uniform citations via the Bluebook, it might anticipate some pushback from staff. It’s not that people love doing that work—it’s that those activities take up a fair amount of junior time (or at least billable time).
Meanwhile, a firm that has a committed culture dedicated to finding the best use of its staff will have an easier time weathering changes. Pushing technology from the top down just doesn’t work. Your team members need to know how tech innovation will affect them before you can secure buy-in and ensure a successful rollout.
How to Create a Culture Shift
An innovation mindset largely comes from broader decisions across the firm and modeled behaviors from leadership. It cannot be assigned as a task to employees—it’s cultivated through actions. After setting and communicating your vision, follow these three steps:
1. Encourage collaboration across teams.
It’s normal for teams to stick to their lanes and focus on what they do well. However, digital innovation needs to be a goal across the entire organization. Your firm’s leaders need to break the daily silos and encourage different functional roles, business units, and geographies to talk to one another. Ask questions like “What process prevents work from being done more efficiently?” and “Is there anything you wish you had more time for?”
A variety of groups will see the same problems from different angles, which pays off when ideating solutions. Practically speaking, team collaboration can be facilitated through bottom-up innovation by supporting and rewarding entrepreneurship as well as top-down initiatives such as nontechnical hackathons and companywide communications.
You don’t have to be a software company to deploy something like this. For instance, take Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer, which regularly uses hackathons across its communities to drive new pilots and collaborations. Or consider the group Legal Hackers, which attempts to bring down barriers in law. You could do something similar and schedule a brainstorm event on a Friday afternoon, or you could set aside days where departments can observe others they work closely with.
2. Promote thoughtful innovation experimentation.
One of the best ways to monitor your investment in capacity and team collaboration is to see actual innovation experimentation in action. But before you unleash everyone to spend several hours a week talking to different groups and pursuing potential technology initiatives, it’s best to build a framework.
Provide parameters for people to pursue your stated vision so they know how to measure their results. Early-stage indicators aren’t going to be the number of new technologies adopted or net revenue enabled. Instead, you should measure the number of experiments successfully run or the number of participants involved in multiple innovation experiments.
Odds are most of your firm is not trained on tech innovation or design processes, so you will need to either leverage staff who are, find external partners, or train from within. In reality, it will likely require a blend of all three approaches. Keep an eye out for individuals who aren’t discouraged by the gap between where the firm is and where it wants to be. These key players can help encourage a mindset shift that supports innovation and provides a foundation for the culture you need.
3. Showcase your successes (and failures).
It’s safe to say that most lawyers aren’t used to embracing failure. But firms that embrace an innovation culture will rapidly identify opportunities, pressure-test them, and then proudly display the results—regardless of whether they advance an idea or squash it outright. They broadcast the process, the teamwork, and the lessons learned so everyone can see what worked and then use that insight for the next idea.
To achieve this culture, communication and support need to come from the highest levels of the organization on a regular basis. You need to remove the fear of failing that is endemic in high-performing professions.
Andrea Fryrear, president and co-founder of AgileSherpas, recommends celebrating wins and talking through losses during scheduled retrospective meetings every three weeks. Any more time and team members might forget important details. You could also create a physical board or start a Slack channel to celebrate wins. Just be careful about publicly “calling out” losses or setbacks unless they are your own. The goal isn’t to shame your team; it’s to let them learn from failure.
None of these levers will change your firm’s unspoken rules and behaviors overnight, but focused and sustained commitment from firm leadership can shift you toward an innovation culture over time. In the end, your firm’s ability to take on tech innovation has less to do with its technical prowess than its ability to adapt and embrace change.
Alex Tapper is the head of innovation and services at Frogslayer.