Being on the "Hamster Wheel" ....

and 7 other key blockers to in-house legal innovation.

Profile image of Bruce Macmillan

Bruce Macmillan on 12/10/17

I was privileged recently to be a last minute addition to a panel on in-house legal innovation featuring Lesley Wan, Kerry Philip, Rachael Davidson and Ingrid Cope.

These committed, thoughtful, continual macro and micro innovators (and enablers within their teams of innovation - Kerry's successful "own the moan" being a great example from the session) illustrate a key truth about in-house practice - as Lesley pointed out in opening the session - that the World around us is moving very fast and so, if we do not change then, in reality, we are going backwards.

Innovation can control "expectation inflation" of us and of our teams. So innovation is essential to our success and should be normalised into our own and our team behaviours.

And behaviours and culture are key - not just to enable the delivery of innovation but also to be the innovation as people's behaviour, processes, making new connections between departments etc. are often far more important as innovations than the technical change that we all instinctively think of as innovation.

Starting out is hard - so help, guidance, support and energy from peers and friends can make a big difference. It is no surprise that many of the best innovators are well networked and share a lot - after all innovation is rarely new in absolute terms it is simply new and an improvement where you are.

So being a "Magpie" of other lawyers' and other business departments' good & proven "shiny" ideas (and taking rather then repeating their learnings on what does not work) and using them to improve your own team's "nest" is a great thing to do. So copy (with credits please) with pride!


 L-R Bruce Macmillan, Kerry Phillip, Lesley Wan and Rachael Davidson.

I was asked to summarise the characteristics that I have seen that often preclude successful innovation - so here are 8 key blockers to innovation:

1: Being on the "Hamster Wheel" - getting incredibly busy, going ever faster, and getting nowhere. Innovation comes from making mental and diary space reliably, consistently and come what may to step back from the instant, to look at the bigger picture and how you and your team can play an ever better part in that picture and then doing something with this insight!

Needless to say the "Hamster Wheel" is also a key factor in failing to develop and manage: your team, your career, your relationships with your management and the wider business and with your peer network.

2: Being a "paper shredder" in the way that we all use them - you cram ever more paper in, ever harder, ever more impatiently without thinking about if it really needs to go in now or at all, whether it is flat, straight to the blades, in the recommended volume and free of other things like staples - i.e. that it has been properly prepared before we submit it to the shredder - to give the shredder half a chance. Unsurprisingly it gets less and less effective and then breaks - and we blame it! 

If that sounds remotely like how you and your team ingest documents and instructions (and, if we are honest, for many departments it will) then your first innovation challenge is go get control of your workload intake before your clients, who you are allowing to shove the instructions into your team in this way, break you and blame your team for it.

3: Failing to conquer "imposter syndrome" we have two very good articles on this – (1) how to recognise it and (2) how to manage it so I won't talk at length about it here but it is common in in-house law. 

"I have been very lucky to get here. I don't deserve it. I don’t really know what I am doing. I will be found out any minute! So I will work really hard and try to please clients with speed and volume not quality and value add" (because speed and volume are easy to measure and don't give away that you feel that you will be found out if you start trying to explain your value add). 

This is also why you don't document, empower, delegate, process map, have a clear and confident sense of what you are there to achieve and insight into when you are achieving it and how you can demonstrate this. So innovation is unlikely to start any time soon. 

If you have it in yourself (and many people do to varying levels and at differing times) and/or in your team then it is very tough but you do need to do what you can to manage it for your own sake, for your team's sake and for your employer's sake.

4: "What's my purpose?" Personally? As a team? As a function in the business? If you don't know why you are there or what competent and good delivery looks like - then its hard to improve! 

Again if you are unclear about this then please look at our knowledge section - your team, where we have given quite a few suggestions written for GC by GC about being a GC (so you can trust that they are written from the perspective of and with the experience of being where you are).

5: eliminating risk and, as a result, never learning how to prioritise the urgent and the important. Innovation is about changing the status quo - this always means some risk in trying to innovate and a change in the risk balance when you succeed. 

However this is normally trading off one risk for another: e.g. 

 - a sloppy, tired, out of date on legal and business knowledge lawyer who might not actually have got to the work in time anyway 
 - an up to date, current, error free intranet tool that is instantly available but which might not always have the answer the client needs in the language that they understand?

  Not necessarily an easy decision – but the latter is probably cheaper and more client friendly and this could be the tipping point in the decision. 

6: not understanding that a successful pilot often proves that the thing piloted will not work, and not celebrating this and not learning from it. If you confuse a successful pilot with the idea that the thing that is being piloted will always be a success then you are unlikely to try anything really innovative or different.

7: Your first drafting was probably small amends to an NDA not a clean sheet draft of a set of acquisition documents! 

The same is true of innovation - be patient, learn, cut your teeth on small innovations and then progressively grow the frequency and size of what you do.

In other words don't try to bite off more than you can chew as it will make you look and feel foolish and will discourage you and others from trying to innovate and from helping your team to innovate. You could call this "innovation indigestion"!

8: Finally: WIIIFTITL not WIIIFMIM! No change is affected only by one person. Your team, your peers, your clients are all stakeholders in what you do, in making it a success and in celebrating that success. But their primary driver, very fairly, is What Is In It For Them (expressed) In Their Language (“WIIIFTITL”)? 

After all why should they care What Is In It For Me In Mine (“WIIIFMIM”)? 

Obviously we need to know the latter and many stakeholders will care about your motives too - even if only to be sure that you do not have other ulterior motives! So map out your stakeholders and work out the right messaging for them before you try something!

So to be a good innovator and control “expectation inflation”: be a sociable “Magpie”; avoiding “Hamster Wheels” and “Paper Shredders”; managing the inner “Imposter” that most of us and our teams have to some degree some or all of the time; so that you can find your Purpose; manage risk and prioritise work and objectives accordingly – which will help you to celebrate and learn from pilots that fail and to avoid “innovation indigestion”. Finally remember WIIIFTITL!

Photos courtesy of Centaur Media.
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