The trend of organisations looking to drive a culture of innovation isn’t new nor is it, in my humble opinion, rocket science. In fact, most organisations can expect to have an impact on business performance just by putting in place some form of process to capture and build on the ideas of their employees and partners.
In the past few years, I’ve seen an increasing number of more traditional verticals, such as the legal sector; make steps towards creating a culture of innovation, where often ideas may have been stifled by the traditional hierarchy.
I firmly believe that to create a culture of innovation it’s essential to give every employee the opportunity to take part, allowing them to feel they have a real role to play. If we take a step back for a second and consider, for example, the time, money and effort that goes into the recruitment process, it seems bizarre not to capitalise on the talent that firms invest so heavily in hiring. Firms invest heavily in the candidate selection process, putting them through rigorous testing and presentations (maybe even assault courses), all to ensure they hire the best they possibly can. Those that make the cut typically have a wealth of experience behind them, are a great cultural fit and, if you hit the trifecta, are driven to improve the way you do business. So why waste the opportunity to tap into the experience and knowledge of your carefully hand-picked workforce? They are, after all, those closest to your products, services and clients, making them best placed to see opportunities and solutions that otherwise might be missed. As Steve Jobs eloquently put it “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
By opening innovation to a whole firm there are of course, as with any new initiative, possible risks to consider. In the legal sector particularly, where a large proportion of staff are measured in billable hours (if not minutes), there is the age-old concern that people are ‘time poor’. To address this, firstly let me say that the process of innovating doesn't require everyone to dedicate endless hours to make it work. However, it is the organisation’s responsibility to provide ‘space’ for staff to share their ideas. People may have ideas that have been bouncing in their heads for a long time but have never been given the opportunity or facility to share them. Secondly, if you make the process for sharing ideas easy, transparent and, ideally, somewhat fun, people will make the time to contribute them - even the Partners.
Firms are often afraid no-one will engage in innovation and I understand why. However, the benefits of engaging perhaps just 25% of staff far outweigh not having listened to anyone. The reality is, if you give staff the opportunity to shape the way they work, the way the company offers it services, or even just the chance to see what ideas others have, they are more likely to contribute themselves and become more invested in innovation across the firm.
Right now, in the legal sector, there are a lot of exciting innovative technologies disrupting the market, promising to simplify and improve the efficiency and accessibility of services being delivered. With new advances in AI and machine learning, there is a huge amount that technology can offer. But it’s easy to get blinded by the lights and think that innovation is only about how to simply leverage these technologies. It has been great to see that law firms aren’t forgetting the fundamentals, and are asking their employees how they can improve operational efficiencies to serve their clients better for example. By asking their staff to solve the problems that matter to them, or to make them more productive (whilst at the same time making their lives easier), engagement will always be high.
Law firms are full of talented and driven individuals who, with the right encouragement (perhaps even ‘permission’), can dramatically change the way a firm works for the better. CMS is one example. Since its ground breaking three-way merger last year, CMS has been exploring ways in which it can be a truly future facing law firm, anticipating the needs of clients. Innovation is at the heart of that approach, so the firm is exploring ways in which it can make the most of the wealth of talent, knowledge and new ideas across its global team of over 7,500 people.
To maximise the potential, they are making innovation everyone’s responsibility, not just the people with innovation in their job titles! Their approach to achieving this is simple, but ambitious: they are ensuring that staff at all levels throughout the organisation are encouraged and supported to contribute. Also, by defining and rolling out what innovation means to CMS, they are giving people clarity, purpose and direction.
It’s an exciting time in the legal sector and for innovation and I look forward to seeing how firms continue to apply new technologies.
But let’s not forget the basics. Robots might be cool, but it’s the people in legal firms that are the real lifeblood of innovation.