Legal Law

Innovation as exploration: pointers for controlling the innovation course of

Many in our industry will agree that the pandemic is what sets this planning season apart from previous years. Looking ahead to 2021, many of the considerations companies have considered for 2020 – including trends in remote working, reaching out to clients and advisors, and providing employees with the right tools and solutions – will continue to break new ground into the next year. As our industry continues to experience seismic changes in legal practice, the need for innovation – using people, processes, and technology to do something better, faster, or more efficient – has never been more important.

Most Americans know the story of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the famous leaders of a navigation expedition across the North American continent. Shortly after purchasing it in Louisiana, Thomas Jefferson commissioned her work to find a way to trade in the expanding country.

When the Lewis and Clark expedition left St. Louis in 1804, the Pacific and west coasts of North America were considered "known" because Spanish explorers found their way through what is now Mexico and James Cook explored parts of the Pacific. Traders and trappers had outposts in areas like the Dakotas and several Indian nations populated the western part of the continent. The unknown factor – and what Lewis and Clark wanted to find out with the help of Sacagawea – was a reliable route for navigating east to west that was not innovative by discovery or invention, but in search of a better way to do that would pave the way for the future.

The story of Lewis and Clark offers some great lessons that we can all learn from when it comes to innovation. There are three.

Innovation schedules are not always predictable. If we were to plan a trip from St. Louis to Portland, Oregon today, we would have multiple options and routes to get there by air or on the ground. We could measure progress against our goal in distance or time.

It's not uncommon for executives to expect a roadmap before getting involved in a project – but innovation is often uncertain, and the expectation of safety where progress can be measured like mile markers on a highway is problematic. Innovation, almost by definition, requires discovery and trial and error. However, it can be helpful to map segments of a project in advance (possibly weeks or months) to keep track of progress.

Innovation can require different planning techniques. If we know that we cannot have any certainty before starting a project, how should leadership manage it?

In the case of Lewis and Clark, they learned from others who had recorded previous explorations. They prepared by building a keelboat for the voyage, recruiting men and supplies, and when they had to scale rough terrain, dispatching scouts to determine the best route. Eventually they crossed the watershed and streams began to flow west, connecting with other streams to form rivers.

What we can learn from this is that when using technology in a law firm, the leadership should set aside a budget for "discovery work" in order to understand the parameters of a project and the possibilities. A list of unknowns can be drawn up and assessed at risk. Alternatives can be “searched” for possible solutions. Once these steps have been taken into account, for example through a proof of concept, it is possible to use more traditional project management techniques to estimate project costs and deadlines.

Innovation is a process, not an event. Innovation projects usually involve risk factors – after all, if the outcome were certain, it wouldn't really be innovation. We may never have heard the story of Lewis and Clark if it hadn't been for the chance they had of meeting Sacagawea.

How many times have we heard statements like "We tried this once, but it didn't work"? The innovation process is about learning from previous attempts and trying again. Nobody wants to get involved in a big project and fail. A key to managing the process is creating small projects of a defined size, "failing quickly", and learning from the mistake to create the next set of small projects to move the process forward. If you think about it, the Lewis and Clark Expedition was a series of daily projects that determined how far the group should go before setting up camp for the night, or which route to take over a ridge. By structuring innovations into a series of smaller projects with some experimentation and a consideration of bugs, a company can be successful in the story of a wider journey and adventure.

Lawyers are under more pressure than ever to meet the increasing demands. By recognizing that innovation is not always linear and predictable, and managing it accordingly, we have the opportunity to find better ways to innovate. By realizing that innovation is a process that embodies previous failed attempts that can lead to new successes, companies can be ready to capitalize on the brave new frontiers of customer care in the world beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ken Crutchfield is Vice President and General Manager for Legal Markets at Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory USA, a leading provider of information, business intelligence, regulatory and legal workflow solutions. Ken has more than three decades of experience as a leading provider of information and software solutions in various industries. He can be reached at

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