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‘Minivations’: start small

“Minivation.” That’s what Bill Pentney, who runs Canada’s largest law firm, calls the first and most important step to innovation.

Pentney is the deputy attorney general and deputy minister of justice of Canada. He essentially runs a multi-service law department of about 4,800 staff including 2,800 lawyers who work in practically every area of the law and in almost all levels of court. Speaking at last month’s Canadian Corporate Counsel Association annual spring meeting in Toronto, the affable Pentney gave a lively and engaging presentation on what the Department of Justice is doing to innovate — a perfect fit with the question we’ve posed on our cover: What’s next? and with the essays from the great legal leaders who have contributed to this issue.

Pentney notes his department’s job is to “defend the decisions” of prior governments, this government, and of future governments — all of which “go to the core of our society.” But it’s not just a solid history but a “strong, adaptive justice system” that he sees as continuing to make Canada great as well as competitive on the global stage. “What made us great in the past won’t make us great in the future.”

The same old way of doing things wasn’t going to cut it in a world of budget cuts and other pressures, but likely on a much grander scale, that every law firm and law department are feeling. So what’s a deputy AG to do to change the perspective of such a massive team toward change when the day to day of what they do — serving the government, getting sued, etc. — isn’t changing.

Much like others in this industry, the DOJ started doing some benchmarking, project management, creating centres of expertise, building in-house document review systems, etc. There are lots of big-picture plans but they’re looking to also mine front-line staff’s knowledge and experience. “We are also going to turn to our staff to unleash innovation,” he said. And that means everyone including librarians, paralegals, lawyers, and anyone else who wants to get involved.

The unleashing led to more than 1,200 initial ideas for the Justice 2020 initiative, which got whittled down, and then whittled down further through a Dragon’s Den-type affair with Pentney and a few other senior staff open to being “sold” on the best ones. “We got remarkable ideas,” he noted, many of which were small and simple. But those minivations, which might only require a small investment, can sometimes provide big returns. And those small changes are what help “build a new set of muscles” that will power the department toward the future.

The Department of Justice is a big ship. It won’t turn on a dime. But Pentney is determined to make innovation part of the department’s DNA. And it starts, he said, by making sure front-line managers are able to enable and support that change by making/training them to be comfortable thinking and working outside their comfort zones.

Not every law firm or every department has the resources of the Department of Justice but if such a large and immovable object as the DOJ realizes it has to change to meet the future head-on, then any firm or department can do it. Pentney admitted they’ve had some “massive failures” and he anticipates more. But that’s what happens when you start doing and not just talking about change, he said. Don’t sweat the small things, focus on starting to change them and let those minivations be the gateway drug to bigger innovation in your organizations. The time is now.