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Creating disruption is good for everyone

|Written By Gail J. Cohen

NEW YORK — With the failing of one of Canada’s most storied law firms on the minds of the profession, the idea of disruption is not hard to picture.

Disruption is by definition ‘terrifying,’ says professor Luke Williams. (Photo: Gail J. Cohen)

A mercurial economy and the many ups and downs of the legal profession are changing the game but law firms, particularly Canadian ones, are not the most agile and responsive. But New York University Stern School of Business professor Luke Williams told an audience at Legal Tech today that this is the type of environment that forces disruptive innovation.

It’s already happening to some degree in the profession in other parts of the world. Not as much in Canada.

While not speaking specifically about the legal profession, Williams notes traditional innovation is akin more to becoming better at spotting and reacting to trends and change. But what’s really needed is a complete rethinking of the underlying aspects of those changes and trends – or the real disruption.

To succeed and flourish in a time when entire industries can rise and fall in five years, he says true innovators have to be leaders in disruptive change. Predicting change based on analysis of data from the past is not the road to massive change.

“It’s terrifying,” he notes. “By definition you don’t know what works.”

“You need to emphasize deliberate provocation,” says Williams. “Reframing and asking bold questions that no one else in your industry is asking.”

Most organizations, law firms included, focus on short-term behaviour — this needs to get done today, we have to finish this, I’m too busy to focus on anything past next week, etc. Change leaders need to come in and stop that kind of thinking or be able to work beyond it in order to create change strategies.

The first and most important step for innovators is what he calls “disruptive thinking.” It has to come long before there can be disruptive innovation. Here are his five steps for the disruptive thinking process:

1.    Craft a disruptive hypothesis

2.    Define a disruptive market opportunity

3.    Generate several disruptive ideas

4.    Shape a disruptive solution

5.    Make a disruptive pitch.

It requires a lot of imagination, he points out, but the heart of a successful disruption must also deliver value, or just make sense.

Lawyers, he notes, are trained to find problems and creative solutions, so are well situated despite a great reluctance to look at their own houses and get them in order.

His technique for getting into the process is to look at clichés — essentially the ways things have always been done — and which have a “massive hold on our thinking and innovation.” That mean focusing on why they have become clichés in the areas of interaction, product types, and pricing. Don’t be afraid to think of what you’re always trying to do in those areas and turn those ideas on their head.

So far, he says, the legal profession is not showing much movement, despite the complete change in the way consumers behave. This profession is barely reacting.

“We need to free ourselves from seeing things how they are right now,” he says, in order to see what they can be. That may mean touching on “unthinkable areas” by paying attention to what others aren’t thinking about.

•    What can you invert? Look at the usual things in a totally different way.

•    What can you deny? Critical ingredients that can be taken out.

•    What can you scale? Look at extremes.

Of course, the only way to find out if your disruptive hypotheses work is by testing and prototypes. You need lots of ideas to find one that works.

Most interestingly, Williams notes, the richest areas for innovation are often those that are not broken, but organizations need to build an instinct for change in order to get the process started.


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