Thinking about new product development in law firms, the word innovation pops up. That market is one that’s getting more and more competitive, and law firms need to be different to succeed.
The problem (as I see it), is that for many firms, as innovation become increasingly important, firms will run up against the widely accepted wisdom that innovation requires you to be prepared to fail (“fail big and fail often is a maxim oft repeated in the business books).
Why is this a problem? Well, lawyers are trained from an early age not to fail; in a sense many professionals (not just lawyers) are. Use the word “negligence” and see them twitch. However, for lawyers I think the problem is more acute; much of their work involves negotiating, arguing and looking for weaknesses in another person’s case or argument, while protecting and defending their own position.
To come up with big new ideas, particularly “game changers”, businesses and people need to be prepared to see some fail. Aside from the fact that if people are not prepared (or allowed) to fail they are much less likely to try and innovate, there is often some great learning in failure, and if a law firm is not prepared to admit failure, it may miss some crucial learning.
I’m not saying all failure is good; far from it, people need to be accountable for their use of resources (particularly time in law firms), but a place where people are institutionally conditioned not to accept failure is very different. Different as well from a culture where people understand the risks of failure and may take some informed decisions on new products and other projects that may (whisper it) fail. Fear can be a powerful motivator, but it can also be an insidious inhibitor, and at the very least people and firms need to be aware of the role it is playing in their work lives.