“Innovation” is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot these days, right up there with “disruption.” It sounds like something that’s foreign in the legal industry, but it shouldn’t be. Believe it or not, we, too, can be innovative.

If you’ve been following along here for a while, you may know that I have a section of my bookshelf that’s dedicated to business books on my “to read” list – I love to read, but I’d rather pick up a mystery and plow through it than bury my nose into what feels like a textbook. But when I do, I’m more often than not pleasantly surprised by the inspiration that it affords me, and the comfort that it gives me in following some of my own plans and ideas moving forward. One such book is Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup (not new to many of you, I’m sure). I’m about halfway through this book that promises to show me how “today’s entrepreneurs use continuous innovation to create radically successful businesses.”

“But law firms aren’t startups and lawyers are entrepreneurs,” I can hear you saying.

What if we were? 

I’m not suggested that you radically overthrow your firm and open a disruptive, innovative law practice in your garage like a tech startup. But what if you took some of the principles of entrepreneurship, and especially those espoused in Ries’ book, and used them to thoughtfully and strategically innovate within your own firms?

His book got me thinking about three truths about innovating for radical success.

Truth One: We have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Ries focuses a lot on the idea of taking a product or service, at the barest minimum needed to test in the market, and sending it out there. That sounds TERRIFYING for an industry that is typically extremely conservative. But his reasoning for doing so is sound – before you invest the time, capital, energy, etc. in developing a fully functioning, fleshed out product  that you’re not sure the market will purchase, why not send it out there and see what the market will actually do? Then measure the results, see what people are saying and asking for, and continue refining and re-releasing.

The idea of doing this may make some of  you very itchy. I get that, completely. I’m a perfectionist myself. I want something beautiful and perfect to be packaged up beautifully and ready for market before I consider letting anyone know what I’m doing. But in a world of innovation, what if this isn’t the answer?

We don’t have to do this for everything. But in your pockets of innovation within the firm, try testing this out. Are you trying a new technology solution with clients? Don’t wait until it’s perfect to start working with some of them. Launch it (without all the huge fanfare and press releases) and get their feedback. See what features they want and need, what bugs need to be worked out, and work with your technology partners to adapt. Test it again, and continue to refine it. This helps you to learn what your clients actually want. Try this with other types of innovations too – it doesn’t have to be only technology. Think outside the box when it comes to being innovative.

It can seem tempting to want to conduct tons of market research to ask your clients what they want, or to ask your lawyers what they want. But as Ries points out regularly, many clients don’t actually know. Often, it’s their actions that tell us what works and what doesn’t, what they want or don’t want. We can *think* we know what’s best for them, but their actions will dictate what the market will bear.

So we have to get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable and start testing things before they’re perfect, and letting our clients, our lawyers, our staff help us to get them to that perfect stage. THAT’S what will make us truly innovative.

Truth Two: We don’t have to change everything, but we have to change something.

In a marketplace where there’s pressure to be “innovative,” we can feel like we have to make huge sweeping changes to keep up. And if we’re not prepared to make those changes, then we decide that we’re not going to innovate at all – there’s no middle ground.

You don’t have to change EVERYTHING (and in fact, you shouldn’t). But you should change SOMETHING.

To do this, empower those in your firm that have an innovative mindset to follow that spirit. Allow them to conduct market tests in the vein above in small areas (you may remember we’ve talked about this before). Be prepared for some things to fail – that’s where being comfortable with being uncomfortable comes in handy. Failure is great, because that’s how you learn. Of course, there are better kinds of failure than others, because you want to be planning and innovating strategically, so that when and if you fail, you’re learning and adapting based on that failure.

Ries talks about the difference between the “Just Do It”/Nike philosophy of entrepreneurship and his more thoughtful “Lean Startup” philosophy. Adopting the latter allows for more strategic decisions, planning, adapting, and pivots, and that’s where the radical success can and will happen.

Truth Three: Have faith in the end goal

Innovation is hard, scary, and it can be overwhelming. I would venture to say that it may be even more so for the legal industry, because it’s filled with people who are naturally risk-averse, who want predicted outcomes, and sure results.

But innovation is also necessary.

So to get through those uncertain moments, we need to have faith in a vision, in the end goal of what we’re trying to achieve. The idea here is not to innovate for innovation’s sake. Innovation is necessary, yes, but you’re not making changes to your firm because it sounds cool. The goals will be individual, but likely along the lines of driving efficiency, saving money, creating client value, showcasing a brand advantage, etc. Identify at the outset what your goal is for the project that you’re working on, and what you believe the outcome will be – flexibility is required, because the measurement and learning will often surprise you, but your overall hypothesis should remain. For example, if you believe that you can deliver your services in a more efficient, streamlined way, you may be surprised by exactly HOW you accomplish that, but THAT you can accomplish that will remain true. When you hold that vision in mind, it will keep you strong during the uncertain moments, when you’re not sure that you’re doing the right thing, asking the right questions, making the right moves.

We may not be natural innovators, as an industry. But looking directly at some of the ideas and barriers that are holding us back from change, and leaning into being uncomfortable can lead to truly great things.