The final assignment for one of my college theory courses was to write at least 32 bars of music for 4 voices, containing 3 key and 2 time signature changes, that demonstrated 6 of 10 special techniques that we’d been taught, all while adhering to the standard rules of 4-part harmony.  And rather than simply writing it out and turning it in, we had to perform it in front of the class.

We were given the final assignment halfway through the course to ensure that we had plenty of time to complete it.  The last week of class was entirely devoted to performing our assignments. Some people played their pieces on piano.  Some dragged string or brass quartets into class. My best friend did his as a barbershop quartet.

The performances were good – most of the class were talented musicians – but the compositions were mostly ‘exercise-like’.  I hate academic exercises. I did then and I do now. I need work to have purpose and meaning beyond simply ‘that’s the assignment’. So while most students stood up and said something like, “this is my final assignment, it was really hard, I’m not a composer, please be nice to me”, I took a very different approach. I went to the front of the class and said something like this…

Our reluctant hero, a young peasant Boy, is approaching the end of his quest. He and his travel companion, an aging Wizard who has mentored the boy throughout their journey, stand on a bluff overlooking a lush green valley.  At the opposite end of the valley is the gleaming city where the Boy’s quest will finally come to an end. The Boy, eager to complete his quest, struggles to contain his excitement, but the Wizard motions for the Boy to come sit by his side.  The Wizard sings…

At that point I sat down at the piano and played the four voices of the assignment, while singing the 5th voice of the Wizard that broke all of the rules.  The Wizard sang of how far the Boy had come since they’d met, how strong he’d become and how he was now prepared to complete the quest on his own. The key and time signature changed and the wizard explained that, sadly, he could not continue. He was old and dying and this quest was not his, it was the Boy’s alone to complete. The key changed again and I now sang as the Boy, protesting and cajoling the wizard to see the journey through to the end together. But by the time the Boy ended his song, the Wizard had died and the Boy was forced to finish the last part of his journey on his own.  (I was a big fan of The Power of Myth.)

Every student’s performance ended with polite applause, but the applause for my assignment was raucous and there were more than a few tears in the room.  The questions and comments following most performances were on the musical dorky side, “I’m curious why you chose to use the Picardy third at the end of the second section, before moving into another minor key”, but the questions for me were about the Boy and the Wizard and their quest.  Of course, I had no answers to those questions because I hadn’t written the whole story, but I had learned an important lesson.

Lesson from a Former Life #4:  Story is everything.

Even an academic exercise can be engaging and move people if it’s paired with the right story. This is a lesson I learned repeatedly over the years when I wrote musical theater. It was easy for me to get caught up in the minutiae of the music or lyrics, but invariably, if the show wasn’t working the primary fault was with the story.  Most people didn’t notice or care that I used a Picardy third, but if I used it correctly at the appropriate moment, they would remember that note for the rest of their lives because that was the moment that something dramatic or compelling happened in the story.

The same is true for legal innovation. (Whoa, stick with me here.) Innovation isn’t just about increasing efficiency or creating a solution to a problem. It’s about getting a lawyer, or practice group, or entire department or firm to change the way they currently work.  Having a great solution will rarely be sufficient to convince anyone to change anything, but having a great story to go along with the solution can get the most hardened skeptics to come on board.

It’s unlikely that your innovation change management story is going to be about a boy and his elderly wizard and the quest they go on together. I happened to know that there was a significant overlap between music geeks and sci-fi/fantasy nerds, so I picked a story that was appropriate to my audience.  And that’s the key to telling the right story, knowing your audience. Innovation experts tend to be data hounds. We are people that are analytical by nature and can happily review and learn from spreadsheets, charts, and graphs. We try to find the optimum way to visualize our data so that ‘non-data’ people can see what we see, but we often forget that most people are not moved by data at all, no matter how well visualized it may be.  Instead, we need to actively spend time thinking about our innovations and the audience we’re trying to sell them to. What does the audience care about besides practicing law? What metaphor or anecdote will move them to action? What concept or idea will resonate with them so that they leave our meeting and continue to think about the story we told and how our innovation will help?

Stories come into play at many points in the life of an innovation project.  You may need a good story to get stakeholders on board in the beginning. You may need a different story to convince management to pony up for new software.  And you will definitely need the right story to get people to adopt your new solution when the time comes. Don’t get lost in the minutiae of process and technology and forget that people need good stories in order to care about anything, especially legal technology innovation projects.  Periodically check in with your innovation team and ask, “What story are we going to tell here?”

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Photo of Ryan McClead Ryan McClead

Ryan is Principal at Sente Advisors, a legal technology consultancy specializing in cross-platform solutions and support.  He has been an evangelist, advocate, consultant, and creative thinker in Legal Technology for more than 15 years. In 2015, he was named a FastCase 50 recipient, and in 2018, he was elected a Fellow in the College of Law Practice Management. In past lives, he was an Innovation Architect, Knowledge Manager, a Systems Analyst, a Fashion Merchandiser, and Theater Composer, among other things.