The following is the final part of a 4 part post expanding on my short introduction to an ILTA session entitled, Do Robot Lawyers Dream of Billable Seconds? If you have not yet listened to the full session (and you have nothing better to do for the next 90 minutes), you should go listen to it now. If you would like to download and read the entire 4-part post you can get it here.



What does an Exponential Law Firm that can survive in this type of environment look like?

I would be lying if I said I knew for sure, but I think we can look to a number of trends and begin to get a fuzzy picture of the future.

More Legal Processing will be passed off to computers

We like to pretend that everything we do is custom tailored for every client, but it is simply not true. We are already past the point where we need to improve efficiency in order to provide a better price to our clients. In the near future, we will need to improve efficiency in order to make a profit. That means we will need an honest assessment of the work that can be automated, or performed by algorithm, and the work that will require custom analysis by specialized attorneys. Then we will begin pricing that work accordingly.

The rise of the Legal Processing Engines

This obviously goes hand in hand with the above, but one of the implications of this change is that the output of biological legal processing units (most attorneys) will shift from customized legal work, to engine building and maintenance. The focus of many firm attorneys will no longer be on individual clients, but on entire types of matters at once. Attorneys will no longer slave over a single contract, but over the engine that builds that type of contract.

Engines will manage as much work as they can and spit out any unique or unusual work to be reviewed by senior attorneys. That “unique” work will be analyzed and evaluated to determine whether it can or should be incorporated into the engine for future use. Over time the engines will do more and more complex work.

The rise of the Legal Engineer

Inherent in the rise of the Legal Engine is the role of Legal Engineer. We are already seeing this role pop up at many firms. These are people with legal training and technology “know how”. They are equally comfortable analyzing contracts and programming new applications. There are very few people who fit this role today in big law firms, but firms who want to survive post disruption will hire these people by the truckload. The engineers will be responsible for creating and maintaining the firm’s engines. As laws change, or interpretations change, the engineer will modify the engine appropriately.

Machine Readable Documents

Once we are using engines to process legal matters anyway, it will make sense to just go all the way and make all legal documents machine readable. Gone are the fuzzy shades in meaning between contains and includes, or the differences between shall and must, to be replaced by the definitive ⊇ and =.

Proactive Practice of Law

In this world, firms will stop being reactive. The idea of waiting for a client to approach the firm before working on a matter will be unthinkable. Legal engineers will build engines based on legislation and firm sales associates (or Partners) will pitch those engines to potential clients.

Is this Science Fiction?

Simply put: computers process information more consistently, accurately, and faster than people do. They are networkable, scalable, and manageable in large numbers by relatively few administrators. If I am right in my assessment that what we actually sell to clients is Legal Processing, then no, this is not science fiction. In order to compete in an exponentially changing industry, we will have to move the bulk of our processing from biological to digital processing units.

If Diamandis’ exponential framework is correct, then we are approaching a digital disruption that will fundamentally change our industry forever. The players will change. New firms will quickly morph from newcomers into industry leaders. Many of the old guard will fail to change and will subsequently fail entirely. And a few will probably stick around, doing things much as they always have for a very select, demanding, and equally slow to change clientele. At least until those clients also get disrupted.

Whether or not I am right about what we sell, or that the framework directly applies to the legal industry, is almost irrelevant. The 6 Ds Framework provides a useful model for imagining the kinds of changes that could take place in our industry, based on the kinds of technological changes that have already upended other industries.

The only thing of which I am absolutely positive is that both lawyers and IT personnel, as a general rule, do not think much beyond the next immediate hurdle. They approach the world linearly, solving problems as they arise, and planning for a steady progression of linear events. But if we are already on a path of exponential change, then our standard linear approach to managing firms will be our demise. A purely linear response to an exponential threat is the equivalent of no response at all.  

The following is the 3rd part of a 4 part post expanding on my short introduction to an ILTA session entitled, Do Robot Lawyers Dream of Billable Seconds? If you have not yet listened to the full session (and you have nothing better to do for the next 90 minutes), you should go listen to it now. If you would like to download and read the entire 4-part post you can get it here.


What does this mean for legal service delivery?

The examples above are not directly comparable to the
legal services we provide. I deliberately did that to illustrate the 6 Ds
concept before completely confusing the issue by describing how it applies to
our industry. As it is, I’m sure more than a few of you have read the examples
above screaming, “Yes, but that has nothing to do with us! What the hell are
you talking about?”

I am more than willing to concede that I may be wrong
about the legal industry passing a threshold of digitization in any way similar
to the entertainment industries or physical goods manufacturers. Or, that
Diamandis may be wrong about industries passing that threshold and then
necessarily conforming to his exponential framework. But for the sake of
argument, let’s say that Peter and I are not wrong. We are definitely passing a
threshold, an industry wide digital disruption will eventually take place, and
we will begin to conform to the exponential framework just as others have. That
begs the question, what does a dematerialized, demonetized, and democratized
legal services industry look like, and how could a law firm survive in it?

The Dematerialized Practice of Law

It’s likely that the first complaint against applying the
6 Ds framework to the practice of law will be that we are not a material
industry, and that we therefore have a distinct advantage over manufacturers or
sellers of things. We don’t produce material goods, unless you count mountains
of documents, and even if we become entirely paperless there will be no change
in our service.

That might be true, but let’s think about a service
provider who has already gone through this digital threshold: travel agents.
Travel agents still exist of course, although in nothing like the numbers they
did 20 years ago. They provided a service, with almost no material aspect and
yet they were one of the first industries to be decimated by the rise of the
internet. It turns out most people were happy to book travel themselves as long
as it was easy and inexpensive. How many people or companies would gladly
handle their own legal services if they had access to resources and knowledge,
for a low price, and they didn’t actually have to deal with a real live
attorney?  If such a thing were possible,
how many attorneys could the industry continue to support?

The Demonetized Practice of Law

We have seen downward pressure on legal prices since the
downturn of 2007.  That has mostly come
in the form of clients demanding discounts on hourly rates or fixed fee
arrangements. But suppose clients, even large corporate clients, had a new option:
they could pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to a firm sponsored set of
expertise engines that handled much of their routine legal needs. They could
pay month to month for this a la carte service, or they could sign a 2 year
contract which also entitled them to steeply discounted hourly rates for legal
services not covered by the engines. Setting aside for the moment, whether such
a thing is possible, or more to the point, whether the bar associations would
allow it, what would that do to legal service prices?

The Democratized Practice of Law

This is the good news, if the prices of legal services
decline precipitously and the delivery of legal services becomes much more
widely available, then the pool of potential clients will be significantly
larger than today’s client pool. Smaller companies and individuals who
currently choose to do without external legal counsel and instead turn to
LegalZoom or other form providers, could suddenly be approaching big firms to
handle their legal needs.

Some of you are thinking, “But that’s not the kind of law
we practice, we do big law for big corporations.” To which I will respond, look
around you. The era of the big corporation is ending. The average lifespan
of a company
on the S&P 500 has fallen from 60+ years in 1960 to just
over 15 years today. There will probably always be some big corporations, but I
don’t think they will be the norm.

Relatively small companies like AirBnb (600 employees) and
Uber (~1,000 employees) are taking on much larger and more traditional service
providers, and they are having success. AirBnb and Uber are valued at $10Bn and
$15Bn, respectively. These are new types of companies that grow quickly, by
connecting people who have services to offer to those who need them, and taking
a percentage. This is relevant to us on two fronts: 1) If given the choice of
monthly subscription fees for access to legal engines or more traditional legal
services, which do you think these startups would choose? AND, 2) How long
before the law firm equivalent of AirBnb or Uber start selling them these
services?

(Tomorrow: What does an Exponential Law Firm that can survive in this type of environment look like?)

The following is the second part of a 4 part post that expands upon a short introduction I gave to an ILTA session entitled, Do Robot Lawyers Dream of Billable Seconds? If you have not yet listened to the full session (and you have nothing better to do for the next 90 minutes), you should go listen to it now. If you would like to download and read the entire 4-part post you can get it here.


The 6 Ds: An Exponential Framework

Image from Peter Diamandis’ presentation to ILTA.

On the first day of this year’s ILTA conference, I attended the keynote session presented by Peter Diamandis. Diamandis is the founder of the X-Prize and Singularity University. In corporate-speak, Diamandis is not just an “outside the box” thinker, he tore the box apart, set the pieces on fire, and urinated on the flames. I watched his speech in rapt attention, increasingly fired up by what he was saying. I imagined the headlines that would appear in the news the following day, “Angry Nerds burn down Gaylord Opryland Hotel!” or, “Diamandis Sparks Legal Geek Riot”. But strangely, at the end of his talk he received polite smattering of applause and the assembled nerds quietly stood and shuffled out of the ballroom toward the first coffee break of the day.

It was clear that not everyone heard what I heard. Because I heard Diamandis say, “Most of your firms will not exist in a few years. Much of this conference is a waste of time. You should all go find new jobs.” Of course, he didn’t put it that bluntly, but if you pull his remarks together and add up all the pieces, I think that was the underlying message.

One slide in particular had a profound effect on me. So much so that I scrapped the introduction I had written for my session later in the week and instead talked about this one concept: The 6 Ds.

Diamandis calls the 6 Ds an Exponential Framework. I struggled with that name for a long time, but I couldn’t come up with a better one either. It’s not a process; the Ds don’t necessary happen sequentially. It’s not a workflow, or an organizing principle. Model, pattern, and path don’t quite fit either. It’s just a framework that industries begin to take on once they cross the threshold of the first D.

Digitization

Perhaps you can begin to see why I needed such a lengthy preamble to this post. We have already crossed, or we are at the very least currently crossing, the digitization threshold in the practice of law. Diamandis’ framework suggests that crossing that threshold has entirely foreseeable consequences and that if we want our firms to survive, we must prepare them to exist in a completely different industry than the analog one we have lived in to this point.

The premise is that digitizing a product or a service throws an entire industry onto the Moore’s law bandwagon. Change within that industry immediately becomes exponential as processing power doubles and prices halve every 18 months.

I will cover each of these in turn, but the remaining 5 Ds that follow from this initial act of Digitization are:

  • Deceptive (initial change)
  • Disruption
  • Dematerialization
  • Demonetization
  • Democratization

Deceptive

This D is tough because it is the only one that describes a state of being rather than an action or direct change. The idea is that even though change immediately begins to happen exponentially, it still appears to be slow or even non-existent. This mis-perception is a product of our human inability to intuit exponential change. In real terms, even exponential growth appears static at very small levels. For example, without a high powered microscope, you would have a difficult time recognizing the initial exponential growth of bacteria in a petri dish. One cell becomes two, two become four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on.  For a long period of time, you would swear nothing is happening at all, and then BAM! an obvious explosion of growth. The rate of growth in that example is constant, but our perception of it is that it happened all at once; out of the blue.

Arguably, this is where we currently are in the legal industry. We are digitizing our practice and we have begun the process of exponential change, but that change is still small and very hard to see.

Disruption

Disruption is the elbow in the graph; the point at which change goes from near horizontal to near vertical over a very short period of time. That’s the point at which it becomes impossible for anyone to seriously argue that a significant and industry altering change has not occurred. The horizontal underline that turns into the letter L in the word “exponential” on the image above was created in Excel. It is an actual graph of steady exponential growth. You can see conceptually how deceptively small change can sneak up on an industry and give way to massively large disruption.

Diamandis argues that we have seen many industries crossing the digital threshold and that they all begin to follow this same framework. The last 3 Ds represent the post-disruption world.  They don’t necessarily happen in any particular order; they are more like directions that a digitally disrupted industry begins to head.

Dematerialization

Once a product or service is digitized, the materials (physical goods and associated services) begin to disappear. Kodak learned this the hard way when most people decided that the crappy digital camera attached to their phone was good enough. They stopped carrying dedicated cameras, and buying and processing film. Sales of physical books are down since the Kindle debuted. Who buys CDs or DVDs anymore? Physical media is wasteful, and expensive, and unnecessary. Just enumerating the physical goods that have been supplanted by the “phone” in your pocket would take pages.

Demonetization

Disrupted industries have seen the total amount of money that customers are willing to spend for non-material goods decrease significantly post-disruption. That is not to say that there is no money to be made, simply that the players who survive are often fighting over a smaller pool of available revenue or they have to grow significantly in volume to make up for the decrease in per unit cost. For example, digital music and movie downloads can no longer command the same premium prices that CDs and DVDs once did. Entire secondary industries based on distribution of physical media have dried up. Virgin Mega Stores and Blockbuster Video, once multibillion dollar juggernauts have disappeared and been replaced by digital distributors, like Spotify and Netflix, selling monthly unlimited access to entire libraries of media for the former price of a bargain bin album.

Democratization

Finally, the 6th D follows naturally from the 4th and 5th. If a good or service is now digitized and available online, and its price is now affordable to most people, then it is democratized.  Everyone can have access to it. This is the digital publishing revolution of which we at 3 Geeks have taken terrific advantage. Fifteen or 20 years ago, we could have published a newsletter that might have reached a couple of hundred people within a small region of the US. We would have had publishing and distribution costs. We would have probably charged a subscription fee. We would have needed someone to manage all of that for us, because frankly, we’re too lazy to do those things ourselves. Today, however, we have readers all over the world who read our non-sense daily and it costs us nothing but our time.

(Tomorrow: What does this mean for legal service delivery?)
The following is the 1st part of a 4 part post expanding on my short introduction to an ILTA session entitled, Do Robot Lawyers Dream of Billable Seconds? If you have not yet listened to the full session (and you have nothing better to do for the next 90 minutes), you should go listen to it now. If you would like to download and read the entire 4-part post you can get it here.



Computers

During World War II, a “computer” was a person who
calculated ballistic trajectories and published the results in books and sets
of tables that were given to artillery units and battle ship commanders. These
computers were mostly women who manually processed the calculations applying
complex mathematics and their substantial brain power to the task. They worked
in teams, checking and quadruple-checking each other’s work, as incorrect
results could quite literally affect the outcome of the war and lead to the
deaths of many soldiers on the front lines.

After the war, many of these computers were instrumental
in programming and debugging their brand new, building-sized, electronic
namesakes. Today, the term computer is never used to refer to a person.

These women were certainly not the first laborers to lose
their jobs to machines. The industrial revolution had seen many manual labor
positions replaced by newly developed engines, from coal powered steam shovels,
to electric sewing machines. But these “computers” were probably the first
knowledge workers (people that rely on their brain processing power rather than
their physical skill) to lose their jobs to machines.

Over the last seventy years that process has continued
unabated, with ever smarter electronic computers tackling more complex and
complicated knowledge work. And at every step of the process the next
profession in line had a million and one reasons why “a computer could never do
what they do.” But today we live in the world of IBM’s Watson. Watson is not a
miracle, it’s the natural progression from those World War II era computers, to
ENIAC, to the Personal Computer revolution, to the Smartphone, and eventually
to a computer that beats the best humans at the most difficult of human games;
Chess two decades ago, Jeopardy a few years back, and Settlers of Catan every
night on my iPad.

More impressive than my iPad beating me at a popular
German board game is the Watson victory on Jeopardy. Computers are now exhibiting
what were once considered uniquely human abilities: parsing and processing
natural language, understanding puns, and double meanings, and then determining
the intention of the questioner in order to select a correct solution from many
plausible answers. That is not terribly far removed from parsing the exact
meaning and intention of legal documents and then determining an appropriate
course of action based on precedent and prior analysis. The legal profession
should be on notice: the computers are coming.

What do we sell?

A few years ago I asked a number of my friends and
colleagues from other firms three questions:
  1. What do
    Lawyers think they sell?
  2. What do
    Law Firms think they sell?
  3. What do
    Clients think they are buying?
While none of the respondents gave the same three answers,
they all agreed that there were separate answers to each question. That kind of
confusion leads to all kinds of marketplace chaos and I tried to suggest a
common answer, that we were selling “access to the collective knowledge and
expertise of the firm.” That was not a satisfying answer to me, even then. The
question has continued to nag at me ever since, and after much consideration, I
am ready to suggest a new answer: We sell Legal Processing.

That doesn’t feel emotionally satisfying either, but the
more I think about it, the more convinced I am that that should be the simple
answer to all three questions. Clients typically come to us with legal problems
and we run those problems through our legal processing engines (attorneys,
established workflows) to produce advice, documents, in person counsel, or any
of the other things we commonly produce for clients. So, my original answer
wasn’t wrong, it just didn’t go deep enough. Lawyers are selling their legal
processing time, law firms are selling their collective legal processing
ability, and clients are buying the legal processing that they cannot or do not
want to do internally.

Much like the computers of World War II, the lawyers of
2014 continue to do most of that processing using their biological processing
units. These brains, as we call them, are extremely energy efficient and fast,
but are slow to train, prone to fatigue, often make mistakes, and are
notoriously difficult to network (not to mention the hardships of managing
them).

Digital Legal Processing

In recent years, we have entered a new era for the
practice of law, the digital era. The digital era probably began in earnest
with the explosion of e-discovery solutions in the last decade. These tools
were not simply technological means of improving the analog workflow, like a
Document or Contact Management System, these applications were beginning to do
the actual work that previously required lots of young associates with a great
deal of management supervision. With predictive analysis, many fewer associates
could do the same work in much less time, more accurately.

I have seen no fewer than 5 contract review applications
in the last few months that promise to reduce processing time and to increase
accuracy by large percentages. Eventually, these tools will most likely replace
biological processing units entirely. Even now, a large document review that
relied entirely on human ability, engaging no computer assistance at all, would
most likely leave a firm open to a malpractice suit. It is not a huge stretch
to imagine a time in the near future, when biological processing interference
of any kind, might do the same.

E-discovery and contract review applications are one type
of digital legal processing. They are essentially highly skilled and ever
improving pattern recognition tools, but obviously the practice of law does not
boil down to simply better pattern recognition. It also requires an
understanding of current laws, an ability to apply a client’s particular
circumstances to the current laws, and to make inferences, calculations, and
recommendations based on that understanding of the law. This is where Expertise
Systems enter.

Expertise systems allow firms to capture an individual
lawyer’s (or an entire practice group’s) knowledge and understanding of a
particular law, in a way that allows other lawyers or clients to use that
knowledge, even if they do not have access to the original lawyer(s). In other
words, with an expertise system, it is possible to build legal processing
engines that handle the routine aspects of practicing law, leaving the novel
and unique to be handled by the firm’s biological legal processing units
(attorneys).
Everything to this point is preamble to the next concept.

(Tomorrow: The 6 Ds: An Exponential Framework)

I have said in the past that my job as a blogger is to get the conversation started.  By that measure, my last post was extremely successful.  Three bloggers, that I know of, felt compelled to write follow up posts to The Myth of Disruptive Technology,  and at least one commenter went so far as to “not suggest this post is without value”.

I think I agree with all of them, but I’m not sure I said anything they think I said.  🙂

Sam and I had a good laugh on Twitter about starting a conference to rival ReInvent Law called the Slow-Evolving Practice of Law Conference. Although, to be honest, I’m not against the idea of reinventing or disrupting law, in fact, it’s probably going to be the most outrageous and outlandish ideas coming out of ReInvent Law that will eventually be watered down and whittled away until they become the small incremental change that adds up over time. Big ideas most often lead to incremental change, while incremental ideas get swept away.

And I agree with Nina, Disruptive Technology and Innovation absolutely exist! The myth that I refer to in the title is “that you can buy, build, or imagine [a technology] that you can simply drop into your existing workflow and reasonably expect it to disrupt anything other than your existing workflow.” And I stand by that. I draw a distinction between technology that by its very existence will disrupt an industry (which does not exist) and a company that uses such technology to great effect in order to disrupt an industry (which happens all the time). Netflix, and other video streaming services, are the latter and, as Nina rightly states, they are continuing to disrupt other industries like cable television.  But again, it’s the business model that is disruptive, not the delivery mechanism. The delivery mechanism may make the business model possible, but on its own it’s of little additional value. It’s not the technology that’s disruptive, it’s how you use it.

And Steven’s post is fantastic, I went back and reread it three times. There’s some great stuff in there and some fascinating analysis, but my thesis was not that Blockbuster “failed by not responding earlier to Netflix”, but that Blockbuster “had no way to adopt streaming video without completely undermining the rest of their business.” They weren’t willing to undermine the good thing they had going, which was a rational, if ultimately fatal, decision.

When I first published the post on the LexisNexis Future of Law Blog, my good friend Ron Friedmann gave me a hard time on Twitter.

I joked that I couldn’t give everything away for free, but I actually alluded to the answer in the next sentence. “Now is the time to build a legal service delivery engine that can accommodate project management, automation, artificial intelligence, and extreme transparency to clients.” While that is definitely not a comprehensive list of the next great innovations in law, I think it’s fair to say that those four innovations are already happening. And those four innovations all point to one big historical change for the practice of law, process efficiency now matters. 

Maybe I should have said that efficiency is to law what streaming video is to the video rental industry?  I didn’t want say anything that concrete in the last post, because let’s face it, it’s ridiculous. Although, I can’t help but think there’s a parallel between Blockbuster not being able to stream video and remain profitable and some firms not being able to increase efficiency and remain profitable.  After all, profit has been based on inefficiency in law firms for a long time. Technology may be able to help, and some of those technologies could be called potentially disruptive, but technology alone will never make you disruptive, or efficient, or profitable.  I think my original point was something along those lines.  Although to be honest, this has been interpreted in so many different ways, I’m not entirely sure what I meant originally.

Still, I can take some solace in the fact that at the very least my original post made Byron think. And that’s good enough for me.

This post originally appeared on the LexisNexis Future of Law Blog under the title, Lessons from Blockbuster: re-engineer, don’t disappear

http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2011/02/24/blockbusters-fall-and-netflixs-rise-in-pictures/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=1

In a recent session at LegalTech NY, I spoke about what I consider to be the great myth of disruptive technology; that we need to be on the hunt for the next big thing to set our firms apart and leave our competition in the dust. This is a fool’s errand. As I said in my talk, there is no technology that you can buy, build, or even imagine that you can simply drop into your existing workflow and reasonably expect it to disrupt anything other than your existing workflow.

To illustrate my point I presented the old war-horse of disruptive technology fables, Netflix vs. Blockbuster. At the height of their success Blockbuster Video had 9,000 stores, 60,000 employees, and nearly 6 Billion US Dollars in revenue. Six years later they filed for bankruptcy, and in January of this year they finally closed the last of their US stores. Meanwhile, Netflix video streaming today accounts for more than a third of all US internet traffic during prime time hours, and Netflix is the darling of Wall Street. The moral of this story, as it is generally told, is that streaming video is a disruptive technology that brought down Blockbuster, catapulted Netflix to success, and up-ended the entire video rental industry.

But like most fables, that’s just a little too simplistic. In fact, far from being a primary disruptive force, streaming video was just the last piece of a large disruptive puzzle that Netflix had been putting together for years. The primary disruption actually took place long before streaming video across the internet was even a viable distribution method.

When Netflix burst on the scene in the late 90s they had a DVD rental by mail business. You went to their website and signed up for a monthly subscription that entitled you to a number of simultaneous movie rentals. Then you looked through their catalog of available movies, selected those you’d like to see and the order you’d like to see them in, and they mailed you the first few DVDs on your list. When you were done watching one, you slid it back into the envelope, mailed it back to Netflix, and they’d send the next movie on your list. The best part was that you could keep movies for as long as you wanted and there were never any late fees.

This was a huge departure from Blockbuster’s model of 9,000 stores and 60,000 employees, charging a fee at the point of rental, and collecting massive late fees when you forgot to return the movie by the time you promised you would. In fact, a substantial portion of that $6 billion in revenue was directly attributable to those late fees.

It was common knowledge in the late 90s that streaming video would one day be the norm, even if it wasn’t entirely clear exactly how it would work or what it would look like. The technology was out there; it was just waiting for bandwidth and computing power to catch up. While they were waiting, Netflix built a video rental engine that could accommodate a faster distribution method, or indeed, any distribution method that came along. And Blockbuster just kept raking in the dough with the old model that had served them so well for decades. That model continued to work beautifully, right up until it didn’t and Blockbuster went out of business.

The moral of the story is not to go out and find the next big thing before anyone else does, but to re-engineer your business now to accommodate what you already know is coming. We know what the next great innovations in legal service delivery are, even if we don’t know exactly how they are going to work or what they are going to look like. Now is the time to build a legal service delivery engine that can accommodate project management, automation, artificial intelligence, and extreme transparency to clients.

The sad truth of the Blockbuster tale is that despite their market dominance, and their vast resources, they had no way to adopt streaming video without completely undermining the rest of their business. Sometimes I wonder how many law firms are in the same position now.

Image [cc] neonbubble

When reading a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article by James Allworth called “Empathy: The Most Valuable Thing They Teach at HBS,” there was a line at the end that really stood out to me:

…this story seems to repeat itself over and over for disrupted companies: they go out of business wanting to sell to customers what they want to sell to customers, rather than what customers want to buy.

Allworth was discussing the false perception that Blockbuster convinced itself of when dealing with the disruptive technology that Netflix brought in during the early 2000’s. Blockbuster failed to look at the market from the customer’s point of view, and instead bounced ideas off the insular community of its internal perspective and thought that its two options were:

  1. create its own disruptive service (with all the risks that come with it); or,
  2. continue business as normal
As Allworth puts it, they failed to see the world as it was becoming, but rather as a snapshot of how it existed at that moment. In reality, option number two was not an option at all, it was a path that led them to failure and eventual bankruptcy. 
We focus mainly on the administrative side of law firms on this blog, with me primarily looking at libraries, records and knowledge management. Reading this HBR article made me think about whether we are providing the services that we want to provide, or if we are providing the services that our customers actually want to receive? It brought me back to the post I wrote last month on thinking like a startup. Are we surrounding ourselves with others that think like us, especially those in our professional association ranks, or are we bringing in smart people that challenge our traditional thinking and make us look at what we do from a different perspective? Are we empathetic toward our core customers as well as thinking of ways to change what we do in order to bring in the next generation of customers?

Allworth’s article lead me to this great 8 minute video of Clay Christensen (embedded below) where he describes what disruptive innovation means. I especially like the discussion around the 3-minute mark where Christensen discusses the dilemma that GM and Ford faced when Japanese car makers challenged their market share and how now the Japanese are facing a similar challenge from the Korean car market. Change seems to be the only constant in today’s business world and continuing to give more of the same (whether it is services or products) will only lead to someone else pushing you out of the market because they have brought in the disruptive innovation and replaced you.

I like Allworth’s topic of being surrounded by smart people that challenge your way of thinking; of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and viewing what you do, and see it from other perspectives. We may find that what we consider to be valuable services to us, are no longer valued by those that we think we serve. Eventually, we may find that the most valuable services we should provide do not exist at the moment, and those we should be providing that service to are not even our current customers. Sounds like disruptive innovation starts by disrupting our own beliefs first.

Clay Christensen, Harvard Business School professor and the world’s most influential management guru according to the Thinkers50, lays out his landmark theory.