Last week, I had the opportunity to sit with 15 members of a large law firm’s administrative team for about 2 hours as I facilitated a Design Thinking workshop. Design Thinking is thoughtful as well as free flowing, a bit different for law firms. Once the domain of software development, it has been appropriated by law firms, sales, knowledge management, marketing and all kinds of disciplines and professionals with process problems to solve. Design Thinking, like its close friend, Agile Methodology should be considered whenever problems arise and need to be solved  I walked into the room expecting everyone to be familiar with the concept, and ready to dig into the work and the lunch. I assumed (and of course we all know what happens when you assume) that everyone knew what design thinking is and how it works. I was wrong. Very wrong.

The people in the room did enjoy a delicious lunch, but that did not take away from the fact that people were all also very engaged, eager to understand what design think is and how it applies in the legal industry. I opened the session by asking each participant to share with everyone  their expectations for the session, I could tell we were going to have a good discussion and maybe even a little healthy banter. The two hours I had been allotted while very short, felt even shorter when I was forced to stop conversations and group work long before the participants had completed a task.   It took a while to define an issue, and then articulate for whom the issue was really a problem.  Are law firm process problems an issue for clients, associates, partners, or others?  The ideas were flowing as the group came up with various prototypes to solve one of their problems, with each of the four groups in the room choosing a different path to  resolution – each with a unique approach. Design Thinking is about changing perspectives and solving problems in a faster more creative way, testing theories and then moving to another option (the process od Design Thinking should generate many solutions) if the first one didn’t meet the needs.

I had many take aways from the session, I will highlight a few:

  1. Don’t take Design Thinking methodology for granted. Not everyone knows what it is or how and why it works; and even when they do, they need facilitation to support them and help apply it to their own work; this is critical. Giving people an opportunity to apply Design Thinking to their own work is an experience worth the time, especially when they are able to collaborate with colleagues from different areas in the same firm or business.
  2. When looking to solve a problem using empathy, your audience or the person with the problem is often not who you think it is – especially in law firms; your problem may not be the problem of an associate or a partner and their issues may not be issues for administration. Being able to articulate who has the problem is the first step to empathy and problem resolution.
  3. The concepts of problem solving using empathy and “Agile” methodology, like failing fast,  can be difficult in the traditionally slow moving, plan-for-every-contingency risk averse legal market; this is mindset we need to break if we are going to truly innovate in legal;
  4. Shifting cultures and perspectives is hard but necessary. Start small, share incremental wins even amongst your own teams;
  5. Any law firm, legal alternative or legal services company that struggles with issues of scale, finding new clients, process inefficiencies, employee retention or any other business issue can benefit from using Design Thinking to explore new ways to solve the problem using empathy, quick solution iteration and failing fast to build out all kinds of answers. If you need more convincing, check out this article from Canadian Lawyer Magazine and my beloved former colleague Kate Simpson on the topic.

Despite my initial misgivings, the Design Thinking workshop was a huge success, the clients learned how to think differently, one participant even commented that she didn’t realize how rigid she had become in her reaction to solving problems at the firm.   The session, she said, helped her recognize why she needed to explore alternative ways of thinking and solving problems.    I will therefore, put a challenge out to all of you in the legal market and encourage everyone in the legal industry from Partner to Law Librarians to make 2019 the year of Design Thinking, the year of customer empathy and thinking differently. By stepping outside of our comfort zones and learning to approach problems differently, we can achieve client centered success and true innovation faster. We might even have a little fun along the way.  I am committed to the challenge. Who is with me??

Many ground breaking, earth shattering, paradigm shifting solutions have begun with the words, “wouldn’t it be really great if…” Great ideas and solutions require people of vision with the ability to see beyond the current reality and dream fantastic possibilities for the future. Unfortunately, many stupid, dead-end, wastes of time have started exactly the same way.  How do you know when someone speaks these words which outcome will result?  Well, there’s no way to be entirely sure. Geniuses make mistakes and blind chickens occasionally find seeds, but asking the question in the title is a good place to start.
What problem are we solving?  If the answer is clear and obvious to everyone present, then go for it, there’s a good chance you will create value for your firm.  If the question is met with silent contemplation, then run screaming from the room with your fingers in your ears.  The phrase, “wouldn’t it be really great if…” usually precedes an idea that is undeniably cool. While there is value in cool, that value is rarely sufficient to justify the time and expense required to see the project through, unless it also solves an existing problem.
IT and KM are first and foremost problem solving disciplines. Like the old adage says, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.  Likewise, if we’re not solving problems, we are usually creating them. An IT or KM project that meets the cool criteria, but fails the “what problem are we solving” test is almost guaranteed to create more problems down the road. 

When it comes to solving a problem, do you color inside or outside the lines? Do you fall back on how similar problems have been treated before, or do you take a fresh look at what might prevent it from happening again?

All of us encounter the same types of problems over and over again — a user not adopting a system, a project running longer than anticipated, an application that just can’t do what you need it to. But how many times do we take a step back to assess if there’s a way to address the issue that might just be better than the way we’ve dealt with it before? Innovation should never be an end in itself, but solving problems in better ways than we have in the past should be.
As a knowledge manager, part of my role is to make sure that the practitioners at my firm have access to all the ways other practitioners at my firm have handled similar issues before. But I’d hate for that to be the end of the line. As Toby recently pointed out, modeling future choices on past behavior is not always possible, nor is it even necessarily reliable. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that we should never rely on the past; when like equals like, reinventing the wheel is the epitome of foolishness. But relying on the past solely because it was done in the past is not good enough. Each time we face a challenge or a puzzle to solve, we need to evaluate not just the problem but also the past solutions, and assess if there’s a better way.
I remember when a good friend of mine got the latest toy on the market for her birthday — she immediately put the headphones on, found her favorite cassette to put into the yellow box clipped to her belt, and began dancing around the living room while no one else could hear the music she was playing. I’ll always have fond memories of that yellow box (which, to be sure, was itself a true innovation). But something tells me there’s an even better way.