In my new role I spend a lot of time at conferences and meeting with HighQ customers talking about the kinds of innovative projects I was driving at Norton Rose Fulbright, and the amazing things that I’m doing now with HighQ all over the world. Many people often say something to the effect of, “we would really like to do that kind of thing, but we don’t have a “Ryan.’”
This is funny because I spent nearly a year after the NRF combination with an out of date title that reflected neither my role, nor my place in the business, and without an official supervisor. I used to joke that I had no boss and no title, and I would only know I was successful when another firm hired a “Ryan.” Obviously, there is no mandate that innovators be named Ryan, but more importantly, you probably have lots of “me’s” in your organization. There is most likely a debate going on right now to determine whether you have sufficient grounds to fire one of them.
Ten years ago I was not an obvious choice to become a driver of innovation inside a global law firm. I was an IT guy in the New York office, good at my job, a hard worker, but also a bit of a troublemaker. I didn’t deliberately cause problems, but I had an insatiable itch to fix things that I saw as broken, and I subscribed to the philosophy that it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.
This led to a number of run-ins with the rules. After months of waiting for the development team to deliver an asset management application for a hardware rollout I was tasked with, I downloaded an open source asset management tool, installed it on an old Exchange server, and successfully ran my rollout. Of course, I was suitably scolded, but two other offices used my system, and that software remained in place for a number of years. I got the proverbial, “good job, don’t do it again” speech.
On another occasion, after a particularly egregious internal communications breakdown, I called the CIO and demanded that we implement some kind of collaboration software. He and I signed up for the free version of Yammer and we invited just a few other people. For weeks we slowly increased the number of participants. The PMO and the Library eventually came on board too. An air of transparency and clarity began to come over the various departments that were using it. Suddenly people in offices all around the country, were engaged and involved in decisions that previously were simply cold, black box, mandates emanating from the home office.
This was before the Microsoft acquisition and Yammer was a freemium consumer product. In the upper right corner was a big green button that said, “Invite Your Contacts.” Each time someone joined the group I begged them, “DON’T TOUCH THAT BUTTON!” About six weeks in, with more than 150 users across the firm enjoying the open communication, it was inevitable that someone finally hit the button and hundreds of invites went out across the firm, including to a number of senior partners.
My Yammer site was quickly shut down, blocked at the firewall, and I was told to never do anything like that again. But a few weeks later the CIO asked, “What do you know about Knowledge Management?” To which I responded, “What’s Knowledge Management?” And he said, “You’ll do fine.”
I’m a pretty quick study, and was regularly speaking at KM conferences by the time we did the NRF combination. But Norton Rose had a real KM group, with systems people and knowledge lawyers, strategic plans, a dedicated budget, and most importantly managerial support. Fulbright had me. While I eventually ended up back in IT in a “global technology innovation” role, I spent that year in limbo, introducing myself to colleagues and counterparts in each of the other regional firms. I was actually floating somewhere between IT, KM, BD, and the practice groups.
During this time, I discovered the tools and resources that they each had available and started creating an inventory of potential “innovation” technologies that I could use. But more importantly, I started to find other “Ryan’s,” the people throughout the firm who were interested in technology and how they could use it to change the way they and their department or group worked. And while none of them were actually named Ryan, they also didn’t fit any other particular demographic. They were technologists, marketers, KMers, associates, and even a few partners. They were Millennials, Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, and every microgeneration in between. In fact, the only thing they all had in common was that they were eager to innovate and hamstrung by politics, middle management, rigid job descriptions, or just not knowing what was possible.
I was the rebel, the man with a mission, who gave them the tools and the cover to try the things that they otherwise had no opportunity to attempt. During my tenure in innovation at NRF, I saw the birth of several legal engineers around the world. Some of these were knowledge managers or technologists with some training in law, who could work closely with lawyers to develop new tools, processes, products, and services. Some were bright, capable associates, who were not interested in the partner path, or hoped to find a better work-life balance, or who simply recognized that “practicing law” means something different than it used to. If I had to bet, these people are the future leaders of the firm and yet, these are likely the same people that would otherwise become disillusioned, disaffected, and eventually leave the rigidly conservative confines of a law firm.
No matter what size your firm, I promise you have multiple Ryan’s quietly seething and burning to build something new, or to make something better. They might be misfits, or troublemakers, or they might be your best employees who just don’t like what they currently do. I was incredibly lucky and fortunate to have managers who saw past my indiscretions to the value that I could actually provide if my talents were put to good purpose.
This is not to say that you should find these people and just give them carte blanche to run roughshod through your firm, but with modern tools and platforms, you can give them a sandbox to play in. You can provide clear boundaries and say, “within this space, go for it, do what you will, and if you need more room, come see me.”
In the case of innovative lawyers, you may need to credit them a percentage of billable hours for time spent in the sandbox, so that they don’t entirely miss out on bonuses and such. For innovative business people, you may need to officially dedicate a portion of their workweek to sandbox time. You definitely need someone to oversee all of their efforts, guide them along the way, ensure that progress is being made, and effort isn’t being duplicated. You probably already have the people you need to innovate. You just need to get out of their way.
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