Truly innovative organizations foster innovation from within.

Consider 3M and Google.  As Daniel Pink describes in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, these companies offer their people the latitude and discretionary time to dream up new ideas that have transformed their businesses and changed markets.  Want proof?  Post-It Notes and Gmail weren’t conjured up by a product development committee, but rather by individual employees empowered to create solutions for opportunities they identified in the marketplace.  Regardless of whether you call it “experimental doodling” like 3M, or “20 percent time” like Google, the effect is the same – everyone in the organization has time to stare out the window and find ways to be innovative.

Mr. Pink uses these examples to demonstrate how instilling autonomy and independent thinking in people leads to their fulfillment, which in turn can energize an entire company.  But can this type of motivation and grass-roots innovation work in a law firm?

Some are trying.  Squire Sanders has a Value Partner Team (VPT) that “identifies, encourages and manages the development and implementation of processes and tools arising from recommendations made by practices, offices, industry groups and our clients.”  Among the areas and ideas that this select group of firm leadership, partners, and senior non-lawyers has addressed are standardized due diligence processes, an Early Case Assessment Wizard, and implementation of alternative fee structures.

Similarly, Allen & Overy created an Innovation Panel made up of London and New York partners along with two independent consultants.  With an annual budget of £2 million, this group spurs innovation by administering a firmwide “Cash for Creativity” program that pays people in the firm for their fresh ideas, and then provides practical support to transform those ideas into reality.

These are certainly steps in the right direction, and other firms are making advances as well – despite the billable hour albatross that hangs around their necks.  If you remove the emphasis on the billable hour, things begin to change dramatically.

Instead of determining one’s worth by the number of hours logged, efficiency and value-to-client become the new yardsticks.  People can be given “innovation time” to stare out the window, without the ticking of the clock distracting them from their thoughts.  Firm leaders and managers begin to view their business differently, which in turn impacts associate development, mentoring, and business development.  The silos that divide the attorneys in a firm begin to crumble and a new, more collaborative organization emerges.