Chris Trimble Keynote: The Innovation Revelation [#ILTA11]

Chris Trimble is an author and adjunct professor at the Dartmouth business school. He works with companies on the cutting edge of technology. Through this work he learns from the stories of dynamic innovators in these companies.

[These are my notes from the International Legal Technology Association’s Conference 2011.  Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error.  Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • Climbing Mt. Ranier It’s a very difficult climb but can be accessible to novices, provided they have an expert guide. However, no matter how hard it is to get to the summit, it can be even harder to climb back down. Most novice climbers don’t realize this so they tend to relax on the way down. As a result, they become susceptible to the hidden dangers that lurk on the downward slope. Trimble believes that innovation initiatives work the same way. Yes, the struggle to launch something new can be substantial, but most of us forget that what comes after can be even harder.
  • Definition of Innovation “Any project that is new to you and has an uncertain outcome.” Innovation is more than an idea. On “the other side of innovation” (e.g., what happens after launch), every new idea really is a new project.
  • Models of Innovation. Model #1 = ideas + environment. If we can create an environment of innovation, we can generate lots of new ideas/projects. This can be a powerful model, but it is hard to execute because it happens in the tiny slivers of free time that people have. It’s best suited to small, continuous improvement efforts. Model #2= ideas + process. Treat innovation as a business process. Script it, make it efficient and then measure your results. The limit of this model is that it works best when every innovation in the process fits with the existing process. (Not disruptive.) It’s a great way to push out this year’s version of last year’s model. Model #3 = Ideas + Leaders + Plan. Execution + Organizational Excellence. We need less emphasis on ideas and more emphasis on execution. Equally, we need less emphasis on individual achievement (i.e., innovation heroes) and more emphasis on organizational excellence. Although great companies have great performance engines (delivering every task/process on spec, on time, on budget and driving towards profitability this quarter).
  • Breaking All the Rules Doesn’t Work Innovators need the support of the performance engine. (it provides the financial and operational resources to get things done.) Further breaking all the rules sounds like “breaking the performance engine” and, by extension, breaking the people in authority over that performance engine. Break all the rules can also sound like “no rules,” which can be highly threatening to business leaders.
  • Mutual Respect is Critical Remember that some conflict between the innovators and the organization is perfectly normal. Remember also that no performance engine lasts forever. (“Blockbuster RIP.”)
  • Model #3 in Practice. You need a small dedicated team that focuses on a single project from inception to completion. They need a partnership with the staff that’s shared with the rest of the organization (the performance engine). The dedicated team should be created as if you were creating a new company from the ground up. You may need to hire externally, you may need new titles. The object is to create something that is radically difference from the existing organization, but understands that it must cooperate with that existing organization. The shared staff works with/for both the performance engine and the dedicated innovation team. The challenge is that the shared staff is needed for concrete projects critical to the performance engine as well as more aspirational projects for the innovation team. Unfortunately, when this conflict arises, the performance engine (and its concrete goals) usually win.
  • Dominant Law Firm Model. The most experienced lawyers manage the business, have the most authority and manage the client relationships. It’s been this way for years since (until now) it has worked for the performance engine.
  • Innovation in Law Firms. Breakthrough innovation does not happen without breakthrough organizational design. Change means changing the performance engine. This is a very risky strategy that threatens the performance engine and triggers lots of resistance. Innovation means running experiments along side the performance engine, all the while conforming with the first rule of innovation: “Do No Harm” to the performance engine until your case is proven. In this case, the performance engine is not threatened (at least immediately) and will provide resources for the innovation effort.
  • Lessons from The New York Times DigitalThe New York Times tried to be innovative in creating its digital presence. They hired smart people working in a dedicated team, with considerable resources and a fair degree of autonomy. However, they weren’t able to be truly innovative and found that companies like Yahoo and were cleaning their clocks. The problem was that every member of the team was an insider (except for the head of the team) and the unit reported to the head of the newspaper (i.e., the head of the performance engine) rather than the head of the company. In order to revitalize this effort, the dedicated team was transformed by hiring more outsiders, offering a completing new compensation program, moving the team to a new location. Unfortunately, this led to conflict with the performance engine and disputes over fundamental issues such as who owns the NYT brand and can determine use of NYT content. However, the company opted against integrating the dedicated team into the performance engine, and instead focused on managing the conflicts more carefully. This yielded better performance overall and better innovation.
  • Planning for Innovation. Every innovation plan contains some wild guesses. The key is to use learning to turn those wild guesses into experiments that yield useful results. To do this you need to conduct disciplined experimentation, ensuring that you compare initial guesses with the actual results in order to generate learning that can be used to improve the innovation plan. You also need to convene a separate forum to discuss results — you shouldn’t mix the day-to-day innovation operations discussions with performance evaluation.
  • How to Measure Performance.Don’t just focus on the numbers (how much was done, how much resulted). Rather, focus on whether the leader and team ran disciplined experiments that yielded lessons learned that were then pushed back into the innovation process.
  • How Stella Saved the Farm. This is a parable that summarizes Trimble’s approach. You can get it on



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