Error + Flexibility = Innovation is a formula few of us were taught in school. Even fewer of us were told about this during our orientation at our law firms. Law firms, like most businesses, spend time thinking about the right way of doing things. This results in business processes that are hardwired into the firm’s systems or “best practices” that are documented and distributed. Then, all of us are encouraged (or required) to agree to never stray from the chosen path.
An organization’s motivation for hardwiring recommended business processes and demanding conformity arguably is laudable. The organization is trying to increase predictability, reduce risk, and strengthen central control. From the perspective of a senior manager, what’s not to like about this?
However this drive for control and predictability may be choking the life out of the innovators in our midst. And a huge corporate emphasis on risk avoidance may result in the stillbirth of many potential innovators.
Innovation thrives in an environment that permits flexibility for front line folks who are closest to the clients and their problems. Innovation also requires a culture that, while demanding excellence, understands that errors are a necessary part of learning and, without learning, there can be no innovation. Thus, innovation results from flexibility in processes and systems, and a culture that permits (and even encourages) constructive errors.
In his post On Process, Technology and Work Design, Jon Husband talks about the organizational drive to standardize work processes, the resulting “rigidities” and the impact of this on the ability of front line folks to use their experience with clients to improve the way the firm delivers services. He also optimistically points to new web 2.0 tools such as wikis or purpose-designed blogs that have the potential of allowing the front line folks to interact with each other and their client challenges, create and document new ways of doing things as they work, and thus affect the official systems. Or as he puts it, these tools allow us “to integrate social process into more static and more clearly defined work processes.”
Meanwhile, Dave Snowden sounds a warning to all in his post, The Context of Error, when he says,
Innovation happens when people use things in unexpected ways, or come up against intractable problems. We learn from tolerated failure, without [which] the world is sterile and dies. Systems that eliminate failure, eliminate innovation.
Think about the knowledge management systems at your firm. Are they rigid? Do they contain a level of flexibility sufficient to permit innovation — even by people outside [gasp!] your KM department? And, what about the organizational culture of your law firm? Is it so focused on eliminating error that it completely squelches any incipient tendencies toward innovation? Law firm knowledge management needs innovation to stay current and relevant. Does your approach to KM include flexibility for others and support for constructive error?
If your answer to the previous question is no, it’s time for you to go back to the drawing board. Remember, The Point of KM is Innovation.
Error + Flexibility = Innovation. It’s that simple.