Want to rent a house? I’ll bet you ten bucks your first move won’t be to call a real estate broker. You’ll search one of dozens of sites like Zillow or StreetEasy. Nagging sore throat? WebMD. Looking to buy a wheelbarrow or a pair of swim goggles? Amazon. And if you stop your Google search for just a moment you’ll hear something other than your fingers tapping on your computer keyboard. You’ll hear the deep, low drone of encroaching thunder.
That’s the sound of disruption, and the only thing that can stop it from upending your business are the ideas you generate through more creative and flexible thinking. Even staid professional service industries like accounting, insurance, or law firms aren’t immune. They too, need a means of injecting creative thinking into their practices if they want to avoid being disrupted. I can already hear the cynics among you asking, “Law firms, creativity? Where’s the connection?”
Several months ago I met with the executive leadership of Levenfeld, Pearlstein LLC, a Chicago law firm, to discuss goals for their annual retreat. They told me they wanted their people to think in more innovative and creative ways. Innovation and creativity are broad terms, and whenever I hear them cited as goals I know it’s time to dig deeper and find out what those words actually mean to an organization. The things I want to know are: How would people in your organization act differently if they were more innovative? If your people were more creative, how would their conversations change? And perhaps most importantly — do you as leaders have the stomach to entertain a slew of new (and occasionally awful) ideas?
As their answers emerged I began to understand how serious Levenfeld Pearlstein was about improving its culture. They were looking for a change in focus from a concentration on standard processes like preparing contracts (an important function, but one that can be delegated fairly easily) to things you’ll sometimes hear derisively described as soft skills — like storytelling, empathy, and vulnerability. When I mentioned this to a friend of mine who had just made partner at a different law firm, she looked at me with a sardonic grin and said, “wow, sounds like a hippie commune. At our firm we focus on the bottom line.”
No surprise there. Many business leaders think that things like empathy and storytelling are better suited to an MFA creative writing course than to a professional services industry. When I asked her what the three biggest challenges to her firm’s bottom line were, she had this to say, “The first is employee retention. When someone from our firm quits it costs us a fortune in replacement and retraining costs. The second is client retention and the third is finding new clients.”
No surprise there either. You lose money when employees and clients need to be replaced and you make money when you gain new clients.
My friend had characterized Levenfeld Pearlstein as a hippie commune, but I ask you, which of the three areas that concerned her firm’s bottom line are not powerfully affected by human considerations like communication skills, empathy, or the ability to understand the stories of clients and employees? Levenfeld Pearlstein is hardly a bunch of hippies; they are just as concerned with the bottom line as my friend’s firm is. And yes, while it’s true they are progressive, they are progressive only in the sense that they are fostering capabilities to see what’s beyond the horizon. In doing so, they are being strategic about their bottom line as well. They understand that with online services like Legal Zoom eating away at the market share of many law firms, simply positioning theirs, as the best at creating contracts is no longer a sustainable business model.
Having a record of someone’s spending habits, their online searches, or their whereabouts is not the same as truly understanding them. We’ve come to accept that possessing statistical data is the same as possessing deep knowledge. It’s not. We humans are visceral, emotional, and spiritual beings who exist in a multi-dimensional world. We learn through humor, through music, and through acts of kindness. The Internet is indescribably helpful in making our thoughts and ideas manifest, but we shouldn’t mistake its utility as a way to grasp the totality of our humanness.
Any strategy, which purports to improve the bottom line, must include a proactive and intensive approach to bolstering creativity and innovation, along with the cornerstone of all creativity and innovation: unfettered communication between human beings. We must invest freely in developing “human capital” — an over-used and slightly perverse way of describing the actual men and women who work within our organizations.
Discussing the need for creativity in the workplace, planning for its implementation, and then, putting that plan into practice, is how successful companies lay the groundwork for a culture that is well prepared for rapid change, and for the flexibility in thinking that change demands.
If that’s not strategic, I don’t know what is.
Previously published in Forbes.