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Lean as a Process Catalyst for Legal Technology

I’m (re-)reading Lean UX by Jeff Gothelf following last month’s enlightening set of sessions at ILTA on why we need to find new ways of doing things. Whether it was legal project management, change management or application and software development, ILTA was full of ideas about re-imagining and simplifying the very traditional processes at our firms.

By adopting processes that are faster, leaner and with more feedback loops, both this book and the ILTA sessions suggest we can turn those massive boil-the-ocean stalled projects into that which entrepreneurs and innovators already know well – the Minimum Viable Product. This strategy allows you to launch, learn and improve based on the experiences lawyers are actually having with their applications rather than the experiences we imagine they’re having.

Our traditional methodologies – whether Six Sigma, traditional project management approaches or Waterfall – all suffer from a need to perfect something: whether it’s a process, a plan, documentation, or a user interface. And as we know, perfecting something adds time and cost to a project. Knowing the difference between delivering bet-the-farm quality and “good-enough” is something of an art, but Lean methods challenge the conventional thinking on where to find the right balance.

Regardless of the size or type of project, in my experience the debate about what might be “good enough” to launch a new system starts with the assumption that if the quality is poor, users will be turned off and it will be hard to get them back. Which is true in traditional development methods where there are often long delays between development phases. Iterative approaches that shorten release cycles change the relationship with users; while every release should be useful, usable and engaging, the knowledge that improvements will be made regularly and frequently provides much more room for trying things that may not be right the first time.

That isn’t just a side benefit to these methods – it is central to their success. Lean UX, and the Lean Startup method that it’s based on, as well as the similar Lean methods discussed at ILTA are all based on the understanding that even with all the time and money in the world, you can’t get it perfect first time around. Lean processes keep us nimble while figuring out whether what we’ve built will in fact get used, and all much earlier in the project, too. As Eric Reis says:

This movement is less about how to make web startups more successful and entrepreneurs richer than it is a fundamental re-examination of how to work in our complicated, faster-moving world.

(1) Pace of Change: Law firms are not immune from this complicated and fast-moving world. A requirements document, like the paper it is printed on, is just a snapshot in time of what lawyers need. But the demands we place on technology are constantly evolving. Requirements documents we wrote two years ago will no longer accurately reflect what we want from our tools, or indeed what the technology is now able to do. Continuous improvement throws the old “get it all figured out first” approach out the window. Project management teams in the new LeanWorld, and IT teams in new AgileLand can no longer lock themselves away from their users or the business while they scribble away at their requirements documents or tap away at their code. Adopting leaner and more agile processes can help us keep up with these constantly changing demands.

(2) Shared Understanding improves communication within cross-disciplinary teams. It focuses on closing the gap between those that design and build, and the end-users of the product or service. Lean UX is a highly collaborative approach for actively engaging with the team and the end user, to collect and embed feedback at every step of the process. As we know, the knowledge work undertaken by lawyers is often complex. By improving our understanding of how lawyers work and how the systems we build, buy and implement help simplify and solve problems, we can create more value within our firms. By creating simple prototypes and testing them with real users, cross-functional teams can share insights and build valuable knowledge about what works and what doesn’t.

(3) Learn by Doing: Lean UX recognizes that perfect prediction of future behaviours and interactions is impossible – you just have to start or you’ll never launch. The aim is to build a Minimum Viable Product, to let it loose, and to gain regular feedback on what you’re designing and building: Build-Measure-Learn in LeanSpeak. By prototyping and experimenting you “refine on the fly”, making sure those tweaks to the experience are based on actual user feedback rather than on a project team’s whim.

The idea of continuous improvement in Lean states that,

by the time that product is ready to be distributed widely, it will already have established customers. It will have solved real problems and offer detailed specifications for what needs to be built.

How often does that happen at our firms? Seyfarth’s experience of moving from Waterfall to Agile project management (using a Scrum framework) as presented at ILTA showed us a highly innovative approach to application development. And whilst it may not appeal to every firm in its entirety or indeed be applicable in every project (as Andrew Baker and Mark Soriano acknowledged), I believe there is much that those of us in Legal Technology can borrow from this growing Lean Start-up movement and how “some of its biggest payoffs may be gained by the large companies that embrace it.”.

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