The Speed of Change (Spoiler Alert: It’s Slow)

The buzzword bingo I played during LegalTech NY and ReInvent Law was won by the word “change”. It was an amazing firehose-of-information week, and getting off the plane I was committed to picking up Kotter’s Leading Change book (again), plus I ordered Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations book. But the February blues of a Toronto winter got the best of me and I ended up reading Switch instead. (It was an easier and happier read as it turned out.)

I came away from New York with the (rather obvious) thought that: change will be slower if solutions don’t make things easier, better, faster and cheaper. Think of the “desire paths” that we make across parks that avoid all the officially laid-out paths. We like to make stuff easier, follow the path of least resistance, and abide by the principle of least effort. And is also why the plea for “simplicity” is being made so very loudly.

But my reading on this since New York (and there’s a lot of it if you’re willing to go down all the different the rabbit-holes) has revealed that while I wish change and adoption were sitting in the Simple column of life; it turns out they’re a lot more complex than that. Kotter boils it down to a detailed 8-step process, and Google Images has a lovely set of complicated looking diagrams if you do a search on change management.

The take-away from all this rabbit-hole reading however (and the scribbled notes from New York) is that getting people to use a new system requires a two-pronged approach.

Changing Behaviours

The first is about changing behaviours and is what much of the writing on the subject deals with. The premise of the Switch book for example is, “for things to change, somebody somewhere has to start acting differently”. Typically at law firms, in our big technology or process projects, we focus on engaging the analytical reasoning about why a system should be used or why we should do things a certain way. But knowing something by itself doesn’t instigate the change; however well-made the argument. Instead it is engaging the “I’ll believe it when I see it” side of our brains that can kick-start a change in behaviour. See for example Bill Henderson’s example of the good corn as written up in this fascinating article on the legal evolution.

We also know from Gartner’s Hype Cycle that we need something during the trough of disillusionment to keep up the motivation for the new behaviours if we’re ever to get those in the early and late majority groups to adopt the new technology and adapt to the change in process. Chip & Dan Heath have a lot more tips for changing behaviours in the book, such as scripting the critical moves, shrink the change to make it seem less scary, build core habits, and break the change down into specific steps while still pointing to the exciting new world that we’ll be part of.

Better Tech/Better Process

The parallel approach to changing behaviours is that the system itself needs to solve a problem that people are having. It needs to enable lawyers to do things that they do now, but more easily – either by saving time or by saving money. It has to be a better way of doing things. One scary article I’ve read (that uses as its example trying to replace email with just about anything else), says that to help counter the status quo effect, the new solution needs to be a whole 10 times better. I’m not sure that’s true for every solution we’re designing at law firms, but it is a good reminder that we should be improving current processes and making them better; not just automating everything in sight just because we can.

The hardest part of legal solution design is hiding the complexity so that the user has the simplest (ie. easiest/fastest) experience as possible. As the Heath Brothers write: most of the change we want to see requires “short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs”. Think about learning to drive, or touch-typing, or sitting with your new iPhone or iPad to figure out how they work. How many lawyers will sit with the new intranet platform, the new search engine, or the new docketing system (in training or otherwise) to figure out how they work? It’s the learnability vs efficiency conflict that most of us in legal solution design face. How do we make the interface clean, simple and intuitive so that learnability is almost zero? Or how might we make the learning bit of a new system more fun (eg. through gamification)? We know the efficiencies can come about if we could just get over the hump of learning the new system or process.

But it might be that our starting point is also wrong for these big technology and process change projects. Another quote from the book that has stuck with me is that, “Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions, sometimes over weeks, sometimes over decades.” Matching a problem like a lack of collaboration with a massive new collaboration platform is a good example of this. The platform itself doesn’t solve the collaboration problem. Getting people to collaborate with each other is what’s needed – and that takes both awesome UX design of the system, but also a deep focus on helping people to make the switch. The bigger the solution we build, the harder it is to convince the number of people to change their behaviour to use it.

Perhaps we should be focusing on the small strategic steps that get us on our way to the brave new world, and to pick those off one at a time. To find, as the book would have it, the “bright spots” of what’s already working well at our firms, such as good docketing rates or those who are already collaborating over documents. Instead of starting from scratch, we start with those who are already doing it and work out how they are doing it. Investigating these successes in order that they can be cloned and replicated is what links KM and continuous improvement. It is a more multi-faceted approach that starts with a bit of user research at our firms to understand what is already working well and then building on those smaller and simpler solutions. The alternative is more of a top-down approach. This seems to assume that the new process you have to follow within the massive new system is the only right way of doing things for the entire firm. No wonder getting people to change and adopt new systems is hard.

As we know from human behaviour, people will try and find the easier, faster and cheaper way of doing something – just look at all the workarounds that our enterprise processes and systems are littered with. Seeking out those that have already simplified a process and are getting results means we can start small and incremental. We work out how they are doing it and map that, and during that process we may identify other improvements or ways to avoid wastage. By building on solutions that people have already come up with, we get to build on the status quo rather than replace it, we get to have a dialogue about what’s working, and get to see where technology can lend a hand in that process to make things even easier, better, faster, and cheaper. I like the idea that instead of solving problems we should be copying success.

So whilst change will indeed be slower if solutions don’t make things easier, better, faster and cheaper; change will be slower still if we ignore the cultural and behavioural change that is also needed at our firms.


  1. Great piece, Kate. I originally thought your use of “speed” and “change” in your title was oxymoronic- the two concepts , where law and technology are concerned, are almost antonyms.

    Like you, I took away from this year’s LegalTech that change is in the air, but has a long way to go. And I agree with you that change cannot be simply top-down. There must be a bottom-up, cultural, component. Yet, the slow pace of change is frustrating.

    An anecdote, by way of illustration. Last Fall I was asked to speak to a group of judges about social media as evidence. The judge organizing the event booked a time to go over my talk with me. I prepared extensive notes. I was ready to pontificate about the generalities and intricacies of social media as evidence. But, when we finally spoke, it became clear to me that most of the material I had gathered was for naught. I would need to make the talk much simpler than planned. And all the judge wanted to know was “How do I ‘poke’ someone?”

  2. Thanks Ronald – that’s a great anecdote and is definitely indicative of the challenges we face!

    The slow pace of change is indeed slow, but my cup of herbal brew when frustration seeps in is to think of the squiggly design diagram:

    To date, lawyers and law firms have pretty much been the sole agents of their own evolution. And I truly believe they will continue to be so. I think that the pressures both from within and without are finally having some effect but agree that we’re nowhere near the snowball effect. Assuming that we are somewhere in the middle of that dense squiggle or tangle above, means that we are therefore still unable to truly see what the brave new world looks like. And this may be one of the reasons that we are still where we are.

    The more we discuss, plan, design and celebrate all of the new business models, approaches and tools that our legal innovators and entrepreneurs come up with, the quicker I think we can help create a clear path to that new world. I for one am thrilled at the opportunities just around the corner for lawyers and law firms!

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment.