The Crossroads of Innovation and Punctuation

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I’m fortunate to be able to attend a lot of legal industry events as part of my job. And, almost without exception, I hear something at each event that’s said from stage that was offhand or wasn’t even really part of the session’s main topic, but nevertheless sticks with me as uniquely profound or insightful.

Such was the case at the Marketing Partner Forum event held earlier this year. During one of the sessions, panelists discussed how to build a culture of innovation within your law firm, and one of them said something along the lines that culture within a law firm can be defined by an idea as simple as the choice of punctuation.

I, like many others listening, was a bit puzzled by this. But he elaborated.

The difference, he explained, is the choice between a period and a question mark. You see, creating a culture of innovation necessarily requires creating a culture of experimentation, iteration, and some degree of risk of failure. This in turn requires willingness on the part of the law firm’s leadership to take on that potential risk.

This is where the rubber meets the road in terms of truly moving forward with innovation. This is also where punctuation starts to play a part. As this panelist explained, if you’re leading a law firm, are you saying to your people, “Sure, why not?” Or maybe you’re too busy telling them why not.

When I heard this, I was immediately struck by how simple that explanation was, and yet how little I had considered it before. But it’s completely accurate. If leadership is always busy explaining why something can’t or shouldn’t be done, then the people below them will eventually atrophy.

Asking “Why Not?”

I don’t want to suggest that all ideas are good ones or that every idea should make it to a beta test, or even past the initial pitch. There may be good reasons why a particular idea should never see the light of day, not least of which is that it’s just too risky or carries too little chance of success. But pointing immediately to reasons not to pursue new ideas should not be the default position.

Rather, asking “Why not?” allows for a more thorough exploration of the idea. It asks for reasons why an idea might be a bad one, rather than simply assuming such reasons exist. This is an important distinction. Asking for reasons why not may well lead to a declaratory statement of why not. But it leaves open the possibility that such reasons don’t exist. And if you can’t answer the question, “Why not?” then maybe it’s time to start moving forward with the idea.

You never know where a good idea is going to come from. It could come from within the leadership of a law firm, or from its greenest associate. Sometimes good ideas come from offhand comments by a panelist at a legal marketing conference.

The important part is to be open to good ideas, wherever they’re from. Approach them with an open mind. There’s a difference between being guarded and being negative. “Why not?” is a guarded but inquisitive approach, and may just lead to the next big idea that could move a business forward.

Also, put yourself in a position to be exposed to ideas. That means making sure you don’t have a reputation as a leader who spends a lot of time telling people why not.

It might also mean creating opportunities outside of your own law firm to be exposed to new ideas and best practices from colleagues and peers. I didn’t expect something as seemingly mundane as a comment about punctuation to reframe how I think about leading innovation within an organization. Yet here we are.

And it makes me excited for what innovative ideas I’ll hear at the next Marketing Partner Forum, held in Miami on January 22-24. I hope you will all join me there — I’ll be the one checking the punctuation.