Unpacking ‘Innovation’ – Moving from idea to action
One of the things I love most about coaching is watching how quickly people can move from an attitude of “I have this idea, but…” to actually implementing their ideas and projects.
As lawyers, we have a natural inclination to overthink things. Add to that our highly developed sense of risk aversion and our ability to find the tiny flaws in any possible plan, and you have a recipe for paralysis. It may be disguised as ‘caution’ or ‘being sensible’ or even ‘just being too busy’, but in reality that procrastination is rooted in something deeper: fear.
Fear of failure, fear of looking stupid, fear of being stupid, fear of being exposed…the list goes on and we each have our own fears to a greater or lesser degree. Because we rarely take the time to rationally and objectively balance the risks / benefits of our own plans (as opposed to those of our clients, who of course get our full and focused attention), the ideas in formation, the potential plans, the ‘I’d-love-to-do-it-if-only’ babies are frequently thrown out with the murky bathwater of our ill-considered doubts.
Clarity of thinking requires some time. That ‘cold towel on the forehead’ time that we permit ourselves when cracking a tricky legal or drafting problem is almost never dedicated to our own projects and ideas. This includes not just personal projects, but projects that we know would streamline our own teams and departments or make efficiencies for our businesses.
It’s the ultimate irony: we know that if we could put that contracting process in place, or implement technological solutions to streamline certain inefficiencies, or even take time to mentor and develop members of our team so that we can delegate more to them, we would have more time and everything would work more smoothly. But we’re too busy to take the little bit of time today that would save ourselves lots of time in the future.
But are we really too busy or is something else holding us back? Is it really simply about time? Time is our proxy for the thinking that we need to do. Far too often, we over-estimate the actual time something will take to get started and how much of our own time something will take. We’re looking at the whole project, all the way down the line, and we’re exhausted by it before we even get started. Plus, it might not work out. Somewhere in the back of our minds, the thought is lurking: “This could actually fall flat and I’ll look like a failure.” It’s easier just to avoid it.
By focusing on our ideas or projects for just fifteen minutes each day, we can start moving from thought to action. Is the idea or project that’s swirling vaguely around in your mind worth spending fifteen minutes a day on? If the answer is ‘no’, then drop the idea or project and think of another that is worth a quarter hour of your day.
If the answer is ‘yes’, then read on to start driving your projects to fruition.
1. Take at least 15 minutes every day to really think.
Clear a space in your day. First thing in the morning perhaps, or on the way to the office. While you’re walking or before you log in to your computer.
No distractions. No internet. Don’t check your email. Focus.
It doesn’t sound like much, but you’d be amazed what can happen when you make some non-negotiable, highly prioritised time to let your brain ruminate in a focused way on what you’d like to achieve. Whether you already have an idea of what you’d like to do, but haven’t managed to think about how you’ll do it, or whether you’re starting from scratch and just giving yourself some space to brainstorm and consider what you’d really like to focus on, those fifteen minutes can make all the difference.
At the end of the time, jot down some ideas or, even better, at least one action point. Just one tiny next step. Then execute on that step. Rinse and repeat. From germ of an idea, you are moving to a more concrete goal and starting to take actions to move towards assessing and developing that goal. This in itself is already a move into action, and once you’re in motion, momentum begins to build.
Once your idea is starting to crystalise and you know more or less what you would like to achieve (even if you don’t yet know exactly how to make that happen), you have to commit to getting started. You don’t need to know precisely how you’re going to get there, but you do need to feel strongly enough about your goal that you can commit to moving forward. The project may well change and evolve, and that is fine at this point. It’s getting started that is important. You must commit to taking the first action, then the next, then the next. There will be plenty of opportunities in the future to evaluate the direction you’re heading, to modify your plans and objectives if necessary and ultimately even to kill the whole idea if it doesn’t look like it’s going to do what you want it to. But for goodness sake, don’t kill it before you even start by failing to commit to it.
3. Chunk it down.
If you try to foresee everything that your plan involves (plus – because you’re a lawyer – every thing that could go wrong), you will be overwhelmed by the size of the task and will continue to put it off. Break it up into bite-sized chunks, identify what you need to do to get started and start attacking those first chunks.
4. Don’t let your lawyer-brain outpace the project.
A large part of the beginning of any project is scoping out the size of the project and identifying who we need to bring on board to help. Because lawyers are clever (and because we are convinced that we see things that others will miss) our brains are already racing ahead to executing every single task before we’ve really worked through the initial stages. We’re also geniuses at identifying what can go wrong along the way with each task. A lot of companies have a ‘fail fast’ culture, but we lawyers manage something even faster: ‘Fail before you try’. It’s unhealthy and unproductive. Focus on the initial stages and get them moving.
5. Identify your first ‘go / no go’ assessment at a logical and reasonable stage.
Knowing that you have considered at what point (e.g. a large monetary investment, huge team time investment) you should take a step back to assess whether or not to move on to the next stage of your plan can help alleviate some of the fear of failure. You can move forward in the initial stages with confidence that up to that point knowing that, yes, your ultimate goal may or may not come to fruition, but until that moment, you are doing exactly what you committed to do when you started.
It’s not a waste of time if something goes wrong. On the contrary, moving things to that first point is exactly what you’ve signed up for and there’s no need to second guess yourself until you reach that first milestone. Once achieved, set another one in the future and move towards that next milestone. You may find your initial objective was too grandiose and you’ll need to scale down. Or you may find that you can achieve even more than you set out to. Once you’re moving, it doesn’t really matter: your decisions will be based on the reality of your situation at the relevant point rather than vague projections or speculation by your risk-averse brain. It’s like walking across hilly terrain: you don’t really know what’s up ahead until your reach the next peak. At that point, you have the information you need to plan your next steps.
6. Engage the right people at the right time.
A journey of a thousand miles is a hell of a long way to walk on your own. Identify who can help and get them onboard.
A note of caution: be careful about assigning overall responsibility for non-core business projects to more junior members of the team unless they are given the time/resources to really execute. If it’s not important enough for your attention, don’t just pawn it off on someone else expecting them to commit to it. Too often ‘real work’ (i.e. client work) trumps the project and it slides into the Bottomless Pit of Unfulfilled Intentions. If it’s important to you to move it forward, get the right people involved and stay engaged to the extent necessary to keep the momentum moving.
Being innovative does not mean having the best, most unique, or most disruptive idea. If you’ve ever had a great idea for a novel, or a business, or a TV show, but you aren’t currently a best-selling novelist, a thriving entrepreneur or an award-winning TV producer, then you’ve probably already realised that the idea alone is not enough. The idea isn’t even the hard part. It’s the steady commitment to move forward that gets things done. Real innovators are the people who move consistently and resolutely from idea to action. And like anything else, the more you practice, the easier it becomes.
My article in The Guardian about Theresa May and effective leadership. https://www.theguardian.com/small-business-network/2017/may/23/forget-strong-and-stable-leadership-is-about-knowing-your-weakness?CMP=share_btn_link