Reading for empathy

I consider myself lucky to know people (online and offline) who read widely. I know that we might not see eye to eye on what we read, or on all sorts of other issues, but we do agree that there is something important about books and the ideas they contain.

In Design Observer recently, Ken Gordon described how he found new meaning in Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America.

…buried in The Plot is a surprise. I didn’t realize until this go-around, but the novel contains, among many other virtues, a superb illustration of how empathy informs good design. That’s right: Philip Roth, designer manqué!

In addition to the normal modes of scenic description, common to many novelists, Gordon describes how one of Roth’s characters solves a problem for another just as a designer would. That vignette is enough for Gordon to consider the book worthy of inclusion on the syllabus of an introductory design course. But he makes a more important point at the end of his article.

As an undergraduate law student, I was encouraged to read novels with legal themes, such as Dickens’s Bleak House or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  There is certainly merit in that, just as a design student might learn from the subtle way Roth deals with a design problem in The Plot Against America. Gordon’s broader point is that the practice of reading novels gives broader benefits than that.

The Plot is a novel of grand design, and I’d love to see more designers read this, and other such books, as a way of educating themselves in empathy. Submersing ourselves in great works of literature is a wonderful way to train us to be more human.

So I say to you, designers, students, aspiring humanists: If you’re serious about understanding people, feeling for people, and using that to inform your design, you’d do well to read superlative works of fiction. The Plot is a fantastic example, but it’s one of many, many volumes you should be extracting from the shelves.

Other forms of fiction may be equally powerful. I am reminded of Roger Ebert’s perspective, in the biographical film, Life Itself:

…the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

In an age when legal practice is being improved by intelligent applications of technology, empathy is an increasingly important aspect of what it means to be a valued practitioner. Clients are people, so lawyers should read widely, for similar reasons as designers and other humanists. (Whether or not design is brought into the business itself.)

Breaking silos for client service: the internal view

Unbundling legal services has become the norm. Less than a decade ago, virtually no firm would even have known what this might mean, but now even the Law Society has recognised in its recent report, The Future of Legal Services, that this is a real choice for firms and clients.

An AdvanceLaw survey of GCs from 88 major companies, found that almost 75 per cent would be willing to move legal work away from the Magic Circle or Top 50 firms assuming a 30 per cent difference in overall cost. Fifty-seven per cent also noted that they find lawyers at the top firms less responsive than those of their second tier colleagues.

Rather than purchasing the full service option, by 2020 an increasing number of in-house lawyers are more likely to have taken work back in-house or opted for unbundled services, where they buy expert advice and assistance at key stages but deal with the actual running of their own cases. And by 2020 we are likely to see general public buyers also starting down this path.

WoodpileIt is interesting that the Law Society presents this as being driven by client demand, as if firms have played no part in the disaggregation process. In fact, whilst this is clearly in the client interest, some firms have played a leading role in thinking more imaginatively about the way in which they provide legal services.

A number of new roles have grown up to support unbundled legal services — legal project managers, matter coordinators, and so on. As such, unbundling is part of a set of practices aimed at improving legal work (including process mapping, greater use of technology , and so on). As Graham Laing puts it, unbundling makes legal services customisable to client needs, which is potentially a very powerful outcome.

Customisation of legal services is about integrating the client into the firm’s value chain. Firms are being required to reconnect with their clients and to compete effectively by recognising market drivers and investing in a deep understanding of client needs and desires. It’s about grasping what clients really want. Listening to them more. Understanding them better. Gathering valuable client information to attain reliable data on market demands will result in services with better market suitability. Merely satisfying what clients ask for is no longer enough for survival in a legal market environment of intense competition.

This is clearly something that clients want, as shown by these two tweets by Brett Farrell, a former lawyer, now responsible for buying legal services:

[Update: Sadly, Brett has retired from Twitter, so these tweets are no longer available.]

Brett’s view is not unusual, neither in its content nor in its tangible frustration at the current state of law firm client-centricity. Many firms appear to be moving (slowly) in the right direction. But the picture is much less pretty when one looks at how firms organise themselves internally. Real change needs to take place there, and few firms realise it.

Whilst most good firms are actively working on meeting client desires by rethinking the way their lawyers work with each other, with client lawyers and commercial people, with other firms, and with alternative legal providers, there is much less imagination about the way they expect their own business services professionals to operate. If unbundling is right for lawyers, should it not also be considered for internal services? What might that look like?

Although some firms have started to think more imaginatively about how they organise their business services professionals, most still approach recruitment and resourcing questions in a very traditional manner. Looking at the jobs listed on recruitment sites, for example, it is clear that firms still expect sales and marketing professionals to be part of a business development function, technology experts to be in IT roles, and resourcing specialists to be deployed in HR.

Arranging business services like this ignores the possibility that a more effective arrangement might be possible, where the starting point is not “how do we group similar people together?” but “what things need to be done, who should do them, and how should they be managed?” Thinking about deploying expertise in this way might help firms to serve clients better, amongst other benefits.

So, for example, there may be a set of responsibilities that go along with ensuring that the business can work effectively — infrastructural tasks. This would include the provision of core IT services, facilities management, core accounting and financial services, and some procurement and contract management responsibilities. Depending on the volume of work in each of these areas, some of these could be outsourced. Even if they are still done in-house, it is most likely that they can be managed to a specification, which suggests that they might reasonably be grouped together as a single management responsibility. in doing this, the firm might see benefits, such as a common approach to resilience and business continuity, that would be more difficult to achieve if they are separated.

Another approach might work at the other extreme — activities that are intimately associated with the provision of legal services to clients. Here silos can result in competition for resources between different areas, whereas a coordinated approach might allow more transparency about costs and benefits. Take client care as an example. The various people in a firm who come into contact with clients all have a part to play in providing a good (and consistent) client experience. However, few firms would consider managing their front-of-house reception teams (who are often internally managed in a facilities group or outsourced) alongside client relationship managers (more commonly found in business development teams). But those two groups have a lot that they could share with each other to improve the overall performance of the firm. Client management itself is often seen as a role for lawyers as well as expert managers. But not all lawyers take well to the demands of client management, and the client experience suffers as a consequence. Sadly, few expert client managers understand exactly what it is that lawyers do for clients, and this can also affect the client experience. Why not rethink client care completely — perhaps develop an account management capability (including people of all types) akin to the model used in advertising agencies?

Another approach might be to use dynamic teams for specific types of work or projects. A firm wanting to improve the way its technology supports clients, for example, might draw together a specialised group of people — lawyers, technologists, client relationship managers, information and knowledge professionals and financial experts, and others drawn from inside and outside the firm — to dedicate their time to developing a product or service that meets client needs. At the moment, firms tend to go a little way towards this model, but they often make it hard for the project team by expecting some or all of them to carry on with other work. When lawyers keep their chargeable targets, and the IT developers are expected to maintain systems, and the marketing folk have events that need support, all at the same time as being involved in a project, the urgency of the ‘day job’ tends to detract from the importance of the project. Managing the group separately and giving it targets to be met as a group should improve the likelihood that something good can be produced in the shortest time. The cost to the firm is that some less important tasks are not done. That is a choice of priorities that the firm needs to make with its eyes open.

Firms that have adopted a clear sector focus, or that have a set of key clients, might also consider aligning business services professionals with the legal teams working most closely with those sectors and clients. Some firms already do this to some degree, with pricing specialists, relationship managers, and business analysts for example, but there may be scope to broaden the idea to include others. This kind of approach also introduces a form of matrix management that firms don’t always get right. An accountant managed within the firm’s finance team who also has a role on pricing for a sector team might find themselves torn between two sets of management instructions. My experience is that in most firms the client or sector team rarely has a formal management responsibility for business services professionals. If the client experience is supposed to be at the heart of what the firm does, should those teams not be entitled to exercise stronger management control?

Putting the client at the heart of the firm does not mean automatic acquiescence to client demands. The customer is not always right. What this approach does is to allow professionals of all kinds (not just lawyers) the opportunity to participate in improving the way clients are supported. Each specialist will have their own perspective on this, but the current siloed model, with direct client contact reserved to lawyers and a few others, generally inhibits any real understanding of how things might be arranged differently and better. An unbundled, client-focused model can provide firms and their people with a more rewarding working experience.

Unbundling internal services also has consequences for the firm’s senior managers (directors and ‘heads of’ business services groups). In the silo model, each of these people has a clear set of responsibilities, and a fairly fixed group of people to manage. Sometimes roles at this level can become ossified, and sometimes the strategic focus that they should have is overwhelmed by the daily grind of operational management. An unbundled model would allow a firm to think more dynamically about line management, so that senior people can dedicate more time to strategic issues. Equally, unbundling some traditional silos might lead a firm to realise that not all the roles at this level are necessary. But a silo that exists only because it serves the interests of the person at its head is probably one whose work is least connected to the interests of the firm’s clients or its other employees.

I can’t promise that Brett Farrell’s plea for law firms to provide a better client experience will come quickly, but I am fairly sure that if it is to come at all it needs to involve more than just the lawyers. Traditional business services structures are much less likely to help generate the right experience than a more imaginative approach that draws on all the relevant talents that the firm holds.

Where should you aim?

I have written a few times over the years about aim and focus. Targets continue to be an issue that bedevils traditional law firms. Lawyers are given targets for time recording. Partners are given targets for billing. Business services professionals are given targets for cost reduction (or, at least, budgeting). Worst of all, firms sometimes frame their strategies in terms of targets.

Blue skyAt the weekend, I started reading a long article on Tesla Motors and electric vehicles. It contains a huge amount of insight on the topic and, unsurprisingly, is very thought-provoking. Embedded in the middle of it are a couple of quotes from Franz von Holzhausen, Tesla’s chief designer, and Elon Musk, the founder and CEO.

I asked [von Holzhausen] what it was like to come to Tesla after having spent years at more established car companies. He described the difference like this: “A company like GM is a finance-driven company who always has to live up to financial expectations. Here we look at it the other way around—the product is successful when it’s great, and the company becomes great because of that.” (This mirrored what Musk had told me earlier in the day: “The moment the person leading a company thinks numbers have value in themselves, the company’s done. The moment the CFO becomes CEO—it’s done. Game over.”) Von Holzhausen went on, saying, “Another difference is that at other companies, engineering comes first—a design package is prescribed on the designer and they’re told to make it beautiful. At Tesla, design and engineering are assigned equal value, and Elon keeps them opposed to each other.”

Tesla’s view (which I think is shared by Apple and some other highly successful businesses) is that clearly-defined purpose and great product will deliver great numbers. On the other hand, businesses that focus purely on the numbers run the risk of failing to demonstrate purpose and value in their markets, and of creating products that nobody wants. RIM, the Blackberry manufacturer, might be the best current example of this.

Demand is a complicating factor. Do you create something that people want or need? Many businesses survive despite being soulless and number-driven simply because what they create is perceived as essential. Some businesses may have clear purpose and great products, but fail because nobody really wants their product instead of someone else’s.

Very few firms provide a must-have service. Those that do (because of geography or specialism) can afford to be number-focussed. The rest, whose service has to look more attractive than everyone else’s, need to show the market why they are better. Concentrating on numbers won’t do that. Clear purpose and great service will. The bravest (of either type) will follow Tesla’s example and ignore the numbers altogether.

If you think everything’s fine, it may be time to change

Over the past few years, change managers have relied heavily on the idea of the ‘burning platform’ to help them awaken organisations to the need for change. Perhaps the most famous example was the company-wide memo sent by the then CEO of Nokia, Stephen Elop.

It is a logical approach. When things are going badly, there is little point in continuing as normal. However, such forced change is also high risk. This is clear from the original context of the phrase, which goes back to the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988.

One hundred and sixty-six crew members and two rescuers lost their lives in what was (and still is) the worst catastrophe in the fifty-year history of North Sea oil exportation. One of the sixty-three crew members who survived was Andy Mochan, a superintendent on the rig.

From the hospital, he told of being awakened by the explosion and alarms. Badly injured, he escaped from his quarters to the platform edge. Beneath him, oil had surfaced and ignited. Twisted steel and other debris littered the surface of the water. Because of the water’s temperature, he knew that he could live a maximum of only twenty minutes if not rescued. Despite all that, Andy jumped fifteen stories from the platform to the water.

When asked why he took that potentially fatal leap, he did not hesitate. He said, “It was either jump or fry.” He chose possible death over certain death. Andy jumped because he felt he had no choice—the price of staying on the platform was too high.

In a true burning platform situation, change (jumping from the platform) is high-risk, but probably less risky than not changing. Nokia is now a very different company than it was in 2011, but it is still moderately healthy.

Sometimes, however, the burning platform idea is used to engineer acceptance of change when the risks of not changing are actually not especially high. In those situations, people often see through the claims of those seeking change and so they ignore the change initiative and carry on as normal. They need a different kind of persuasion.

That is not to say that change is impossible (or unnecessary) when everything appears to be going well. Two items I came across today indicate that change might be necessary and easier in good times.

The first is a TED talk by Tony Fadell, who developed the iPod and the Nest thermostat. He starts by observing that habituation (getting used to the way things are) is a natural and often necessary human attribute. He then highlights three ways good designers (who are just a particular kind of change agent) learn to work around habituation.

The key points from Fadell’s talk are that it is necessary to take a different perspective on things (looking at the larger context and the detail) and that naive questions and observations can trigger insights that are lost to the habituated.

Law firms often talk about understanding their clients, but they rarely actually see their work from the client perspective. Likewise, trainees, new employees and other professionals within the firm can ask naive questions about the way work is done. If those questions are explored rather than batted away, novel insights might follow.

The other item is a LinkedIn post by Anne Marie McEwan. She reflects on accounts of the recent history of RIM, the BlackBerry manufacturer. Unlike Nokia, RIM has responded to the growth of Apple and Android smartphones by concentrating on improving and developing their existing products. (Nokia shifted its focus to other areas of the market.) This strategy hasn’t served RIM well. For Anne Marie, amongst the reasons for this is the difficulty of making change in times of stress.

Business as usual is constant pressure as normal but there are degrees. It can be difficult for people to take on new ideas and ways of working when they are under unbearable pressure, although I have worked with people where things were already so dreadful that they were eager to try anything.

I’ve found that the best time to instigate change is when things are not going badly. The most receptive businesses are those performing well but they know that they will need to adapt to maintain their position; they can see external threats and opportunities coming over the hill.

So the best time for change is probably before the platform is at risk of catching fire. Spotting the threats and opportunities is best done with the benefit of a design approach — noticing when everyone else hasn’t that the things you have got used to are actually bad. That’s what Apple did with the iPod and iPhone.

In the legal sector, I suspect that the predominant view is still that almost everything is fine. Certainly, the comments on a report about consolidation in the High Street bear this out. Clients (whether individuals or businesses) may have a very different view. Two posts by Bruce MacEwen detailing his experience as a client (“The Client Seat” and “The Client Seat (2)”) suggest that from that perspective things very definitely are not fine. Here are some key quotes (from Bruce and other members of the group interviewing potential advisers):

The engagement letter from Firm C (a firm you all know) has all the charm of a utility bill. Let me emphasize that they entirely skipped over the step of responding to the reasonable questions posed by the committee and went straight to an engagement letter. An oversight in the haste and press of business? Hard to believe. Presumptuous? You bet.

This letter unfortunately confirms what many think of lawyers and law firms (which I happen to believe is untrue) as heartless and rapacious (aren’t we all tired of lawyer jokes?). It would hardly rise to the level of “over investment” to reference the issues and address the recipients in more personal terms.

After many years of working with contractors, both as an IT executive and then in supply chain, I firmly believe that when vendors do not respond to an RFP as requested, it says that they will do what they want to do, not what the client wants. I have seen this pattern repeatedly – we went for the firm with the better name or more likable people only to be sorry once we were under contract. Vendor selection is like dating – if they do not treat you with respect now, it is not going to get any better when you’re hitched.

You might imagine law firms responding to RFPs would think their overriding goal should be to make it easy for the client to select their firm. If this sample of three is any indication, they seem to be operating under some alternative assumption, although it baffles me what that might be. Each in their own way made it harder for us to pick them.

If you are a lawyer, can you be sure that your clients aren’t this critical of your work? If you are, how is that? Maybe they have just become habituated, and once an alternative provider comes along with a better way of doing things they’ll transfer their allegiance. That’s what happened to Nokia and RIM. Those companies are still dealing with the aftermath.

Don’t wait for your platform to smoulder. Learn to see what needs changing while it is still possible to test things out.

A tale of two peelers: getting the tools right

Our household batterie de cuisine covers most normal eventualities, with plenty of pots, pans and utensils. We even have three corkscrews, which will be useful if there is ever a vinous emergency. One duplication is particularly interesting, and provides a metaphor for the knowledge and collaboration tools provided by law firms or other organisations.

2014-10-09 19.11.51We have two peelers.

I am sure this isn’t surprising in itself (after all, we have three corkscrews). However, the reason why we have two peelers is interesting. My wife and I have strongly-held and divergent views on the utility of each peeler. She hates the one I prefer, and I cannot use her favourite to peel effectively.

So we both use different tools to produce the same outcome — peeled vegetables. Such a clarity of outcome is not always possible in complex organisations, but I think it is worth striving for. Without it, one can easily be sidetracked into shiny new toys whose purpose is not really clear.

Having settled on a desired outcome, one needs to work out how best to achieve it. In our household there was no consensus on this. Fortunately, peelers are inexpensive enough to be able to acquire different types to satisfy everyone.

Even in more expensive situations, I think it is important to do everything possible to meet different needs when adopting new organisational tools and processes. When I look at some firms who have invested significant amounts in knowledge or collaboration tools that are rarely used, the cause is usually either a poorly defined outcome (what is this thing for, and does the average employee care about that?) or a failure to understand how people work and how that might be enhanced by the new system.

This was highlighted (again) by a tweet from today’s Enterprise 2.0 Summit in London:

‘Small pieces loosely joined’ was at the heart of many early uses of social tools within organisations. It is an approach that allows people to choose the approach that fits them and their desired outcome best. When the organisation chooses which outcomes to favour, and implements a one-size-fits-all tool, it is almost inevitable that half or more of the people who would have used it are put off by something that doesn’t work for them. As a result, it is much less likely that the desired outcome can actually be delivered.

It is still possible for organisations to find the right tools for people to use — big platforms are not the only approach. If you are interested in giving your people the peelers that they will use, I can help — please get in touch.

Thinking like a designer?

Over the last week, I have noticed a flurry of blog posts and articles referring to “design thinking.” This may just be a clustering illusion, though — the idea is not new, nor can I see any particular reason why it would surface now more than before. What I read does puzzle me, though.

San Gimignano

Let’s start with what is meant by design thinking.

Compare and contrast: Design Observer, October 2009: “What is Design Thinking Anyway?” and Design Observer, November 2007: “Design Thinking, Muddled Thinking.”

A quote from the latter first:

When the word “critical” is attached to the word “thinking,” the result, “critical thinking,” is a term that has clear, well defined, and well-understood meaning — certainly in the academic community, if not generally. As a counter example, the same cannot, for instance, be said about the term “art thinking.” This is not a term that can be used in any precise or meaningful way. Why? Because it could mean painting or sculpture; it could mean figurative or abstract; it could mean classical or modern or contemporary. Because it embodies so many contradictory notions, it is imprecise to the point of being meaningless — and therefore, completely understandably, it is not much used, if at all.

“Design thinking” is as problematic a term as “art thinking.” Design thinking could refer to architecture, fashion, graphic design, interior design, or product design; it could mean classical or modern or contemporary. It’s imprecise at best and meaningless at worst. More muddled thinking.

But then the more recent article takes a different view:

One popular definition is that design thinking means thinking as a designer would, which is about as circular as a definition can be. More concretely, Tim Brown of IDEO has written that design thinking is “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.” [Tim Brown, “Design Thinking” Harvard Business Review, June 2008, p. 86.] A person or organization instilled with that discipline is constantly seeking a fruitful balance between reliability and validity, between art and science, between intuition and analytics, and between exploration and exploitation. The design-thinking organization applies the designer’s most crucial tool to the problems of business. That tool is abductive reasoning.

Then there is this. Having adopted the “design thinking is thinking like a designer” approach, this site (curated by one Nicolae) goes on as follows.

When design is stripped from forming, shaping and styling, there is a process of critical thinking and creative solving at the very core of the profession. By consciously understanding and documenting this process, a new field within the design domain emerges that deals with the creativity DNA of the design mind. When properly understood and harvested, one can transfer the creative DNA from design into virtually any discipline regardless of brain direction. This process has been recognized by thought leaders as an extremely valuable tool for fostering creativity and driving innovation.

However, this is as far as it goes — there is no further analysis of what this “process of critical thinking and creative solving” might be (apart from a meaningless allusion to the left brain-right brain dichotomy, which is a widespread fallacy[1]). So that takes us no further. (I confess that in my original draft, I was much ruder.)

The reference in this week’s Design Observer piece to abductive reasoning takes us a bit further. Here is what wikipedia currently has to say about that, by comparison with better-known forms of reasoning.

allows deriving b as a consequence of a. In other words, deduction is the process of deriving the consequences of what is assumed. Given the truth of the assumptions, a valid deduction guarantees the truth of the conclusion. It is true by definition and is independent of sense experience. For example, if it is true (given) that the sum of the angles is 180° in all triangles, and if a certain triangle has angles of 90° and 30°, then it can be deduced that the third angle is 60°.
allows inferring a entails b from multiple instantiations of a and b at the same time. Induction is the process of inferring probable antecedents as a result of observing multiple consequents. An inductive statement requires empirical evidence for it to be true. For example, the statement ‘it is snowing outside’ is invalid until one looks or goes outside to see whether it is true or not. Induction requires sense experience.
allows inferring a as an explanation of b. Because of this, abduction allows the precondition a to be inferred from the consequence b. Deduction and abduction thus differ in the direction in which a rule like “a entails b” is used for inference. As such abduction is formally equivalent to the logical fallacy affirming the consequent or Post hoc ergo propter hoc, because there are multiple possible explanations for b.

At this stage, then, abduction doesn’t look too promising as a means of solving problems. However, it might be attractive as a tool to suggest solutions which can then be tested separately. This is the way I imagine it being used — as an exploratory technique. This is supported by exploring a reference later in the article to Charles Sanders Peirce. His lecture “The First Rule of Logic” is apposite here. Peirce argued that whatever mode of reasoning is chosen, “inquiry of any type… has the vital power of self-correction and of growth.” Following from this, “it may truly be said that there is but one thing needful for learning the truth, and that is a hearty and active desire to learn what is true.” We then come to the heart of his argument.

Upon this first, and in one sense this sole, rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to think, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon the wall of every city of philosophy,

Do not block the way of inquiry.

Although it is better to be methodical in our investigations, and to consider the Economics of Research, yet there is no positive sin against logic in trying any theory which may come into our heads, so long as it is adopted in such a sense as to permit the investigation to go on unimpeded and undiscouraged.

This opens the way to the kind of instinctive, hunch-following process that appears to be presented now as “design thinking.” I am far from sure that such thought processes are unique to designers or, even, more prevalent in that community. Peirce’s suggested open-mindedness in seeking solutions, followed by clear-headed assessment of the merit of those solutions, is a model that many professionals follow, designers or not.

Neil Denny, in a post critiquing some lawyers’ thinking, points to Edward de Bono’s concept of Po. This idea is essentially the same as abduction — thinking of answers that are entirely distinct from the obvious answers in order to reach a new and achievable solutions. As Neil puts it,

Po lifts us out of the normal patterns of thinking. It does not ask “Is this a good idea?” which invites a critical progression of “…And if not, why not.” Instead, po says “Let’s just accept that the following statement, however nonsensical, however illogical is a good idea. Now, what is good about it? What would work or how would it benefit our organisation, or our clients.”

The idea or the suggestion itself is put forward to stimulate the discussion. The idea can be discarded later once it has identified benefits or methodologies.

As Neil indicates, it is the discussion, or the process by which traditional logical tests are applied, where the work really happens. Going back, again, to an old post of mine, James Webb Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas (chronologically only slightly closer to de Bono than to Peirce) is just another expression of the same basic process.

The process can be distilled into a small set of key points:

  1. Desire to learn, adapt, or create
  2. Always be open to possibilities (however odd they may seem)
  3. Choose potential solutions intuitively and imaginatively
  4. Test the chosen solutions rigorously
  5. Discard failed (and failing) solutions (including the status quo), however attractive they may appear
  6. Learn, adapt or create
  7. Return to the beginning

This is a hard discipline, and it has to be maintained for best results.

Interestingly, if you persist in concentrating on the things you already know and are familiar with, if you avoid opening your eyes to the widest variety of options, you are likely to be persistently unlucky. Richard Wiseman has reached this conclusion after studying luck and luckiness for some years.

[U]nlucky people miss chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else. They go to parties intent on finding their perfect partner and so miss opportunities to make good friends. They look through newspapers determined to find certain types of job advertisements and as a result miss other types of jobs. Lucky people are more relaxed and open, and therefore see what is there rather than just what they are looking for.

My research revealed that lucky people generate good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.

Wiseman’s work is extremely interesting, and worth exploring in more detail. (For those in Manchester at the end of the month there is even an opportunity to hear him speak as part of the Manchester Science Festival.)

It is important, however, not to get too carried away with intuition. When dealing with abstract problems, our brains tend to think in a way that can lead inexorably to error. The clustering illusion that I referred to at the beginning, together with a host of other cognitive errors, can be a real problem when assessing probability and statistics, for example, as Ben Goldacre specialises in showing us. If design thinking just means being supremely imaginative and doggedly intuitive, it is not likely to be a formula for success. If however, it is a shorthand for creative thinking coupled with critical assessment against objective standards (whether those are rules of logic or just client imperatives), then it is undeniably good.

But let’s not allow the designers to think it is their unique preserve.

[1] The reasons why this fallacy persists are beyond my scope here. However, the idea of a clear division is a fallacy. Although the mechanism is not fully understood, the brain almost certainly needs to involve both halves to function properly. Take this statement by Jerre Levy, in “Right Brain, Left Brain: Fact and Fiction,” Psychology Today, May 1985, for example:

The two-brain myth was founded on an erroneous premise: that since each hemisphere was specialized, each must function as an independent brain. But in fact, just the opposite is true. To the extent that regions are differentiated in the brain, they must integrate their activities. Indeed, it is precisely that integration that gives rise to behaviour and mental processes greater than and different from each region’s contribution. Thus, since the central premise of the mythmakers is wrong, so are all the inferences derived from it.

The New Scientist has also covered the issue (only available in full to subscribers, although it is possible to find versions of the article around the internet).

Don’t overdo it

When we think about and plan our KM activities, it can be tempting to imagine a marvellous future wherein all our firm’s know-how is carefully nurtured, categorised, exposed for all to see, tagged, analysed, or whatever it is we think would be the best outcome. However, as the Bard of Ayrshire put it: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/ Gang aft agley.” Why is this?

Gigha boatscape

One good reason is pointed out in Gall’s Law:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.

I am indebted to John Gruber for the pointer to this formulation. He uses it to explain how to understand Apple’s strategy with regard to the iPhone.

If there’s a formula to Apple’s success over the past 10 years, that’s it. Start with something simple and build it, grow it, improve it, steadily over time. Evolve it.

The iPhone exemplifies this strategy. There’s a long list of features many experts and pundits claimed the original 1.0 iPhone needed but lacked. Ends up it didn’t need any of them. Nice to have is not the same thing as necessary. But things the iPhone did have, which other phones lacked, truly were necessary in terms of providing the sort of great leap forward in the overall experience that Apple was shooting for.

At this point, it is worth noting an essential qualifier to Gall’s Law: “A simple system may or may not work.” In the case of the iPhone it clearly did work. In other cases, Apple decided that it did not work.

What Gruber brings over and above a simple assertion of Gall’s Law is an insight about how to choose the original simple system: “It’s not enough just to start simple, you have to start simple with a framework designed for future evolution and growth.” When the iPhone was first launched, it was not particularly full-featured as a phone: it was not 3G; it did not support MMS. It even fell short on the music front, as it cost significantly more per gigabyte than any of the iPod range. However, as Gruber points out:

Apple started instead with the idea of a general-purpose pocket-sized networked computer. It no more has a single main purpose than a desktop PC has a single main purpose. Telephony is simply one feature among many, whereas on most other phones, the features are attached to the side of the telephone. They sold 30 million iPhone OS devices in the first 18 months after 29 June 2007, but 13 million of those were non-phone iPod Touches — proving that the platform is clearly appealing even when the “phone” is entirely removed. (Consider too that the iPhone’s two strongest competitors are BlackBerry and Android, neither of which started as phones.)

The iPhone was not conceived merely as a single device or a one-time creation. It’s a platform. A framework engineered for the long-run. The iPhone didn’t and doesn’t need MMS or a better camera or a video camera or more storage or cut/copy/paste or GPS mapping or note syncing, because the framework was in place so that Apple could add these things, and much more, later — either through software updates or through new hardware designs. The way to build a complex device with all the features you want is not to start by trying to build a device with all those features, but rather to start with the fundamentals, and then iterate and evolve.

We should learn the same lesson with our knowledge systems. Not to try and predict all the features that might be useful in the future — that way lies excessive complexity coupled with early obsolescence and failure. Instead we should imagine and create the best platform for future possibilities — as simple as possible, but as open to development as necessary.

Beauty, truth, modernity, tradition

I have just read a perfect summary by Stephen Bayley of one of the principles underpinning my thoughts on this blog.

For me, the debate was a chance to go rhetorical about the single cultural principle I hold most dear: that history and tradition are things you build on with pride and conviction, not resorts you scurry back to when you can think of nothing better to do. I believe that to deny the present is to shortchange the future. These things I learnt from Nikolaus Pevsner.

Bayley was reporting on the National Trust ‘Quality of Life’ debate, “Britain has become indifferent to beauty.”

In Bayley’s account, the debate sounds very stimulating. Supporting the motion were David Starkey and Roger Scruton. Bayley caricatures them thus:

Starkey and Scruton see culture as a serial that has been recorded in episodes and canned in perpetuity for posterity. The task, in their view, is not to augment architectural history with up-to-date improvements, but regularly to revisit the past for edification and instruction.

Bereft of optimism or enthusiasm, bloated with sly and knowing cynicism, they see no value in contemporary life.

Opposing the motion were Germaine Greer (“after Clive James, our Greatest Living Australian National Treasure”) and Bayley himself. The outcome of the debate? The motion was lost resoundingly. Clearly the audience was convinced by the notion that beauty was not fixed at some past time, but is still being made, albeit in a different tradition.

This was not because we were so very clever, but because Starkey and Scruton were so very wrong. And what was the turning point? One, Greer said what a beautiful spring day it was. Whose mood was not enhanced by sunshine and flowers and blue skies? No dissenters, there. Two, in despair at their negativism, cynicism and defeatism, I asked Starkey and Scruton: “Why is it I like what you like (which is to say: medieval, renaissance and Victorian), but why you are so limited and snitty and crabby you see no value in what I like?” No dissenters here, either.

Wonderful to prove that the British are not, indeed, indifferent to beauty.

Reading Bayley’s account, I felt that the traditionalists’ view was not just applicable to beauty. Many things, including language and weights and measures are held by some to be better in some historical form. On the other hand, I am not sure that the resistance to modernity is a related to fear of change, which is how it is often characterised.

The problem, I think, is that we see the past in a sanitised form. The things that are left from bygone eras tend to be the most beautiful. However, we forget this and assume that we see a true picture of what our forbears experienced. Keats’s grecian urn is a prime example.

Famously, Keats’s poem ends with an assertion that truth and beauty are inseparable. For me, however, the phrase before that is more interesting:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst…

Keats appears to be suggesting that the urn will always persist because of its beauty. Given the fragility of antique ceramics, this must be a forlorn hope. In general, however, the probability of survival of any given artefact must surely be proportional to its beauty: people are more likely to take care of such things than they are of their uglier counterparts. As a result, our view of the past is inevitably a sanitised one, containing only the good parts, with little of the bad.

By contrast, we experience all of the present — the good and the bad. Sometimes it is difficult to tell which is which. In the face of such uncertainty, it is not surprising that some people prefer to turn against the present and seek solace in the past. I think this is where Scruton and Starkey sit, whereas Greer and Bayley are happy to explore the present — risking the possibility that what they regard as worthwhile will turn out with the passage of time to be ugly and worthless.

I think they are right to take that risk. To do otherwise is to fail to take part in the process by which the things that are worthwhile are preserved for future generations. We need to remember to do the same in our organisations — not to hold on to repositories of old knowledge just because they are old, but to open our minds to the possibility of the creation of new knowledge by whatever means (and to risk some of that new knowledge being worthless).

White space, thinking, speaking, doing

Compare these two images.

Despite the fact that the left-hand advertisement proclaims its message in bolder and larger text than the right-hand one, I think the right-hand one has a greater impact. However, in some contexts an advertisement like the one on the left would be entirely appropriate. The image, and the insight, are taken from an interesting article by Mark Boulton at A List Apart on the use of whitespace in design.

The content is the same on both designs, as are the other elements, such as photography. Yet the two designs stand at opposite ends of the brand spectrum. Less whitespace = cheap; more whitespace = luxury.

A lot more goes into brand positioning than just whitespace, but as a brief lands on your desk for a luxury brand, it’s very likely that the client—and their target audience—expects whitespace and plenty of it to align the product with its competitors.

It is clear from the article that a key part of the designer’s job is as much judging how much to leave out as deciding what to put in. I think there is something there for lawyers to learn too.

It is difficult for someone with clearly defined skills, tasks and tools to hold back from doing what they do. A blacksmith with a hammer and an anvil needs to use them quickly and effectively. Too much time spent pondering where to strike the hot iron is not time well-spent. Likewise, a lumberjack shouldn’t pause mid-way through felling a tree. On the other hand, good craftsmen will plan their work carefully — “measure twice, cut once” is not a meaningless mantra — and so wielding the appropriate tool is not usually the first thing that they do. Sometimes I think this is not a discipline that comes easily to professional services advisors.

When a client comes to us with a problem, our natural inclination is to flex our muscles. “I see what your problem is; I’ll draft this document and we can start clearing things up…” Because of the tyranny of the billable hour (a topic best dealt with elsewhere), we need to show that we are solving problems with recorded time and demonstrable outputs (documents, meetings, e-mails, phone calls). Often, however, the client is not interested in those things — their focus is on the outcome, not the output.

A little while ago, Bruce MacEwen asked “Are you beginning to get the same creepy feeling I am, that large organizations discourage deep or creative thinking?” This question was prompted in part by a discussion piece on Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge site: “Why Don’t Managers Think Deeply?” That piece starts thus:

A since deceased, highly-regarded fellow faculty member, Anthony (Tony) Athos, occasionally sat on a bench on a nice day at the Harvard Business School, apparently staring off into space. When asked what he was doing, ever the iconoclast, he would say, “Nothing.” His colleagues, trained to admire and teach action, would walk away shaking their heads and asking each other, “Is he alright?” It is perhaps no coincidence that Tony often came up with some of the most profound insights at faculty meetings and informal gatherings.

I sense that, especially now, the opportunities for creatively doing “nothing” are very limited in law firms and similar organisations. Unfortunately, now is the very time in which we need profundity in our thinking. Our leaders need that space in which to ponder things, so that they can lead us out of the current mess. At any time, when working with clients, we can only produce a better quality outcome by cogitating before drafting. The white space in a magazine layout does not take away from the words on the page — it enhances them. In a similar way, the time we spend thinking about what to do, or write, or say, the better those deed or words are likely to be.

There is another school of thought, exemplified by a light-hearted essay by Heinrich von Kleist: “Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden” (“On the gradual formation of thoughts while speaking“). It can be read as a carefully thought-out manifesto for blogging.

My dear thoughtful friend: if there is something you want to know without being able to find it out through meditation, turn to any acquaintance you run into to talk about the matter. There is no need for him to be a sharp mind. Also, I do not mean to say that you should ask him about this matter: Oh no, never! Rather, you should tell him the solution yourself. I can see you making big eyes and telling me that you have been advised earlier to speak of nothing except of what you understand. But at that time you may have had the mad ambition to instruct others. but I want you to tell him so you instruct yourself!

The French say l’appétit vient en mangeant, and this empirical maxim remains true if one makes a parody of it and says l’idée vient en parlant.

Often I sit over my papers and I try to find out from what angle a given conflict has to be judged. Usually, I look into the light, as the brightest spot I can find, as I try to enlighten my inner being. Or else I seek out the first approach, the first equation which expresses the obtaining relations, and from which the solution may be derived simply through plain arithmetic. And look what happens: as soon as I talk to my sister — who is sitting and working behind me — about this matter, I realise what hours of hard thinking have not been able to make clear to me. It isn’t as if she was was telling me in any direct sense. She does not know the law, and has never studied her Euler and her Kästner. Neither is that what she leads me to the crucial point through deft questions — although this latter case may occasionally occur. But since I have some vague thoughts that are in some way connected with what I am looking for, then once I have embarked on the formulation of the thought it is as if the need to lead what has been begun to some conclusion transforms my hazy imaginations into complete clarity in such a way that my insight is completed together with my rambling sentence.

I don’t think Kleist is proposing a different approach to the pursuit of white space in our work. Rather, he is suggesting a way of dealing with the inevitable consequence of thinking: thoughts. When we ponder, we may generate many possible solutions to problems. We are then faced with the difficult task of gauging which of those solutions is the best. Alternatively, some of our thoughts may be more fully-formed than others, and we need to guard against them — the inchoate ideas may actually be the better ones. If we do as Kleist advises, we can start to see how things fit together or how they might be flawed. For me (and for others, I suspect) this is one of the benefits of blogging. It helps me sort things out in my own mind, even if nobody else takes notice. (But many thanks to those of you who do, of course.) It works in other contexts as well. In the programming context Scott Ruthfield says: “when you’re stuck, write it down.”

Say you’re trying to figure out how to do something in [pick a framework], and you’ve Googled the heck out of the most-likely search terms, and nothing’s coming up.

Then write down your question as if you were going to ask a teacher/email it to a friend/post to a Google group/etc. Write down all the details: explain the thing you’re trying to do, the problem you have, and the number of things you’ve tried. Be as clear as you can, but don’t worry about being concise.

Literally every single time I’ve ever done this – and my rule-of-thumb is to do it after ~1.5 days worth of trying to figure it out myself – I find a number of new avenues to try, and almost always solve the problem on my own.

Putting these elements together, we can see that effective use of white space in our work comes when we combine thinking time with active reflection through the recording of ideas, questions, thoughts, half-baked conclusions. That will allow us to see what we know that will help the client achieve the outcome they want (or identify the gaps that can be filled by others). As a result, this approach will produce a better-quality product — as we saw at the outset, that is one of the consequences of carefully-used white space. Doing without thinking leads to the kind of cluttered, shouty, low-quality output that is exemplified by the first picture at the top of this post.

(Scott Berkun adds another benefit to writing without thinking too much about the output. It can break through a blockage. “The secret, if you can’t start, is to begin without constraints. Deliberately write badly, but write.” That is a different issue from the one I have touched on here, albeit similarly challenging.)

Lawyers: architects or bricklayers?

Yesterday lunchtime I managed to get out of the office for a walk at lunchtime. As I did so, I pondered a question that has been at the back of my mind for some time. It is my impression that innovation in law firms tends to occur most in the delivery of legal services, client care or in some peripheral law firm activity (marketing, finance, IT, etc). It is fairly rare that we see real innovation in the law itself coming out of law firms. (Some evidence for this impression is provided by the annual Financial Times survey of innovation in law firms.)

As I pondered and wandered, I admired the characteristic brickwork of Manchester’s historic cotton warehouses. Cruelly, I wondered whether many lawyers were simply bricklayers — putting the right blocks together in a particular way to achieve the desired result: an agreement or set of agreements to achieve the commercial aims of their clients. Extending the analogy further, there are significant similarities between the creation of a new building and the conclusion of a corporate or commercial transaction.

At the outset there is a client and the client has a need. No legal work is done without an external driver. Similarly few if any buildings are created purely speculatively. The client’s need (for a building to fit a particular purpose or for a new acquisition) is usually arrived at entirely without interference by professional specialists. However, once the need has crystallised, the professionals are needed to make the need a reality: an architect in the case of a building, a lawyer in the case of the transaction. At this stage, the client’s need might permit innovation (in building design or in legal structure). However, it is almost impossible for that innovation to create an opportunity for a new type of client need.

An example of the kind of innovation I mean is the development of steel-framed structures. Once the potential of that kind of building was realised by clients, the development of densely-built cities like New York and Chicago became possible. I can’t think of a legal innovation with an equivalent impact on the scenery of business, work, trade or commerce. (That is not to say that there isn’t one — it is late and my mind is tired.)

So at least one lawyer seeing to the client’s needs is an architect — creating the best structure to deliver what the client wants, dealing with other professionals (including regulators), managing key specialists (including hod-carrying lawyers), and ensuring that the client is kept happy. Innovation in all of those areas is possible, but it must be secondary to the need to deliver what the client needs as effectively as possible. In many situations (probably the vast majority), that effectiveness is probably most likely to come from doing the usual job. Similarly, many architects might want to be innovative, but ultimately the client wants something from the pattern-book, so that is what they get.

If my analogy is correct, it must have implications for our KM efforts. There is scope for KM to support innovation, but bricklaying lawyers need a different kind of innovation than the key architects. And innovations created by the architects might never relate to technical legal issues. How do we support them without knowing where the opportunities are?