Before you innovate, fix your business model

It sounds very cool to say you are an innovator, writes Ken Grady in ‘Before you innovate, fix your business model‘. As always from Ken, innovation is a topical issue for BigLaw business model firms. Read what he has to say…..

 It sounds like you are a blend of hipster and traditionalist, mixed with a dash of tech and a pinch of P.T. Barnum. People like innovators, they want to hang around with them and be like them. Companies want to hire innovators, especially those with “proven track records,” which I think means you have failed a lot but have learned from the experiences. There is the other guy who sits on the couch at the party, nibbling the pretzels and drinking a beer. He is the guy who says he does a form of business model re-engineering using stochastic modeling of core inputs.

Many people think innovation is a replacement for fixing what you already have. In a way, that is part of the consumer mentality. Fixing the old does not sound as glamorous or give us the same high as going for the new. Our economy depends on this type of thinking. We encourage people to replace what they have with something that has new features, sparkles and gives them a bit of an endorphin rush.

Unless you have unlimited wealth, this strategy has its shortcomings. One big challenge is compatibility. I faced this recently when my old MacBook reached the end of its life cycle and I had to buy a new one. I connected the old Mac to my external monitors and everything was fine for about two minutes. Then the screens would display psychedelic patterns. The nice folks at Apple told me they could fix the problem for a substantial sum and oh, by the way, my Mac was two months away from the dreaded “unsupported” date. The alternative was to buy that shiny new MacBook. What could I do?

The compatibility problem hit me several weeks later. New Macs have four, USB-C ports and nothing else. Now, you don’t have to know anything about computers to understand the problem: nothing in existence has a USB-C plug. I had to get converters for everything. I’m sure someday USB-C plugs will be all over (and Apple will have moved on to the USB-X port), but when you are in Switzerland and think you have every necessary converter only to find out you are missing the one you need that day, nothing will make you happy. Innovation sans compatibility equals a computer that won’t display your slide presentation through the projection system.

Innovation often means new technology. We hear that new tech will replace all of us, at work, at home, and driving the car. But that isn’t the case today with new tech. Instead, it replaces pieces of what we do. For some, the pieces are big, for others small. Take the case of truck platooning. This is where one truck is the lead truck and several trucks platoon behind that lead truck, making use of autonomous vehicle technology. One driver for five vehicles sounds good (unless you are a truck driver). But what about the business model fit? Many on and off ramps to highways can’t hold five trucks at a time. What happens at a stop sign? Will cars patiently wait for five trucks to go through (and how will cars know which is the last in the platoon, or even that there is a platoon)? Good innovation, but the business model needs some work.

Before you innovate, fix your business model

Steve Blank said it nicely, CEOs must do both: execute the business model and innovate.

Visionary CEOs are not ‘just’ great at assuring world-class execution of a tested and successful business model: they are also world-class innovators. Steve Blank. A Harvard Business Review “Master of Innovation.”

To make innovation work, start by looking at the business model you have. If the current model has many features that aren’t working, fix them or trash them. Ask how you will integrate innovations with your business model, don’t just assume they will fit together.

Innovate with purpose

Do you have the feeling that you are supposed to know where and what to innovate, even though you don’t? The managing partner says “we are all about innovation” but no one shares with you where innovation fits into the scheme of things. Innovation for the sake of innovating seldom turns out the way we want. Ask Dean Kamen about the Segway. It is a great innovation and looks very cool, but the market for the innovation isn’t there.

Perhaps you are an innovator who will change the world. You have the idea that will turn lead into gold, cure cancer, or make travel to Mars seem like a drive across town. Go for it and don’t look back. For those of us mere mortals, start with your business model.

If you look at your business model and see gaps, flaws, or weaknesses, you know where to start. Concentrate your innovation efforts on fixing these problems. In law, we have many such problems. We waste time going through documents looking for mistakes, only to create new mistakes as we fix the old ones. We transfer information from document, to document, to document, dropping pieces along the way. We gather data for a project, only to re-gather it for the next project (and the next, and the next). While innovations to fix these problems may seem small (Clay Christenson’s incremental rather than disruptive innovations), they are money in the bank.

Each incremental innovation is like interest on your savings. Pile one innovation on top of another, and watch the interest grow. It doesn’t take many incremental improvements to have a significant impact on your bank account.

You can be the innovator everyone wants to hang around. But if you want to make an impact, be the innovator who fixes the business model. It may not be glamorous, but it is quite satisfying and the CEO who needs a working business model and innovation will thank you.


Ken is now an Adjunct Professor at Michigan State University’s College of Law and a Member of its LegalRnD Faculty.

He is a Fastcase 50 recipient, a Fellow-Elect of the College of Law Practice Management, and a Medium “Top 50” writer on Innovation.

You can follow Ken on Twitter @LeanLawStrategy, connect with him on LinkedIn, and follow him on Facebook.


Before You Innovate, Fix Your Business Model was first published on The Algorithmic Society blog on June 18, 2017.

Editor’s admonition: Before you innovate, Fix your business model

Readers may want to refer the Self-Assessment Tool at p80 et seq. in Remaking Law Firms: Why & How (ABA 2016). Imme Kaschner and I developed the tool to assist law firms grade their readiness for change. Our intent is exactly as expressed by Ken, Before you innovate, Fix your business model!


Leave a Reply

Notify of