What’s your sports department?

As both a former journalist and a recovering professional sports fan, I was intrigued by this entry at Mark Coddington’s blog about innovation in newspapers. He reports on a study that found the department within most news organizations most amenable to innovation is actually Sports. The two journalism professors who prepared the report, along with other commentators, offered a series of possible explanations for this finding:

  • Sports journalists’ frenetic pace and round-the-clock deadlines are more conducive to the web than to print.
  • Sports journalists have tended to value their readers more highly — a key attitude in adapting to the two-way nature of online news.
  • The web was practically tailor-made for the way fans want to consume information about sports.

But the number-one reason cited, one that I think has resonance for law firms as well, was this:

  • Sports departments operate outside the rest of the traditional newsroom structure.

Coddington writes: “Innovation and risk-taking usually take place in autonomous divisions within an organization, ‘and at most news organizations, the sports departments are separate beasts, often working different schedules and feeling relatively less shackled by [tradition].’ Sports have long been thought of as the newspaper’s ‘toy department,’ the place where journalists can try out new styles and strategies, and since it’s not ‘real news,’ no one will get too worked up about it. Most sportswriters still bristle at the term ‘toy department,’ but as Jeff Jarvis and John Zhu suggested, it’s easier to experiment when you’ve been cordoned off from the sections of the paper that take their mission too seriously to try anything out of the ordinary.”

I’ve tried to become a kind of innovation botanist over the past several years, figuring out why it flourishes in some environments but wilts and perishes in others. This explanation makes a lot of sense to me, especially in the legal profession. Lawyers, risk-averse and change-resistant to a fault, hardly ever sign off on wholesale change from the start; but they’re often willing enough to offer up a small section of the garden for a new kind of approach and see what grows there, so long as the potential downside is clearly defined and delimited.

When I worked for the Canadian Bar Association, for example, and we needed to introduce an innovation of some kind (moving association newsletters from print to email, for instance), I made more headway through the liberal use of “pilot projects” than with any other method. Two or three small sections would agree to run parallel print and email publications and see which the members preferred. Virtually without exception, the pilot projects succeeded, and the majority of the control group switched to the new approach ahead of schedule. It was a demonstration of how innovation and experimentation in legal organizations is tolerated at the edges, a safe distance from the business core, where “no one will get too worked up about it” — but when it succeeds, converts can follow rapidly.

I also see this in my role as chair of the College of Law Practice Management’s InnovAction Awards, which were handed out at the College’s 2010 Futures Conference last month. This year’s winner, for example, was Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive program, which helps low-income people to quickly and easily complete essential legal forms online at no charge. Moreover, we gave an InnovAction Honourable Mention to Axiom LLP, a virtual or distributed law firm, for its function outsourcing initiative. Both of these winning organizations operate on what most lawyers would call the periphery of the traditional legal marketplace — yet it’s precisely on the periphery that real progress towards better systems and better results is being made, not least because these initiatives don’t appear to threaten anyone’s established position (so far).

There’s always a caveat, of course, and in this case, it’s the problem of migrating successful innovation from the periphery to the center. One of the comments on Mark Coddington’s post makes this point: “While the ‘toy department’ rep helps make it easier for sports departments to experiment, I fear it also makes it harder to reproduce that level of experimentation in other areas of the news organization. It’s much harder to convince management to remain as hands-off for “serious” news, and when you say, ‘Well, this worked for sports,’ it’s always shot down with, ‘Yeah, but that’s just sports.’” This will sound depressingly familiar to advocates of change within law firms, who consistently run into opposition from lawyers deeply versed in the art of distinguishing precedents to suit their own purposes.

But that’s not a good enough reason to quit before you even start. Right now, within your law firm or legal organization, is a sports department just waiting for the chance to rip off the restraints and show what it can do. Maybe, if you’re lucky, they’re not even waiting, and they’re already conducting furtive experiments like publishing a practice-group blog, offering and profiting from risk-sharing fee arrangements, making use of contract lawyers and LPO services, or designing the software that will revolutionize this practice area in a year or two.

Your mission is to find these subversives and give them everything they need to succeed. Cordon off a section of the garden, provide them with a wheelbarrow full of supplies, and let them know they’re free to fail without consequence. At the same time, protect them from pressure and second-guessing by the organizational establishment. Don’t let anyone violate the Roman Rule: “The person who says it can’t be done should never interfere with the person who’s doing it.” Find your sports department, and do whatever you can to help it infiltrate your entire operation.

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