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June 19 2020

How To Think Creatively and Generate Ideas

Legal Career Tips

Harry Mellor

Harry Mellor

How To Think Creatively and Generate Ideas

On this week’s Virtual Lunch in collaboration with Crafty Counsel and LexisNexis UK, hosted by Sophie Gould, Head of Learning & Development at F-LEX, we were delighted to welcome Amy McConnell, Head of Legal Operations at Vodafone Business, who set out an in-depth road-map on how her company is driving innovation among its in-house counsel.

Why do we need to innovate?

A truck is approaching an underpass. The driver assumes there is enough clearance room, but misjudges the height of the bridge and the truck becomes stuck. He alerts the Highways Agency, who bring in an engineer to assess the problem. First, the engineer suggests raising the bridge with a hydraulic jack to free the truck. However it becomes clear this is too costly and too dangerous to work. Second, the engineer digs underneath the truck. Again, this isn’t feasible. The engineer finally says they are out of options and the bridge must be demolished. At this moment a civilian walks past and says, “Why don’t you let the air out of the tyres?”

The above scenario arose because intelligent, professional people often base their solutions on their own experiences and perceptions of a problem, even when such solutions are not optimal. This approach is common-place among all professions and industries, not least the legal sector. This drives inefficiency and a culture of wasted internal resources. But if law firms and in-house legal teams recognise this problem, how can they solve it?

1. Getting Started

The easiest mistake to make with any project is neglecting the earlier stages of the process and jumping straight into the ‘ideas phase’. This is because it is the most appealing stage, where problems are solved and praise can be easily gleaned for your input. Nevertheless, fleshing out the basics of a project is key for its long-term success. Who are the stakeholders involved? How will the project be structured? Will a Project Manager be needed? It is also crucial to consider current data points before the project progresses. These allow future results to be bench-marked and the success of the project to be quantitatively determined.

2. Design and Thinking

This stage hails largely from the advertising and media sector, however it is easily applicable to legal teams too. When approaching a problem it is important to consider the end-user and their specific characteristics. For instance, a product aimed at the general public ought to have a set of terms and conditions that is user friendly, and can be meaningfully digested by a lay person. The objective should be to comprehensively solve the problem in the simplest way. To achieve this, the right people must be in the room to begin with. It can be easy for projects to be driven by people who aren’t necessarily the end-users of the solution being developed, yet the most valuable input is often from the consumers, who take the most practical perspective on what works and what doesn’t.

Linked to this is the sub-stage of understanding and defining the problem. Amy has found that, despite working towards a common end-goal, teams can have various misunderstandings of what that end-goal is. An effective way to mitigate this is to break down the problem into a single sentence which is understood by everyone. This helps to keep the project streamlined and to avoid time-consuming tangents.

3. Generating Ideas

Despite the leaps and bounds of technology in recent decades, the most effective way to brainstorm ideas is to gather team members around a table, give them a whiteboard and pen, and set them going. Of course, this can be interpreted metaphorically, given how common-place working from home has become. Either way, the premise remains the same: collective energy and different perspectives lead to original ideas.

The next step is to create the correct environment. Everyone has been in a situation where certain people drain the life out of a brainstorming session by criticising every idea that is put forward. To combat this, ideas must be built upon instead of being dismantled. This is beneficial in two ways: firstly, the initial idea may go on to be developed into the final solution through collective input and tweaking; and secondly, the atmosphere of the group becomes conducive to more ideas being thrown around, even if they sound off-the-wall. Once the fear of criticism and embarrassment is taken away, the group can become free to engage with its own creativity.

The final stage to effectively generating ideas is to forget all about them! By taking a break and letting the ideas sit in your brain without active thought, connections start to be made subconsciously. This leads to the ‘Eureka!’ moment in the shower or on the dog walk which we can all attest to, when the connections suddenly manifest themselves into the solution we were looking for all along but couldn’t quite grasp.

4. Experiment

Finally, even when the winning idea has apparently been found, it is essential to experiment and trial different ideas in practice. This negates the usual debate of which idea should be used, a discussion which can never be backed up with accurate data because the idea hasn’t been tested yet. By trialling a selection of ideas, unforeseen issues can be identified and addressed accordingly. This approach ultimately reduces risk and allows ideas to collectively grow until one solution in particular presents itself as optimal.