Just start. Take the first step. Small advances from a low baseline can and do pay huge dividends. On departmental improvement initiatives, lawyers can be their own worst enemies. We need to get out of our own way.
An example. The two lowest hanging fruits in the industry (tools that produce the greatest ROI with the least amount of effort) are electronic signature and workflow technologies. Using both, NetApp implemented Instant NDA four years ago when electronic signature technology was cutting edge. The change in process and the addition of technology reduced a three-to-five day turnaround to a matter hours for 90 percent of our NDAs. NDAs became a “no-touch” solution, taking attorneys completely out of the process in the vast majority of cases. This was the start.
Fear is the most common reason for not starting. Fear of not being perfect. Fear of the unknown. Fear of mistakes or, worse yet, failure. However, once you start, you begin capturing metrics, changing behavior, and cutting costs. Any movement forward, anything better than yesterday, is a success. Consistent and continuous small changes are a winning recipe. We rolled out the Instant NDA as a not-yet-perfect product in a week and then tweaked it along the way until the process and technology was solidified.
Start small. The idea of starting small can help overcome the fear of starting. Starting small also allows you to iterate—i.e., make incremental changes along the way so nothing ever goes horribly awry. Even the most well-planned rollouts have unintended consequences and require tweaks. The mistake of not starting, however, is not fixable. Lost time cannot be recovered. With Instant NDA, we initiated the rollout with a select group and then expanded. We have since added 28 use cases in 12 unique organizations throughout the enterprise. Not only has Legal provided efficiencies for groups like HR, Finance, IT, Supply Chain, Quote–to-Invoice, Procurement, Marketing and Sales, we also saved the company over $2 million annually. In 2010, we had zero documents signed electronically. In 2014, over 13,000 documents were executed with this game-changing technology. We then moved into maintenance mode, which provided bandwidth to get started with our next implementation.
Law departments are challenged to adopt this mindset. Because substantive legal work has such a slim margin for error and there are few do-overs; perfection serves as a default standard. On guard for imperfection, lawyers bring their professional issue-spotting skills to bear on any suggestion that something be done differently. Invariably, they find problems. No improvement initiative has ever been perfect in planning, execution, or implementation. But progress, not perfection, should be the standard by which improvement initiatives are judged. We should not compare the probable, problematic end state to an ideal outcome and then dismiss the initiative as destined for failure. Rather, we should compare the probable end state with our problematic current state and ask (i) “Is it better?” and (ii) “Are the gains worth the costs to get there?”
Further, the aggregate impact of marginal gains is not aligned with our intuitions. A linear conception of progress would suggest that a law department that improves by 2 percent per month would need over 4 years to double its productivity, more than 12 years to quadruple it, and more than 37 years to be ten times (10x) better. But, because improvement compounds, the law department that gets 2 percent better each month will double its productivity in 3 years, quadruple it in less than 6 years, and be 10 times better in less than 10 years.
Small change can still be meaningful change. And an overemphasis on large changes can, like perfection, be an impediment to any change at all. One of the best ways to maintain the status quo is talk about change constantly while doing nothing, with the excuse that the small changes are too small (not worth it) and the big changes are too big (not achievable). There are too few—if any—“Goldilocks” change initiatives (just right).
Our advice is to get started now. Fail fast, fail often. Learn. Improve. Repeat. But make consistent progress. Small wins will add up. We will never get to perfect. But we will get better.