About the authors

Lorna Synan

Strategic Sourcing Manager

Robert Taylor

VP and Sr. Corporate Counsel

Facilitate Change, But Do No Harm

By Lorna Synan, Robert Taylor

Reading Time: 6 minutes

May 2020 |
Lorna Synan, Strategic Sourcing Manager – Legal Ideation and Transformation, Liberty Mutual Insurance
Robert Taylor, VP and Senior Corporate Counsel – Legal Ideation and Transformation, Liberty Mutual Insurance

Change is hard. Encouraging innovation and implementing change in an established and successful organization is even harder. Changing the legal service delivery model and implementing meaningful legal innovation, seemingly impossible. But it can be done. By leveraging techniques based in neuroscience, you can help people overcome emotional resistance that can be brought about by budget constraints, business imperatives, and pressures of the external marketplace. All these daily pressures and human nature itself can compete with their innate understanding and recognition of the need to innovate. Neuroscience studies the way the human brain works and how we respond to certain stimuli. It helps us understand what influences the way people make basic decisions. Learning more about motivators and stressors can help you shape how your employees or stakeholders respond to change. Which is why more and more organizations are hiring industrial psychologists and/or neuroscientists to help them better understand employees’ mindsets to unlock greater performance.

At Liberty Mutual Insurance, we began our innovation journey by asking a few questions: How do you innovate within a Legal department in an already conservative organization that is designed to measure risk? How do you overcome the psychological barriers of both individuals and groups in order to effectuate meaningful change? We sought our answers from a wide range of experts and share below neuroscience-based techniques (classification, safety, and support) from sources that helped us successfully navigate implementing legal innovation that aligned with our strategy.

Author’s note: We share a lot of content in our organization, none better than ‘Steal like an Artist’ by Austin Kleon who points out that there are very few original ideas. We will do our best to credit the ideas below where we can and impart universal concepts fairly, but we do not claim to be wicked smart professors who have all the answers and are lecturing from the front of a tiered classroom.

Classification: Innovators and Protectors

You will broadly find two equally important groups within your own work environment, typically classified as innovators and protectors. Through classification, you can better understand how to approach and harness the capabilities of both groups and facilitate change. The innovators will create, foster and thrive on new and ambitious ideas while the protectors will defend the status quo and prevent loss.

Honor the ideas of the innovators by clearly defining goals and objectives that can quantify the impact of their contributions. Harness the innovator’s energy to support your department’s vision but be aware of attempts to hijack your strategic plan for their own agenda, as this could derail progress. Engage the innovators and align their energy with the larger strategy your leadership has set for your organization. If you don’t, the people who you thought might be your biggest allies could turn into your biggest headache. In the end, assume positive intent with your innovators and let them have a voice within a structure.

Listen carefully to the concerns of the protectors by recognizing the pressures of cost containment, technology limitations, and the need for meaningful use cases. You must also make the protectors aware of the dangers of not moving forward at all, potentially resulting in a loss in market share or competitive advantage. It is critical to understand why a protector’s “fence” may have been put up in the first place. This is stressed in a principle called Chesterton’s Fence. In Chesterton’s 1929 book, The Thing, he describes the case of reformers (innovators) who notice something, such as a fence, and fail to see the reason for its existence. Before they decide to remove it, they must figure out why it exists in the first place. If they do not do this, they are likely to do more harm than good with its removal. It is a straightforward principle, but one that is often not considered by a team of eager innovators.Many of the problems we face in a legal system or highly regulated business occur when we intervene without an understanding of what the consequences might be. If a fence exists, there is likely a reason for it. In a nod to the world class design experts at IDEO, we use a Venn diagram to analyze new ideas within existing “fences.” It forces both innovators and protectors to focus on the ideas that will work and uncover what will have the greatest impact and chance at success. When looking at a new idea, examine the feasibility (technical and regulatory), desirability (will they use it) and viability (financial resources) of the project. You will find that innovators thrive on desirable projects, whereas protectors often bring up technical and financial constraints. In order to execute on innovative projects, you will need to meet all three requirements.

Creating Safety: Threat vs. Safety

When you encounter something new, your brain is alerted, neurons are activated, and hormones are released as you try and figure out what the new thing is. If you think the new item is dangerous (maybe because it changes the way you work), then your reaction may be a threat response with a fight or flight trigger. In order to minimize a threat response in your stakeholder’s reaction to a new idea or initiative, you need to create a culture of psychological safety and trust. There are various models that help facilitate trust in the workplace, including David Rock’s SCARF model. The SCARF model emphasizes the importance of recognizing a job well done, independence and autonomy, building strong team relationships, fairness and transparency to achieve a sense of reward.

Creating this environment encourages everyone to take calculated risks and share in the process of innovation. For example, introducing a new technology vendor, even one that you feel will be beneficial for your stakeholders, may threaten their autonomy or create ambiguity for them without establishing trust. By implementing “Vendor Days” (in which one or more vendors can explain their services in a casual setting) in our department, we share new legal service models and technology with senior managers, influencers, and individual contributors in a format that allows for self-discovery. Providing an open forum for learning about a potential vendor allows stakeholders to relate to the opportunity on their own terms and feels far more collaborative. The vendor can focus on presenting information and capabilities, and answering questions, rather than attempting to be purely persuasive. Making a connection between the benefits of the new technology and the stakeholder’s own work product is powerful and often results in a request to partner in the implementation (pull) rather than requiring pursuit of an implementation (push) because a threat response may have been created. This dynamic eliminates the idea that only one team or one person has innovative ideas to push on the department and instead establishes that ideas can be pulled from all areas and levels far more successfully and in a way that allows for meaningful adoption and effective deployment of new technology.

Support: Alone and Together

Collaboration between innovators and protectors and creating a culture of psychological safety depends upon people working together. But for people to work together successfully, you need to nurture the individual. If you have been exposed to a psychology class, you are likely aware of the popular theory of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” from his book Theory of Human Motivation. Maslow’s Hierarchy (see insert) is a tiered system of needs beginning with basic survival then ascending through freedom from fear, social belonging, and self-esteem towards the end goal of self-actualization.

When considered relative to the workplace, motivation often increases as needs at each ascending level are met. In a professional work environment, we can concentrate primarily on self-esteem and self-actualization through respect and personal growth. This is where accomplished professionals thrive. At the apex of the triangle, individuals find themselves motivated to come up with new ideas to help others, the department, and the team.

Innovation may start with a single individual, but it is a team sport. All too often when someone tries to facilitate change on their own before they achieve buy-in from others, they fail. It is not necessarily that the individual is wrong to try, it just might be that their idea or the concept that they are trying to implement needs to mature. If the idea is too fragile and not enough people have gotten behind it, the idea will likely get destroyed by others. In order to grow these ideas into fruitful use cases, you must leverage diversity of thought and bring in different perspectives to analyze and strengthen the idea. One way we look to create a culture of diverse thought is through our “Design Challenges.” These day-long sessions promote human centered design and focuses on users, their issues, daily activities and goals through an empathetic lens. Many ideas presented at these events start with an individual thought but are made better through the collective experience. While these sessions occasionally lead to new creative solutions that are incorporated into department strategies, the participants are always left feeling more collaborative and motivated.

We have shared just a few of the ways we have found success implementing innovative change within a legal environment. We absolutely fell and skinned our knees along our journey, as you will. But with each fall there was a lesson and new perspective on how to move forward. There are a multitude of ways to improve the psychological safety of your employees, humble inquiry being among the best and least threatening way to get people to come to understand a problem from a new perspective. People tend to thrive when you seek to understand them and the first step before modifying any aspect of a system is to understand it. Don’t remove that “fence” before you know why it was there in the first place. Only then can you credibly propose your change. In the next 90 days, we challenge you to adopt one of these techniques and observe the results. If you do, we guarantee you will be pleased.