Should innovation be sudden, abrupt, and revolutionary? Or should it be incremental? 

Nicolas Carr, author of the Harvard Business Review article “IT Doesn’t Matter” that stirred much debate, now questions the shibboleth that “If innovation is a good that companies should pursue, more innovation is even better, and the best innovations are those that upset existing markets or industries.” His comments appear in a Wall Street Journal interview, How to Be a Smart Innovator (9/11/06, $). His answer: “Mr. Carr says, companies need to be prudent — even conservative — in where and how much they encourage innovation.” Highlights of his comments include:

  • Innovation is costly. Innovation effort must be disciplined and focused on areas where it can pay.
  • Don’t try to innovate across multiple dimensions. Dell succeeded based on innovative low cost manufacturing and Apple succeeded based on innovative design, but Gateway failed in trying to innovate products and process simultaneously.
  • Most people don’t like change and adopt new technology slowly. Innovation needs to help consumers and users bridge the gap between old and new.
  • “The ability to be a good copycat is extremely important for companies and probably as important as being a good innovator.”

This is all good advice for law firms, which operate in a market resistant to change. My own observation is that in spite of challenges, many BigLaw CIOs find ways to innovate, sometimes in the back-office, sometimes in practice support, and sometimes even in delivering legal services to clients.

In future posts, I’ll share more about a program that launches in 2007 to find and reward legal market innovation.