How Innovators and the Legal Team Became BFFs

The following post was first published on LinkedIn.

In a typical big company, the employees pushing the envelope on innovation could have an adversarial relationship with the legal department. Some innovators will even try to fly under the radar fearing the lawyers will put a kibosh on their project as soon as they get wind of it. When they ultimately have to get legal sign off, they anticipate a contentious meeting which will likely result in long delays making them wish they were working in a startup.

So, it might come as a surprise that at the 2013 Lean Startup Conference, Intuit’s CEO Brad Smith, General Counsel Laura Fennell, and myself (at the time VP of Innovation) were on stage talking about how we collaborated on innovation. How was it possible that the people you expected to be frenemies would be BFFs (best friends forever)?

It starts with Intuit’s approach to innovation. Instead of consigning the job of innovating to a few geniuses, at Intuit innovation is everybody’s job. Every employee is responsible for helping the company grow whether it means finding new ways to serve customers or run the business more efficiently.

A lawyer working for a company might believe that their main job is to reduce the company’s legal exposure. We live in a litigious society and so they must make sure we avoid missteps. Taken to an extreme, the most effective way to reduce exposure is to say no to everything. With that attitude, it’s no wonder employees start to see the lawyer as a barrier to innovation.

Here’s what Laura said about corporate lawyers:
“The shocking reality for a lawyer is when you go to a company, nobody cares about what you do. Your job is not to be the best lawyer out there. Your job is to help the company move fast and innovate.”
If a corporate lawyer instead sees her main job as helping innovation, she can become a huge asset to innovation. When new ideas are brought to the table, she can work alongside the innovators to find ways to bring the ideas forward that are prudent and don’t create untenable legal exposure. Instead of just saying no to a particular approach, the lawyer helps by suggesting other ways of getting to the same outcome. Laura calls this “getting to yes”.

Here’s an example of lawyers partnering with innovators: At Intuit, every month we held an Incubation Week where teams of employees would sign up to turn their ideas into Minimum Viable Products (MVPs). Each team’s goal was to release their MVP to customers by the end of the week. Our legal department helped teams get ready for release by providing a checklist for staying within guidelines. Legal’s help didn’t end there. In the middle of the week, a group from the department would visit the teams and review what each had developed. If they saw any problems (for example, the team had chosen a name that infringed on another company’s trademark), they would sit with the team and help come up with a solution (like brainstorming new names).

Here's what Intuit Assistant General Counsel Arien Ferrell says about Intuit's legal team:
Intuit’s legal team owns innovation and product launch just as passionately as any developer, designer, or innovator – this is the key to our success…we’re not 'legal', separate and distinct from the businesses, we’re members of the same team who own and dance to the same music.  We don’t seek to minimize legal exposure…our goal is to get to the right risk level for the opportunity presented.
It’s not just the legal department that can end up being a barrier to innovation. Other functions like Human Resources and IT may inadvertently create barriers if they don’t take on this partnership mindset.

Here’s what Brad said about getting to yes:
“Our job is not to put barriers up and tell you why you can’t. The job of all functions is to find a way to get to yes and to do it with speed as the currency.”
Jeff Zias and I are writing the book Grassroots Innovation in the Enterprise for which we’ve developed a Grassroots Innovation Model for empowering employees in a company to drive growth. One of the components of that model is Funding & Support. One critical aspect of how a company supports employee-driven innovation is by having every function be an innovator’s BFF and get to yes.

Do you have stories to share about how functions in your company are supporting innovation? We’d love to hear from you.