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Business strategy is about anticipating and planning for the future. Strategic innovation is about creating a future where your firm is poised to be on top. The two are different and must work together—and that’s a real challenge for firms.

It may feel good to encourage spontaneity and creativity, but random acts of innovation don’t work on a large scale. To be successful, innovation must be strategically executed and aligned to business strategies.  However, most companies fail to unite innovation and strategic initiatives.  PwC surveyed 1,200 executives about managing innovation and found that 54% struggled to connect innovation and business strategy.

For law firms, it’s worse. Most firms, despite developing strategic plans annually, do not have real strategies or business goals (hint: “be profitable” is not a strategy).  Worse still, most firms aren’t even sure what they sell.  How can we be strategic if we don’t know what we sell or why we sell it?

Business strategy is not innovation

If firms fail to meet basic business principles, such as defining the product, articulating a purpose, and putting forth a true strategic plan, why should they expect to innovate? Why are firms jumping ahead to the master-level challenge of innovation—and expecting to succeed?

When A Plan Is Not A Plan

Nearly all AmLaw-ranked law firms create “strategic plans.”  Despite the existence of these plans, they don’t contain real strategy, concrete goals, or business purpose. A study by Lexis Nexis found that increasing revenue and profits was the main focus in most law firm strategic plans.  But, increasing profit is not a purpose.  Financial success is the result of fulfilling a purpose, but it is not the purpose itself.  And declaring a commitment to innovation is not a strategy.

A true business strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve future competitive goals.  Good strategies promote alignment among diverse groups within a firm; clarify objectives, behaviors, and priorities; and help focus efforts around the plan.

Define and Align Your Business Goals and Strategies

Companies flail (and fail) because their activities and behaviors are not aligned with their capabilities, goals, and strategies.  In misaligned companies, attention and resources are stretched thin and often in conflict.  According to strategic alignment experts, to succeed, you must answer:

  • What is your firm’s purpose?  Purpose is what the firm exists to achieve and why it matters.
  • What is your business strategy?  Strategy is planning what the firm must do successfully to fulfill its purpose.
  • What capabilities does your firm have?  Here, the focus is on pinpointing what you are good at.

Once you have answered these questions, you must bring the answers into alignment before executing your strategic plan. Alignment means connecting a firm’s purpose to its business strategy, operational capabilities and resources, and management systems.  If you are effectively executing an aligned strategy, then everyone’s efforts will work together to accomplish the firm’s most important work.

Advocate for Strategic Innovation 

Unless innovation gets current and potential clients to pay more, or saves them money, it is not creating value.  It’s just a nice idea.  Remember: you are not innovating for its own sake.  Innovation is a means to an end.  The most effective innovations will create strategic and operational benefits.  And the most effective way to convince naysayers is to show them what will happen if they do not follow your plan of action on innovation.

Assuming that your firm has well-defined business goals and strategies, if you are the innovation leader, then it is your job to develop an innovation strategy that matches.  If you’re not in a leadership role, you need to sell your idea and get buy-in.  Show firm management how:

  • Achieving your innovation goals will drive the mission of the firm.
  • Your innovation goals support, and are supported by, the firm’s business goals.
  • Innovation will create value for clients and for your firm.

Craft Your Innovation Strategy

First, show your vision of the future.   Next, show how you plan to use innovation to respond to the future and to industry trends.  Finally, follow a proven innovation framework.  PwC found that there are three general approaches to innovation. Notice how none of them include hope or randomness:

  • Use superior insights about client needs to generate new product ideas or ways to meet your clients’ needs. This requires deep insight into your clients and a focused demographic. You cannot serve every type of client and offer every type of service.
  • Create value by incrementally improving on existing products. This requires knowing what you’re selling and profiting from. Jettison offerings that are not working. Continuously, yet incrementally, improve the speed, cost, and quality of the product you are delivering.
  • Rely on strong internal technology capabilities to develop new products. For firms that are already tech savvy and have internal entrepreneurial incubators, this is possible.

For most firms, building on client insights or creating value through incremental improvements to existing products will be the most appropriate strategy.  Whatever path your firm takes, innovation leaders must be explicit about their chosen approach and connect their innovation strategy to the firm’s overall business objectives.


Innovation is a worthwhile investment when done properly.  That doesn’t necessarily mean spending a lot of money.  The question is how to innovate strategically, not how much to spend. That begins with strategy.  Real strategy.

If you are the innovation leader in your firm, first, show your commitment to the firm’s well-being by helping the firm identify and achieve business goals. Then introduce innovation as a means to achieve those goals. When done right, innovation won’t be some wordy platitude. It’s the addition of real value.  It can be the difference between success and failure.

By IVY B. GREY, Publshed in “Evolve the Law” Aug 2, 2018 at 1:43 PM

Ivy B. Grey is an accomplished lawyer and writer. She is the creator of American Legal Style for PerfectIt, which is a proofreading and editing add-in for lawyers. Ivy is also a Senior Attorney at Griffin Hamersky LLP. She focuses her practice on bankruptcy, which includes distressed transactions and some litigation. She’s been named as a Rising Star in the New York Metro Area for four consecutive years, and her significant representations include In re AMR Corp. (American Airlines), In re Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP, In re Eastman Kodak Company, In re Filmed Entertainment Inc. (Columbia House), and In re Nortel Networks Inc. You can follow Ivy on twitter at @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn at