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Provoking Disruptive Thinking at #LTNY

Provoking Disruptive Thinking at LTNY

Likeminded people tend to network or hang out with likeminded people – it’s a phenomenon that may hinder innovation in any industry, let alone legal. This was an underlying theme to Professor Luke Williams’ Legal Tech 2014 session: “Disrupt” for Lawyers – Think the Unthinkable to Spark Transformation in the Legal Industry on Tuesday.

Mr. Williams offered five steps to disruptive thinking:

  1. Draft a disruptive hypothesis
  2. Define a disruptive market opportunity
  3. Generate several disruptive ideas
  4. Shape a disruptive solution
  5. Make a disruptive pitch

Social proof with RFID

To prove the likeminded hypothesis, researchers challenged professional executives to attend a networking event with the goal of meeting as many different people as possible. Many accepted the challenge, noting they network to this end often, according to the presentation.

The researchers slipped RFID chips into their name tags in order to track every engagement. The results of this social experiment were telling: The lawyers met with other lawyers, the marketers chatted with other marketers and the accountants talked shop with other accountants. In other words, the likeminded hung out with the likeminded.

Provoke disruptive thinking

Disruptive thinking generally needs a provocation. Mr. Williams pointed out that people are creatures of habit, for example we function in daily commutes as if on autopilot.

What would provoke disruptive thinking during rush hour in a New York train station? Movement…or better still, the absence thereof, amid the hustle and bustle of commuters moving to and from trains.

A group of improvisionalists tackled this point in an event captured in video and widely circulated on YouTube. Two hundred people collaborated  to freeze in place for two minutes during the middle of a rush in New York’s Grand Central Station. Few things might jolt the mind into disruptive thinking like a break from the norm. The video shown nearby was shown during the session.

Disruptive opportunity lies in what is NOT broken

Socks are sold in pairs for a reason; after people generally have two feet. Mr. Williams briefly walked the isles of the Legal Tech 2014 session inspecting socks to ensure the audience was wearing a pair that matched.  He proved his point.

To that end, it may seem a tough case then to start a company on the idea of selling socks that do not match – and the concept sounds even more absurd when sold as a pack of three. Who would buy such a product? LittleMissMatched is a company that found a niche by thinking differently about a product that clearly was not broken.

A print magazine is an iPad that doesn’t work

In another example, Mr. Williams played a YouTube video, also posted nearby, of an infant playing first with an iPad and later a magazine. It appears quite convincingly that the child does in fact think the magazine is an iPad that does not work.

Parents come to realize that children often speak (or act) with a frame of reference that is absent from the confines of our world view, or the view based on the experiences we’ve gained with time. Perhaps it’s the perspective of innocence; changing the frame of reference is quite literally thinking differently and a path toward disruptive thinking.

Cliché: widespread beliefs that govern the way people think about and do business in a particular space

What is the biggest cliché in the legal industry?

Mr. Williams defined a cliché as “widespread beliefs that govern the way people think about and do business in a particular space.” What is the biggest cliché in legal work? According to Mr. Williams it is billable hours.

It’s a process to with which the legal industry is comfortable. While certainly it’s not the only area, it is, Mr. Williams argues, one example within legal circles prime for disruption – think AFAs as a competitive advantage. Perhaps one way to put the ideas from this session into motion and begin disruptive thinking is seek out people that think differently at Legal Tech.

Your turn…what thoughts, comments or additions would you share with respect to Mr. Williams’ presentation?

Photo credit: Flickr via Creative Commons

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About Frank Strong

Frank Strong
Frank Strong is the communications director for the LexisNexis software division located on NC State’s Centennial Campus in Raleigh. In this capacity, he leads communications efforts in support of software products for law practice and law department management and also litigation tools – across large law, small law and corporate counsel segments. With more than 15 years of experience in the high-tech sector, Strong previously served as director of public relations for Vocus, which developed marketing, PR and media monitoring software. He has held multiple roles both in-house with corporations, ranging from startups to global organizations, and has also endured the rigors of billable hours, having completed gigs at PR firms including the top 10 global firm Hill & Knowlton. A veteran of two year-long deployments, Strong has concurrently served in uniform in reserve components of the military for more than 20 years, initially as an enlisted Marine and later as an infantry officer in the Army National Guard. Strong holds a BA in Film and TV production from Worcester State University, an M.A. in Public Communication from American University, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University. He is a PADI-certified Master Scuba Diver and holds a USPA "B" skydiving license.

I really like this, Frank. When I look back on my career in business, which I know can be a dicey word when discussing the "business" of running a law firm, some of my most vivid memories are of times when disruptive or contrary thinking were brought up...then shot down.

I remember the day I, as a middle manager, dared to suggest to the VP of Customer Service at my division of Time Warner that we needed someone to staff the phone lines 24 hours a day because we had people that worked late shifts who might need us during "their" waking hours. Long story short...he bit my head off, letting me know my idea was absurd.

It also stuck with me when, in my early days as an in-house legal marketer, I was asked to give a presentation in one of our offices about marketing. Not knowing such things were absurd (I came out of sales and management in corporate America, after all), I happened to use the word "sales." When I took my seat next to the Managing Partner of the office, I could clearly see that on his legal pad he had written the word "sales," and had drawn a few circles around it so I could get the message this was unacceptable. I was also told by another MP that we were not a business when naively using that word early on, too.

I offer these examples not to draw attention to myself, but to make the point that disruptive concepts can come from the most unsuspecting people and places. If we would just take the time to ask the people that we think might be unattached to new, novel and advanced methods of running our businesses, we might be surprised how our businesses are viewed.

It is important to remember that these people are not only those not involved in management, but one of the most important groups of people, which are those we serve, our clients. If we would just open our eyes and ears to new ideas and methods others use in running their businesses, then we might be surprised, pleasantly surprised, at how "disruptive" business can actually mean progress.


  1. […] for lawyers and marketing, Luke Williams a professor at NYU Stern, gave a key note speech on how to provoke disruptive thinking. The […]