Dr. Norman Heatley, the Unsung Hero who developed penicillin

Dr. Norman Heatley, the Unsung Hero who developed penicillin

When I help lawyers strategize how to double their book of business, we examine macro forces that, because of their impact, affect all but outlier companies to a degree that requires them to take action that will, in turn, require the lawyer’s skills. The obstacle that so many lawyers wrestle with is trying to come up with something unique, that nobody else is doing, or has thought of before. That may happen, but it’s rare, and it’s not the way to strategize or plan.

Instead, focus on practical implementation. The strategy+business article, In Search of Ingenuity, reminds us that “The pursuit of innovation doesn’t depend on genius. Instead, it demands ingenuity — the ability to come up with solutions that are original and clever given the constraints that you and everyone else face. The lightbulb was a 40-year-old invention when Edison found a way to make it a commercial success. Google was not the first search engine. Amazon’s Kindle followed a decade of electronic book readers. Apple’s iPod was released five years after the first MP3 player hit the market. As technologies and markets converge, ideas appear to many people at the same time. At first, those ideas are out of reach, but gradually the gap between what’s possible and what’s practical gets smaller. Ingenuity enables a company to jump that gap before its competitors do.”

It doesn’t have to be unique

Don’t worry about who else might have recognized the same problem you’re looking at, or who might already be offering legal services in response to it. Don’t wait until you have all the answers worked out, and there are no more questions remaining. That day is a long way off, and reached only by experimenting, not further cogitating. Instead, start doing it. Those who succeed are those who, “When faced with uncertainty, don’t wait until they see a clear path and a right answer but who prefer to start doing — seeing what works and what doesn’t.”

Our process for identifying sources of demand and the markets that house them begins with looking at the industry or business that the lawyer understands best because she has been serving clients there for some time. We look at that business, identify macro trends affecting it, and surmise what problems are emerging, or must emerge due to other factors, that drive demand for her primary legal service.

At this point, it’s all supposition, i.e., reasonably informed conclusions based on publicly available information plus the lawyer’s personal experience with, and observations of, the industry. It’s a thesis, and we can’t trust it until we validate it by bouncing it off of industry insiders.

Fear of uncertainty

This is where most lawyers balk. Each week when we review progress, they offer a lot of excuses why they’ve only spoken with one person, or none at all. As I probe, they acknowledge being inhibited by the fear of looking foolish to those with whom they speak. They struggle to embrace the difference between an assertion of fact (which is risky) and a thesis that’s open to correction and amplification (which is not). As industry outsiders, we’ll never reach a level of certainty that would allow us to say to an insider, “This is how it is.” All we’re saying is, “Based on this, this, and this, it seems like [reasonable conclusion].”

We want the insider to refine our understanding of the problem because, well, they’re insiders and we’re not. If we’re to get confident enough in our understanding of this potential demand-driving business problem to justify investing serious time and effort into basing our practice growth on it, we need to speak with those who know more than we do. This is our version of the tinkering and experimentation that the s+b article describes.

“Ingenuity often does not align with ordinary corporate practice. Innovation projects run a gauntlet of up-front analysis and committee approvals. The process is designed to map every step of the path forward, to justify large and long-term commitments. It reflects established companies’ desire to know how they will get to the idea before they’ve even started. But ingenuity thrives on figuring out new ways to produce, distribute, support, and scale existing ideas. As those new ways emerge, they change your understanding of what’s possible.”

In our planning discipline, lawyers typically cling to the up-front analysis stage, trying to map every step, etc., trying to know how they’ll get to the idea before they’ve even started. Only when they recognize that this is an experiment like that within any lab. We’re beginning with a thesis, and testing it. The sooner we begin the conversations with industry insiders that constitute our testing method, the sooner the correct idea will reveal itself.

Investigation = penetration

Here’s the beauty of this discipline, and the part that should enable lawyers to stop worrying about where it’s going next, trying to avoid being wrong: The process of testing the idea with industry insiders, and getting them to refer you on to others for informed opinion about it, creates as a natural by-product a brand new network of people who possess the characteristics you’d want in your optimal prospects. Their job requires them to care about the problem under discussion. If your original thesis proves reasonably correct, you’re a short step away from discussing how that industry-specific problem affects their company and role, which is the beginning of a sales investigation. If your original thesis is off base a bit, they’ll help you refine it to the point where you’re now investigating the right variation of it, which takes you to that same bridge between marketing (testing demand) and selling.

As the s+b article concludes, “Focus your efforts on the how rather than the what, and experiment early and often to set the best ideas free.” Read the article to see how, without Dr. Norman Heatley's ingenuity and willingness to tinker, the world wouldn't have penicillin.

Mike O'Horo

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