Jason Barnwell leads Microsoft’s Legal Business, Operations, and Strategy team. He is also an innovator, a software developer, and a thought leader. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about his thoughts on innovation, change within the legal industry, and, as he describes it, his software writing hobby. 

How would you define innovation?

My definition evolves based upon my role. My current shorthand definition of impactful innovation is serving a job to be done in a new way that delivers meaningful value for my customers. This definition invokes several assumptions.

First, innovation often benefits from technology but does not require technology. Many impactful innovations are built upon critically examining how we do something with a recaptured naivete. This story about the doctor who first championed hand washing is an example of someone who applied a beginner’s mind and experimentation to examine a problem with a fresh perspective. He created a process that would eventually save countless lives after it was successfully evangelized by others. His story teaches an important principle of driving innovation: meet your stakeholders where they are, understand their experience, and bring them along with empathy and kindness as you ask them to try something new.

Second, innovation should aim to deliver meaningful value for stakeholders and, thereby, achieve escape velocity. Technologists often look past this principle out of sheer excitement for the possibility of the new or the “revoluntary” We love trying out new things. Measured experimentation is necessary because it pushes us to test hypotheses. It also lets us explore approaches that may jump the divide between improvement and innovation. However, we must focus on driving change that will eventually yield business impact. It is tempting to apply digital transformation to our most complicated scenarios, even when they are infrequent. Modest innovation applied to a process that happens at scale can be more valuable than grand innovation applied to an infrequent process well-served by experts.

Third, innovation should serve a job to be done. I recently sent an analyst note that highlights two articles focused on jobs to be done (The “Jobs to be Done” Theory of Innovation and What is Jobs to be Done (JTBD)? {hat tip to Jae Um, read her work}). I cannot overstate how important it is to understand what your customer is trying to accomplish that causes them to welcome assistance. This can be a challenge because achieving an impactful innovative solution may require going beyond what they will tell you if you ask. Even the most sophisticated customer may not yet have fully examined this for themselves and, in fact, many simply know that what they currently have is broken and that there must be a better way. To overcome this challenge, try to see what your customer wants to accomplish end-to-end with a deep respect for the qualitative aspects of your experience that may influence their selection behavior.

As Assistant General Counsel for Microsoft, how do you innovate within your role?

The Legal Business, Operations, and Strategy team I lead resides in the Office of the General Counsel. We partner with our colleagues in the Corporate Functions Engineering, Data Science, and Technology Advisory teams to build processes and tools that support our legal and business professionals’ work. Our innovation process is both push and pull. Sometimes customers ask for help. Sometimes we anticipate the help our customers will need. Our work is directed by our department’s senior leadership team and Microsoft’s overarching principles.

We have a candy store of platforms and tools with which to play. Our clients build services that help individuals and organizations achieve more. We use these services to incubate experiments and build stable platform capabilities that can serve the functional equivalent of a mid-sized law firm. Tom Orrison (Director of Legal Operations) keeps us focused on our priority as an operations organization: we innovate after we give our customers reliable experiences. That builds the trust that earns us the privilege to innovate for them.

My current role is focused on business and technical innovation applied to legal work, but I have always tried to build better mousetraps. That includes seeking better ways to execute my counseling practice at Microsoft and in private practice. Microsoft makes it easier because we make and sell the technology candy. My typical innovation process is to: identify repetitive operations that burden humans with tasks that give them little to contribute as thinking, creative, reasoning, understanding, feeling humans with judgment; automate what I can; develop data from that automation; and turn that data into insights. This process often starts with me running small experiments on myself. I expand it and try to get others to buy in. If we prove out the concept we will try to harden it and put it into production. I will give you an example of an experiment I am flighting now that we call #Tagulous.

We do not have a unified knowledge management story. That bothers me and I am working on it. I realized early on that I need a way to make knowledge management work within email. Microsoft’s legal department is addicted to email because email is reliable, our people are fluent in the medium, and Outlook is a sticky and powerful productivity tool. I also need an approach that will work in Teams and Yammer because we will migrate more of our collaboration out of email and into these other platforms. I am playing with hashtag driven behaviors from within email that automatically do things like create tasks and archive emails for me. The same approach can eventually be applied to Teams and Yammer too. I built the email proof-of-concept using Flow, Azure, Outlook, and OneNote. We put together an internal video for Microsoft’s Hackathon that shows the experience in action: http://aka.ms/TagulousVideo. You only add a little text to your email so it works just as well for Outlook, Outlook Web Access, and mobile mail clients. When you start using mobile experience enhancements like SwiftKey the scenario really lights up.

What are your general thoughts regarding the ongoing changes hitting the legal industry? Have you seen these changes impacting your work at Microsoft?

That is a big question. Rebecca Benavides (Director of Legal Business) and I talk about this a lot. I will share a few thoughts, but they are not new.

The market inefficiencies that surround delivery of legal services to institutional clients will diminish. The firms that will thrive will not build a business model built upon franchise dynamics. We may see more winner-take-most dynamics. Eventually us clients will figure out who delivers the best value in terms of how they deliver legal services. The firms that align with client expectations on value will establish a differentiated model that will give them an advantage over those that do not.

The billable hour model is a shackle on innovation. If we ask counsel the same question twice, they provide the same answer twice, and they get to bill us twice then we are not aligned. I experienced the disincentives for efficiency when I was in private practice. Eventually us clients will figure out who wants to improve and innovate how we are served. At this juncture, it is incumbent on us clients to be proactive and vocal about our needs to order to achieve this market shift.

We need great outside counsel partners. We always will. We want profitable, healthy, law firms that know us, know our business, and know how to consistently deliver success and value. That is why we are investing in bringing them along. Eventually us clients will figure out who wants to evolve with us.

Our profession’s challenges are solvable. We will necessarily look different on the other side. We can better serve society by improving access to justice. Service is why we are given the privilege to practice. We can improve our diversity to better reflect the composition of society. This will bring forward perspectives that make us stronger. I hope we will all embrace these opportunities. It is good business.

These changes impact my work and are a large part of why my role exists. I share conversations on these topics here. I encourage folks to read Bill Henderson’s enlightening Legal Services Landscape Report.

You note that you write software. What do you write and do you so to help you do your work?

Software is magic. It is like art that you can render into a form that can do things. If you can imagine how to do something with information you can turn that into software.

I write programs that help me solve my problems: Putting together a puzzle;Telling a story; Directing people to resources; Loading music onto the SD Card for my wife’s car. We have a lot of fun problems at work. Writing software lets me show people what we could do. Sometimes showing is more powerful than telling.

I am no longer a real software engineer. I am a software hobbyist who is fortunate to partner with real software engineers. You don’t need to be a software engineer to drive your business’s digital transformation. You need an intentional IT investment strategy aligned with your business goals and the right partners. It has never been easier to build a fulcrum for your business using software.

For others in similar roles as yours, what would be your advice for those seeking to improve their workflows, processes, and operations?

I am new to operations and following a legendary predecessor. I have no secrets. At least once a month I take a manual process that I am responsible for and I reduce it to written instructions in a OneNote Notebook. These instructions can be executed by our outsourced service desk. These notes are turning into a playbook. I have started taking those process maps and building Flows that automate basic processes. This is helping me refine my process mapping skills and see how the workflows fit together to drive more effective operations. From that experience I would offer the following perspective.

Start somewhere. Focus on a tractable problem that pains your customers. Make that better. Recruit them for the next thing. It is easy to be overwhelmed and never start. Success is learning and failure is not trying. Then comes the hard part—show your work. Attorneys are taught by training and culture to not share their work product. This is a trap. The future is not built upon information scarcity.

Be humble, be curious, and embrace your challenges. Know that you are not alone, find a community, and build a team. Focus on the human element more than the technical element, think systematically, look for patterns, and make your customer look good. Read up on incentives, play with toys, and solve a problem. Share what you learn and leave it better than you found it. And most of all have fun with the privilege of building the future.