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Helene Russell

Consultant, The Knowledge Business

Random coffee with strangers

Random coffee with strangers


Hélène Russell explains the importance of diversity for innovation and offers five simple suggestions for improving diversity in everyday learning activities

Rapid change is the new normal. Law firms that are agile and primed for change are more likely to adapt, innovate, compete and survive.

But how can a business be ready for disruption? How can it prepare its employees and work processes for the levels of innovative thinking and agility necessary to compete in a new landscape?

Innovation is not the creation of a single remarkable idea. It is a continuous process involving multiple activities by which an organisation can uncover new ways to do things; or determine how to adjust to new market conditions. It is how new ideas or approaches are put into action to provide new value to a user or customer.

Innovation is often confused with novelty, creativity and technology; and although it can include elements of all three, the key is delivery of new value. Innovations can be big or small, and they can be breakthrough, disruptive or incremental – as long as new value is delivered.

Although creativity and novelty aren’t the only components in the delivery of new value to users or customers, creative problem-solving and the development of new ideas are key components of innovation.

So how can an organisation develop this creativity and novelty within its workforce if it doesn’t have huge budgets for specialist innovation consultants or trained innovation team leaders?

Research suggests that diversity helps teams become more creative and innovative. Teams which comprise people from different cultural and educational backgrounds and from different business units or departments, can bring together different ‘knowledge’ and are therefore more creative and successful than expert practitioners working alone or homogenous teams.

Diversity supports innovation in two main ways:

  • It creates a greater pool of knowledge for an organisation to draw on;
  • It helps teams make creative leaps.

Spotting problems

First, diverse teams with different life experiences and knowledge have a greater pool of knowledge from which to draw, to create solutions to clients’ problems. They’re also more likely to be able to spot problems with new technologies or new approaches before they are finalised, delivered or sold.

For example, homogenous teams might only see benefits to products such as smart doorbells, smartphone tracking and automated bank account text notifications.

But those with experience of domestic violence or partners with controlling behaviours will quickly spot the potential for abuse of these products. Early identification of potential problems by diverse teams enables organisations to build in solutions to create a better product.


Second, diverse teams can make unusual creative leaps through a process known as “creative abrasion”. Creative abrasion occurs when those with different knowledge are required to understand and learn from each other; and their ideas rub against each other productively rather than destructively, causing them to re-evaluate their assumptions and heuristics.

Creative abrasion can occur when those of differing technical knowhow interact, and when those with different knowledge of brands, customer relationships, manufacturing processes and service delivery capabilities, different skills, values or ideas come together.

What can you do if you run a midsized or small firm; or your workforce is working well in homogenous teams but there isn’t much scope for additional cross sector working, or leeway or budget for specialist training or innovation teams?

You might feel that creating opportunities to improve creativity and innovation are too expensive for your organisation. But there are many ways in which such firms can incorporate opportunities for diversity within their usual learning practices and to create opportunities for those with different knowledge stocks to network with each other.

Here are five ideas to improve innovation within your organisation:

1.     Lunch ‘n’ learn

Many firms run a so-called lunch ‘n’ learn programme to ensure their fee-earners are up to date with new laws, procedures and regulations. This can be an ideal way to inject diversity into everyday work without increasing costs or affecting chargeable time.

Many topics could be of interest across silos. Discussions about litigation tactics, for example, are of interest to those in all kinds of litigation; project management skills are of interest to those running long, complex litigation and those managing complex mergers or multiple property transfers. A great benefit of learning in diverse groups is that everyone can disagree without any disrespect.

In groups with traits of risk aversity and perfectionism (like legal teams) this frees individuals to enquire into different tactics without admitting to weakness or risking insulting senior leaders.

They can examine differing approaches without any suggestion that others are ‘wrong’ and, instead, make an appreciative enquiry of the reasons behind those differences. This is likely to support greater learning than situations where individuals feel inhibited from speaking out.

2.     Cross-sector training

Alternatively, specialist cross-sector training can be useful to increase diversity in training. I have been incorporating this idea into my own knowledge sharing and learning groups for a couple of years now.

My knowledge network group is for those working in knowledge, information, learning and innovation in professional services in UK. One session each year introduces a knowledge manager from a different sector to the group to talk about their particular approach to a knowledge challenge.

The sessions combine learning about a knowledge management tool or technique, with learning more about a different sector and understanding the reasons behind any differences.

In 2018, for example, a knowledge manager from the nuclear and aerospace engineering sector ran a workshop on quantifying the risk of knowledge loss to businesses and the steps that can be taken to identify the greatest risks; and then mitigate those losses through focused knowledge harvesting techniques.

Last year, a knowledge manager from a large consultancy specialising in complex engineering projects relating to the built environment ran a workshop on running knowledge reviews during long, complex projects, rather than the traditional post action review.

Each speaker gave a fascinating and useful talk about the specific knowledge tools and techniques relating to their particular knowledge challenge. They also led a refreshing exploration into how their sector and the professional services sector differ in their approaches.

The analysis of areas of similarity and difference, and the exploration of the reasons behind successes and struggles in solving common problems, were particularly informative.

In this way, attendees not only heard about an interesting and useful case study of a particular knowledge tool or technique, but were also encouraged to question the norms and accepted practices in their sector and step outside their echo chamber within a supportive group.

This year, we will hear from a knowledge manager from the National Health Service who will talk about culture and persuasion, and how to encourage involvement in knowledge projects.

3.     Client-partnering

A further idea is to invite clients to learning events or partner with them to buy in training from a source you both respect – but can’t necessarily justify the expense of on your own.

Learning alongside each other and exploring areas of similarity and difference can be hugely beneficial, both for learning and for improving relationships.

These kinds of partnerships in learning can facilitate a deeper understanding of your clients, their sectors and the challenges they face, as well as encouraging individuals to question their norms and assumption.

The creation of detailed client personas is a key part of any design thinking programme to create new products or services or improve existing ones.

Through understanding your clients better (by learning alongside them) you will be better able to create many more accurate and detailed client personas which will then be available across your business for future use in projects to improve services.

Furthermore, learning more about your clients can give your firm opportunities to solve problems you might not realise you could help them with; and to be associated with their new successes in fields outside the law.

This type of partnering for learning also brings the potential for other new business relationships. As you understand each other’s businesses and sectors better and create stronger trusting relationships beyond that of advisor and client, you are more likely to be able to identify areas where new products or services could be developed together in partnership.

4.     Diverse approaches

Instead of funding spaces for staff at the usual conferences out of your precious training budget, consider encouraging them to go to a conference in a different but related field.

Three years ago, I was invited along to the Knowledge Mobilisation Forum UK conference in Bristol by a connection in academia. I found it so thought provoking that I joined the committee and have been helping to organise it ever since.

The different approaches within the health and social sectors to knowledge sharing and knowledge management, compared to those in the legal sector, always inspire me to question my go-to solutions for common problems and to strive to improve my advice.

If your training budget is already squeezed, you could offer a unique learning opportunity to someone in the firm who has provided outstanding support in the field of learning, knowledge and innovation during the year.

This means you would combine improved learning and diversity with help to boost levels of knowledge sharing and innovation in future years.

5.     Random coffee

Another simple, cheap project to help break silos and encourage your staff to cross boundaries and mix with others as part of their daily working life is the random coffee trial (RCT).

An RCT is a randomly generated coffee meeting for the purpose of improving networks, building trusting relationships, sharing knowledge of all kinds and introducing people inside your organisation to each other – at random. (The RCT relates to the Random Controlled Trials undertaken by Nesta, where the concept was first created and popularised by Michael Soto and Jon Kingsbury.)

People choose to join the project and are matched at random once a month or once a quarter, depending on your organisation. They have coffee and a chat (in person or virtually by Skype) at a time that suits them. That’s it.

There’s no obligation to talk about work or share specific knowledge, though most people tend to share experiences and knowledge about work because that’s what they have in common.

The RCT is an excellent way to inject improved networks into an organisation without any additional cost – most people will be drinking coffee and taking a short break from their work at some point during the month. This project actually enables a business to utilise this down time for the benefit of the organisation.

Innovation and continuous improvement need diversity of knowledge to thrive in organisations. However, it can be difficult to find opportunities to inject diversity into smaller organisations; or those with carefully controlled, limited budgets; or those that aren’t yet culturally ready for innovative change.

One way to do this is to hijack existing learning programmes and add diversity and difference to some of them in the ways suggested here.

Hélène Russell is an author, trainer and consultant at The Knowledge Business