The year is 2013, and Telstra—for non-Aussies, essentially the AT&T of Australia—was facing 10 percent budget cuts to the legal department and a mandate to do more than less. Company leadership had ideas of how to proceed, but those ideas never truly coalesced. The outlook was dire.

Fast-forward three years, and Telstra was named the Most Innovative In-House Team in the Asia-Pacific region for 2016. Happiness was at an all-time high, and crucially, man hours were down on low-value added work. What changed? It all started with a collaboration between Telstra and international law firm Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) in late 2015 for an event called the Telstra Legal Innovation Forum.

At the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) 2017 institute, Mick Sheehy, general counsel of finance, technology, innovation & strategy at Telstra, ran through the Innovation Forum with an assist from Lisa Leong and Tristan Forrester, client development coordinators at HSF. And what they displayed was a way to apply workflow innovation to the legal department itself to generate new ideas and excitement around new projects.

Making Fans of the Forum

At its core, the Legal Innovation Forum is a meeting of 15-20 Telstra lawyers from across different business units, providing what Forrester called “a cross-business unit view of the world.” In particular, the program focuses on younger lawyers “that didn’t always have a voice at the organization,” and HSF were the designers of the process and the workshops.

During a workshop at the beginning of the innovation process, the in-house lawyers would be broken down into three or four teams, each tasked with tackling a different issue in the organization. During the first workshops, Telstra focused on what it viewed as quick wins, such as reducing the time spent on internal communications or non-disclosure agreements, as well as longer-term projects like reducing the time taken for internal meetings.

“When it came to the plan, we said very clearly that we don’t want to plan the end-to-end solution. We simply asked how we wanted to start tackling this problem. That was very powerful,” Forrester noted.

From there, the legal team would pilot the proposed change for eight to ten weeks in what the company called a “short sprint,” figuring out whether the change would actually do anything to reduce attorney time on low-value tasks. From there, Telstra would hold another workshop, see what people had actually done, and ask “importantly, what are you going to do next?” Forrester said.

In particular, the team would focus on “implementation lessons,” takeaways for future workshops or attempts to solve the problem. Forrester noted that when an idea did not succeed, they would not stifle innovation by discouraging another attempt, and “when people failed, we wanted to make sure people learned from it.”

Overcoming Outlook Addiction

For how this workflow functions in the real world, Sheehy pointed to time spent in Telstra meetings. “We had a hunch that we were spending too much time in internal meetings, so we tackled it. We went through a number of meetings, because it was a big one to solve, and we had a few failures,” he explained. “But the sprint that worked… was internal legal meetings, meetings we could control.”

In this particular implementation, the team tallied up time spent in internal legal meetings in Outlook, which totaled 24 hours apiece over a two month period. The legal department then instituted an eight week trial that required attorneys to categorize meetings as decision making and information sharing meetings. For decision making meetings, attorneys could attend any they needed, but organizers were told to only invite people they needed and to make explicit the decision that needed to be solved. For information sharing meetings, Telstra put a cap of 2.5 hours per week per attorney.

The results were staggering: a 52 percent reduction of time spent in both kinds of meetings, which represented more than 2,000 total hours saved across the Telstra legal department. Perhaps just as importantly though, 92 percent of attorneys surveyed after the trial felt they weren’t missing anything by not attending those meetings, and 90 percent said they felt even more productive.

“People thanked us and said they felt more empowered to say no meetings, and that leadership cared more about their time,” Sheehy explained. While meetings as a subject may be “pretty unsexy in some ways, it was really important for us to get some runs on the board and quick wins. … We’re eliminating material amounts of work and have a story to tell.”

Success from Failure

That story to tell has resonated across the company. Now, the legal department is seen as an innovator; a mock “Overcoming Outlook Addiction” video the legal department made after the above success became a hit in the company. And, most of all, the legal department was creating more efficiency and value for the organization.

“What’s really important is that the Innovation Forum is bringing about more strategic work, a better work-life balance, and what I’m most excited about, is we’re able to reinvest in the innovation that we’re doing,” Sheehy said.

The important part for the company is to make sure any ideas tested in the Innovation Forum, which is made easier through the data collected during the trial phase. This leads to what Leong called “change by design,” focusing on the ability to explore and celebrate mistakes, creating user-centered solutions to drive value, and creating a culture and bias that tends towards action and innovation instead of risk aversion.

As Leong noted, “It’s not about you; it’s about the experiment that fails, and what we can learn from it.”

Forrester added that becoming a leader of change is important, through being honest about the positives and negatives of a trial run, creating group rituals to make the change fun, being “shockingly clear” about the shared purpose of the change, and giving stories of success if something goes right.

“You’ve heard of change management,” he said. “We think that’s perhaps the wrong phrase. … If you’re trying to create change, don’t just manage it, create a movement.”