Can Brainstorming like a Google Employee Work for Lawyers?

Concept of human intelligence with human brain on white digital background

Over at Fast Company, a Google employee outlined how Googlers brainstorm. It’s a relatively simple three-step process and, with some minor modifications, may work well for attorneys (or anyone, really.)

Step one is getting to know your user. In Google’s case, obviously, that’s typically the end user of one of their technology products. In the case of attorneys, it’s your clients–or the people you hope will be your clients. Google employees actually visit users, which may prove a bit weird for you (prospective clients probably don’t want you to just drop in and ask what they want from you) but there is a rough equivalent: put yourself in your potential client’s shoes. What do they need? What are they worried about? Empathy is key, and goes a long way in helping you figure out who it is you want to attract as a client and how you can best address their concerns.

Step two is think 10x. This gets a bit business jargon-y, so hang on. 10x thinking basically means that instead of setting small incremental goals, you shoot for the moon.

In 2002, psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham consolidated 35 years of research on goal-setting and found that, all things being equal, the presence of lofty goals correlated strongly with improved performance—across industries and activities and regardless of if the goals were self-made. In a nutshell, aiming higher pushes us to do better. “High goals lead to greater effort than low goals,” the researchers write. “Tight deadlines lead to a more rapid work pace . . . [and lead to] the arousal, discovery, and/or use of task-relevant knowledge and strategies.”

In Google’s case, this means that instead of thinking about laying more fiber cable to increase internet access, they decided to start a project where they will have balloons that travel at the edge of space and bring the internet to underserved rural areas. It sounds sci-fi as all get out, but they have already managed to do a pilot program in New Zealand and had people successfully connect to the balloon-powered internet.

What does that mean for you? How can you create grand goals rather than small ones? That is a bit tougher than it sounds. For Google, it works best when your brainstorming group follows six guidelines.

  1. Build on each others’ ideas. It’s easy to kill an idea, so especially in the early stages, systematically follow up ideas with, “yes, and” instead of shooting them down with “no, but” comments.
  2. Generate lots of ideas. At this point quantity is more important than quality, so really let loose. Time to grab a pile of sticky notes or your favorite note-taking app. The best way to have a great idea is to have many ideas.
  3. Write headlines. Being able to describe an idea in less than six words helps you clarify it. Imagine your favorite media outlet or magazine covers your great idea: What would you want the headline to read?
  4. Illustrate. Pictures are usually louder than words and harder to misinterpret.
  5. Think big. Invite bold, intrepid ideas—yes, this is the “10x” part—not incremental solutions. As Frederik Pferdt, Google’s head of innovation and creativity, likes to say, “Just beyond crazy is fabulous!”
  6. Defer judgment. Don’t judge ideas in the midst of brainstorming (remember Rule #1) but let them grow so you can build on them and iterate.

These guidelines presume you are working with a group, and while that is ideal, it isn’t strictly necessary as long as you are firm with yourself about honoring the spirit of these guidelines: refusing to knock out any idea too early. Do you want to have five separate offices one day even though right now you work out of the spare closet in the bedroom? Say so. Do you have a seemingly ridiculous idea for how you will advertise your firm? Put it on a piece of paper. Don’t censor yourself during brainstorming.

Step three is prototyping. For Google, this means literally building a thing so that they have a physical representation of what they are trying to do, with the understanding that they can work out details later. Obviously, you can’t build a quick prototype of your dream firm, but you can force yourself to take a concrete step and work out details later. Want to move out of the spare closet? Call ten different places and make a spreadsheet of your possible costs so you can begin assessing whether that is a reality. Want to work on that advertising idea? Spend a little time with Photoshop or something similar and sketch out some rough graphics. The key here is to do something, rather than stopping at the idea-generating stage. You may find out that moving out of the closet is too expensive or that wrapping your car in advertising is a bad idea, but you won’t actually know that absent some tangible steps forward.

If all of this seems too abstract to take in or you just need some visuals, Google made a handy video that takes you inside their innovation process.

The takeaway: empathize with your clients and potential clients, dream big, and take some sort of action, no matter how small. It will never be a waste of your time to engage in some structured and productive brainstorming.

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  • legalofficeguru

    “Google employees actually visit users, which may prove a bit weird for you … but there is a rough equivalent: put yourself in your potential client’s shoes.”

    How about “take one to lunch periodically”? Empathy can only go so far, and if you have good relationships with enough clients, there ought to be at least a handful who like you well enough to give you straight answers to some “what should I start/stop/continue doing?” questions.

  • 55YearBroncoFan

    For one thing, law is being discussed, not visionary mega hi-tech. Further, unlike Google, law is an introspective, minute, analytical discipline. Answers and solutions appear to be obvious (especially to paralegals who already know answers and solutions and excel at cutting right to the chase), but lawyers scrutinize, examine and analyze each phrase and word before identifying issues that require resolution. Lawyers indeed brainstorm, but within the confines of applicable law. Even then, few fact patterns they encounter turn out to be cases of first impression.

    Finally, lawyers prototype. The law and cases are their prototypes.