Innovation Through Analogy

Gjon Nivica Jr. explains that it’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel if driving growth and innovation is the goal

"Be self-aware, ruthlessly reflective of how you are measuring up against the highest standards, and figure out how you are going to continuously improve each day." -- Gjon Nivica Jr.

In the mid-’90s, while working as general counsel for a marketing and sales service business, Gjon Nivica Jr. noticed how externally focused this group was in respect to the services provided to customers. Realizing a similar concept in which in-house lawyers really provide a service to their in-house customers, Nivica thought, “Why wouldn’t we use the same principles they are using, and flip it inside the company?” Nivica is senior vice president and general counsel for Celanese Corporation, a Dallas-based chemical engineering and manufacturing company. He has used this strategy, which he now calls “analogy strategy,” to increase efficiency and innovation in the law department at Celanese. 

The Philosophy Behind Analogy Strategies

Nivica’s innovation-by-analogy strategy is the concept of looking outside of the company for great ideas. Analogy strategy finds successful resources, approaches, products, and paradigms within contiguous markets and industries that can translate into ideas and solutions that will drive efficiency within the innovation process. “We look outside of the four walls of our function and outside the company as a means to find solutions as in-house lawyers for our internal customers,” Nivica says.

The point is to go beyond a mere “copy-cat” strategy, which is designed to solve the same problem in essentially the same way, and beyond the process of benchmarking, where there is generally only refinement of something you are already doing. “Innovation by analogy requires an additional kind of synthetic step where you have to look beyond the current solutions that exist for your industry to see analogous solutions that actually get at the root of your customers’ needs and desires” says Nivica.

Implementing the Concept of Innovation

This approach begins with the “pragmatic and necessarily humble premise that some of the best solutions to address a customer need have already been implemented in some form and industry outside of your company,” says Nivica. The first step is to identify the target audience’s wants and needs. It is important to not only listen to customers, but to see how they use the product. Customer feedback can then be refined into patterns and themes with the application of functional experts’ insights of the marketplace. Then, functional experts can develop the specifics of a solution and move into action to deliver and satisfy the customer.

Celanese Corporation’s development of their internal website, called Keys to Contracting, shows the process in action. The site, modeled after the one for WebMD, makes pertinent resources readily available to clients. Available information includes standard forms, an explanation of terms, negotiating strategies, frequently asked questions, and training materials. The objective was to create accessible, high quality, and easy-to-use content, which increases the sophistication level of the sales and procurement teams, allowing them to do more for themselves. “In some respects, it is not so different from the introduction of kiosks at airports,” Nivica says. “There you had some of the work of the airlines essentially outsourced to the customer, but in a way that the customer actually prefers, because it was faster and easier.”

Another successful analogous practice resulted from one of the first assignments given to Nivica—revising Celanese’s code of conduct. Modeled after retail marketing, the goal was to create visually engaging content, reduce word count, reword the legalese, and cover more topics practically. “We were trying to help support a culture, not create the world’s finest warranty disclaimer,” Nivica recalls. “It has to be engaging to strike a personal note.”

Nivica has his eye on other innovations that will improve Celanese’s legal team. “Think about ‘push’ advertising generally when coupled with mobile devices,” he says. “Why can’t legal content be delivered like that—proactively providing short, relevant bursts when and where you need it? That would be innovative for our space.”