Sign of FourToday we honor Conan Doyle’s second Sherlock Homes novel, The Sign of Four. The novel was published in 1890 but the story is set in 1888. The story entails a complex plot involving service in East India Company, India, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, a stolen treasure, and a secret pact among four convicts and two corrupt prison guards. It presents the detective’s drug habit and humanizes him in a way that had not been done by Doyle to-date. It also has a rather happy ending as it introduces us to Dr. Watson’s future wife, Mary Morstan to whom he proposes at the end of the novel.

The Sign of Four was an intricate tale with many strands woven throughout. I thought of this novel when reading the article entitled “Leading Your Team into the Unknown” by Nathan Furr and Jeffrey H. Dyer in the December 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR). I found their insights quite useful for the Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner who might be faced with implementing or enhancing a compliance solution for an organization. But equally interesting, were that the authors’ insights could also be used to help a CCO or compliance practitioner help move a compliance function down into the DNA of an organization to make compliance a more standard process for doing everyday commercial operations.

The authors posit that “Innovation is at heart a process of discovery, and so the role of the person leading it is to set other people down a path, not to short-circuit it by jumping to a conclusion right at the start. To lead innovation, you don’t have to be the next Steve Jobs, nor do you need to guess the future. Rather, you must carve out the mental space within which the innovation process can be carried out. How? First, by setting the expectation that innovation will push boundaries. Fashion designers often include very bold designs in their lines to inspire customers to try more-flamboyant styles. . .You need not go so far. You can push boundaries just as dramatically by demonstrating a willingness to reimagine some of your organization’s most fundamental assumptions about products, customers, and business models.”

For the CCO or compliance practitioner, I think this means that innovation in the compliance function requires a different approach to leadership than the standard command and control or even collaborative approach. For a successful CCO or compliance practitioner this is accomplished by leading compliance integration into the DNA of a company through example and not simply dictated. The authors suggest, “by asking questions rather than making decisions; clearing a path to the unknown for the innovative team rather identifying the end goal; and give people the right kind of time, the right constraints and the right tools” to come up with a solution. I found the authors implications for such an approach appropriately inspiring, “Innovative leaders can create a sustainable competitive advantage not through superiority of a particular invention but by creating an organization that can learn from mistakes faster, more efficiently and more consistently than competitors do.”

The authors provide what they call “A Comprehensive Approach to Innovation” which I have adapted for the CCO or compliance practitioner to facilitate innovation in the compliance function. It consists of four steps. 

  1. Generate Insights. The authors state, “Use questioning, observational, and networking skills to search far and wide for broad insights into problems that may be worth solving.” As a CCO or compliance practitioner, you can push compliance boundaries just as dramatically by demonstrating a willingness to reimagine some of your organization’s most fundamental assumptions about products, customers, and business models. But it means getting out there and seeking input from those outside your direct compliance function.
  1. Identify an Important Problem. Here the authors recommend “Through direct observation look for an unsolved problem or an unfilled emotional or social need that enough people have for the opportunity to be worth pursuing.” This also means giving your team an opportunity to synthesize the issues. You will need to dedicate both resources and time for the process to run its course. I recognize that all corporate employees have a day job so you will need to set aside specific time for such issue identification. In addition to providing resources and time, you will need to provide your innovation team support by removing the inevitable organizational barriers, which will be thrown up in their path.
  1. Develop the Solution. The authors advocate constructing prototypes so rather than building a complete compliance solution, quickly construct a set of simple prototypes of many different compliance tools. For each, start with a theoretical example, if that looks promising internally, move to a virtual prototype to test throughout a pre-selected business unit or process. Start with a visual representation, which could be just a drawing; next move to testing a minimum viable prototype with internal consumers of the compliance solution through the simplest, quickest physical version of the offering you can devise. Finally, pilot test the full-blown compliance solution with a wider audience, including trusted and integral third parties to your organization.
  1. Devise the Business Model. Finally, the authors note that once you have worked out the offering, apply the same experimental approach to developing and testing the components of the business model, including approaches to implementation. They suggest that there are three values to such an approach. The first is that you will have generated “insight value-that is, the insight into the unknown that comes from reducing uncertainty.” The second is “option value-the option upon resolving an unknown, to pursue, alter, or abandon a course of action.” The third is “strategic value” which is both the value derived by your internal compliance consumers but also that of all the knowledge you will have gained throughout the course of the project; what worked and what did not work and, more importantly, why.

As a lawyer who moved into compliance, I initially thought that anti-corruption compliance was a function of telling everyone the rules and having them followed. Some companies are still at this stage of compliance. However, if there is one over-riding theme that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has communicated over the years it is that your compliance function needs to constantly evolve. It certainly must evolve as the corruption risks your company encounters develop but also it should also mature as your compliance program grows and becomes more ingrained in your organization. Innovation is not a concept that comes naturally to lawyers who are generally trained to study the past (i.e. read case law precedent) and apply it going forward. The idea of innovation simply does not jive with what many believe should be a static list of rules and regulations that businesses should operate under. However, as compliance moves into its next phase and becomes the best practice of a well-run business, innovation will become more of a focus.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at

© Thomas R. Fox, 2014

Mike Brown
Mike Brown

Tom: Masterful communication in both the world of Compliance and the world of Innovation! I just wish more corporations would follow both the Compliance and Innovation ideas embedded within the “Leading Your Team into the Unknown” by Nathan Furr and Jeffrey H. Dyer and your thoughts!! Well done! Mike