A guide for driving sustainable innovation throughout a construction organization

The world is witnessing a new Renaissance. Just as Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo and Titian defined a generation of classical painting, sculpting, mathematics and literature, a new revolution surges in the world of business. For the last few decades, innovative business leaders have dramatically altered the landscape with groundbreaking ideas that have forever changed how the world lives. Inventors and entrepreneurs toil tirelessly to invent the next big thing, while the iPhone, Facebook, Google, Instagram and Zynga dominate the headlines and inspire savvy businesspeople to create. Some of these creations, such as the iPhone and Facebook, have morphed from simple conveniences to necessity. What may sound frivolous—a platform people use to share every detail of their lives with their friends, for example—has managed to reshape the business world we see today. Imagine that 20 years ago someone told you that a firm such as Kodak would no longer be around. Today’s innovative businesses managed to supplant many legacy giants that most likely had the same impact when they themselves began as fledgling start-ups. This phenomenon shows us that innovation and evolution are in some way linked.

Innovation in Construction

On the continuum of innovation, few construction firms would be confused for the likes of Apple or Google—comparing a construction firm to Apple is, well, apples and oranges.

However, the flawed thinking is not in comparing Apple and ABC Construction Inc., but rather, in failing to recognize that—regardless of the industry—every contractor can take a page out of the Google handbook. Consider the following questions.

  • Is your firm still using the processes and tools that were created at the firm’s inception?
  • To what extent does your firm leverage technology to communicate internally? Externally? Are you still fumbling to manage a serviceable webpage? Is Facebook simply for those young people in your firm?
  • Do you train your associates? If yes, do you do it once a year and focus predominantly on safety, requiring everyone to be in the same place at the same time?
  • If someone had a new idea, how would he/she implement it? How would that idea become a new best practice in your firm?

The last question should be the most thought-provoking. Every day, great ideas
come to life through the ingenuity of mastermind managers and supervisors. However, because of the fragmented nature of the business, these great ideas often become singular moments in a firm’s life with no chance of replication.

Many firms believe that, because an electrician or plumber is not creating the next iPhone, innovation cannot exist. However, carpenters, technicians and pipelayers constantly engineer the methods and means to drive innovative thinking on the jobsite every day without so much as a second thought.

There are two types of innovation: sustaining and disruptive. Sustaining innovation involves small, incremental change and happens at the project/individual 
level. This type of change can become an organization’s best practice. Disruptive innovation is a true game changer. It may evolve from sustaining innovation, and typically becomes an industry standard (Figure 1).

Most of the ideas that will advance an organization occur at the ground level. Whether it is processing payroll more efficiently, tracking a plumber’s inventory or developing a new formwork technique that saves 10 percent in labor expenditures, sustaining innovation will likely occur and, when shared across a firm, it will probably have a greater impact long-term. Ideas are constantly percolating at the field level through successful practitioners. Business leaders must reflect on the internal machinations of their firm to ensure that game-changing ideas don’t languish on the isolated islands that are their projects.

For many people, innovation involves the latest gimmickry and gadgetry. However, innovation for a construction firm is more of a groundswell toward an evolution in thinking, “How can we do this better?” The question should inspire your firm and help you avoid the stagnation of complacency. Complacent firms are comfortable and satisfied with their current destination. Leading firms evolve their thinking to recognize that there is no destination and that improving the trajectory of the journey is the ultimate goal.

Innovation Inhibitors

  • Complacency: “Why bother to change the company when we are making money now?”
  • Disconnects within the firm, including isolationism: For example, superintendents and foremen stay on-site, miles from the home office with few connections to the hub.
  • Human behavior: Someone in the firm will always be reluctant to embrace a new idea or concept.
  • A lack of strategic thinking
Innovative Thinking Inhibitors

Complicating this matter is the integration of new ideas while building business on the heels of the Great Recession. Figure 2 examines the root thinking of many leaders relative to innovative thinking and its connection to the industry’s tumultuous economic cycles.

By the rationale described in Figure 2, firms would never find a good time to change or innovate. Some companies may also have a compulsion to subcontract thought leadership—they have limited time and resources in the firm now and figure they can rely on others to do the thinking for them. While idea generation often comes from the outside via any multitude of resources (i.e. media, consultants, etc.), the most powerful changes occur by the practitioners and with their consent. Proactive and constructive change will not occur through osmosis.

Contractors must examine every aspect of their firms through the lens of innovative thinking. Does the firm still rely on traditional and sometimes stale training and education? Does the business planning concept appear to have lost its luster, and has it become more of a perfunctory exercise of number manipulation? Figure 3 can guide a firm’s leadership to objectively evaluate the company’s capabilities and level of innovation. Business owners also must ask several fundamental questions when grading the level of innovation in the firm.

  • What “sacred cows” are we not willing to change? Why?
  • Is there a definable ROI for making change? If not, can some other metric be considered to provide a measure of success?
  • Can we enact innovative change in the firm while running the business?
  • Who will be the chief innovative officer?
  • Do we discount how long true change will take? Is this a simple adjustment, or is this change moving the entire organization in a different direction?

As the industry pushes out of its malaise, firms will begin hiring more staff—another litmus test for innovation. Will your firm take a chapter from the Google handbook? Why not implement testing to evaluate talent and capabilities? While this doesn’t imply instituting a complex and arduous IQ exam, a firm’s hiring process might benefit from simple innovation in thinking.

Inspirations to Innovation

Many have captured the spirit of innovation in their vision, mission or core values, a concept that appeals to the progressive mind. Few people want to be part of the firm that adopts this mantra: “We’re stuck in our ways. Don’t bring that change around these parts.” True innovation requires action. Inspiring innovation has to come from all levels within the firm, and, most important, it must be encouraged. Below are inspiring ideas to sow the seeds of innovation.

  • Think bigger. 
Don’t be limited by borders or industry conventions. Be willing to look outside the construction industry and even outside the country. What are peer organizations doing in China? Europe? What lessons can we learn from Southwest Airlines? McDonald’s?
  • Challenge conventional thinking.
 As firms look to tablets, GPS, 3-D modeling, augmented reality and robotics, challenge the normal conventions by saying, “How can we incorporate this model here?” Start small, but start with something.
  • Reward innovation. 
For years, firms have rewarded safety and tenure—why not reward innovation? Let your associates know that your firm rewards great new ideas.
  • Apply metrics. 
Metrics provide tangible results in sometimes intangible circumstances. Measuring success provides evidence of innovative genius to even the greatest cynic.
  • Make it fun. 
A little competition never hurt anyone. Make it a sport, and harness the internal horsepower to create. Instead of a stodgy standard operating procedure, create a team playbook by which you promote innovative ideas in an environment that rewards creativity.