With 2023 well underway, millions of Americans are still pursuing their New Year’s resolutions by hitting the gym, counting calories and otherwise pursuing the promise of transformation. These goal-setters might even include a few construction executives who want to ramp up company performance in 2023.
But whether the vision is to get in shape or run a more competitive contracting firm, the effort will likely fizzle if it is merely one-dimensional.
Lifting weights to shed pounds is a fine idea, but if you stay up until 2 a.m. bingeing Netflix, you’re more likely to wake up hangry and reach for the carbs. In the resulting sleep-deprived sugar crash, you’ll probably skip your next date with the bench press.
Along the same lines, a construction CEO could resolve to bring the company into the 21st century by rolling out a new cloud-based technology platform. But without simultaneously encouraging a supportive shift in culture and behavior, that effort could fail. Maybe a micromanaging chief operating officer (COO) refuses to give others the latitude to use the platform, or perhaps field personnel keep on scribbling notes instead of using their tablets to enter data in real time.
So how can contractors chart a more holistic path to transformation and set in motion a mutually reinforcing upward spiral?
Contracting firms can identify key areas of growth by having honest conversations among different internal and external stakeholders. The effort should include not just technical, financial and project-specific domains, but also cultural dynamics related to morale, communication and behavior.
Taking a more conscious approach is important because the many stressors in construction make it more likely that team members will default to unskillful, habitual patterns of behavior. Those stressors include being under the gun to stay on time and on budget; the headaches associated with managing subs and suppliers; the need for vigilance around safety and regulatory compliance; and even mundane worries about bad weather, change orders or whether you’re living up to others’ expectations.
3 Key Domains
To ramp up the growth of both people and profits, construction company leaders would do well to ask questions around three fundamental domains:
- Vision — Have key decision-makers ever sat down to formulate a clear vision for where the company is headed? Have they shared that vision and sought feedback on it from the rest of the team? Are individual executives, accountants, project managers (PMs), supers and engineers clear on why the company exists and does what it does?
- Strategy — Let’s say everyone is on the same page about the vision. Is the go-forward strategy for achieving it just a fuzzy intention, or is it concrete enough to measure, track and analyze in the form of key performance indicators? Is there broad-based buy-in for the movement toward organizational change, or are resistant holdouts — people who cling to “the way we’ve always done it” — standing in the way?
- Leadership — Do high-visibility leaders walk the talk on vision and strategy in an equal way, or are employees getting the sense that “This is really Jane’s agenda”? Consistency of behavior is just as critical as clarity of message.
When It Comes to Tech, the ‘How’ Matters
General and specialty contractors across the country are increasingly interested in using technology to close the gaps between the office and the field. But how construction companies go about rolling out technology matters tremendously.
Siloed approaches involve announcing the change, offering some training and hoping that any resistant holdouts will get with the program.
Holistic frameworks consider the full intersection of people, processes and structures. That means identifying, addressing and reformulating any out-of-step elements of company culture. (For example, a department that refuses to rethink its clunky and error-prone reporting methods, or an internal team that defaults to the position of “This is our territory. Stay out.”)
It’s equally important to build a culture in which office and field personnel use the new platform for shared dialogue, goal setting and progress tracking. The team should see technology as part of the organization’s cultural fabric — not a “take it or leave it” capital expenditure offered by management. In a siloed approach, for example, a lone project manager hits budget-projection milestones and quietly records the progress in the analytics platform, uncelebrated. In a holistic one, the human resources team notes those achievements, celebrates them and scores a talent-retention win in the bargain.
Some leaders struggle with transparency. But when organizational change is an all-hands-on-deck effort, leaders want stakeholders to be aware of their specific contributions to project and financial performance. Customizable data visualizations and dashboards can allow leaders to be selective about the information they share, but the goal should nonetheless be to give people the data-driven insights they need to excel at their jobs.
Holistic leaders also are bullish about all forms of training and education — not only in traditional domains like technology, safety compliance and financial management, but also in the fundamentals of habit and behavioral change, stress reduction and other areas related to personal growth.
Instead of saying, “We expect you to work differently,” they might frame it this way: “Here’s how we’re going to prepare you to work faster and more effectively.”
The executive team should give careful thought to the cues, reactions and rewards needed to catalyze behavioral and attitudinal change. Take the case of a PM who needs to update the billing status of a particular project. The cue here would just be the need to run that report. At this point, the reaction could be a temptation to default to old habits: “I used to do it in my old spreadsheet and then email it to accounting.”
But if company leaders have anticipated this behavioral loop, they will have already emphasized to the PM the importance of using the new platform to keep accounting and other stakeholders updated in real time. Leaders may even have publicly celebrated other PMs for embracing the new approach, creating stronger incentives for everyone to get on board.
Aware of this, the PM now drops the old habit and focuses on the reward: “They will be stoked to see me use this new system. Let’s give it a go.”
Communicate the ‘Why’
In a holistic approach, leaders and their teams move the needle on organizational change by paying attention to multiple domains at once, from skillful approaches to construction data and talent retention, to closing culture gaps and eliminating legacy inefficiencies. In this framework, the focus is on the intersection of people and technology, not one or the other.
Leadership should properly identify and communicate the “why” that underlies every action of the organization. Teams should be connected and trained to speak the same language about progress and change. Disconnected work styles — such as that of the micromanaging COO — are identified and addressed, as are misunderstandings around the true meaning of growth (it’s about both people and profits, not merely the bottom line).
When opportunities to move forward as a team are missed, everyone learns from that lesson and does better next time.
Properly undertaken, a holistic approach to transformational change will yield immediate benefits for today’s construction companies. However, focusing on multiple domains also stands to better position contractors for the future.
The construction industry is undergoing a radical change as older generations turn over the reins to the millennials and Generation Z. These younger leaders happen to be digital natives who value awareness and organizational engagement. If we fail to create workplaces that feel like home to them — holistic environments where knowledge gaps are closed quickly and technology continually improves — they will look elsewhere.
The alternative is to build a solid foundation for a brighter future by bringing holistic thinking into everything we do.