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Why some organizations thrive in perpetuity, choose to reinvent themselves or become a one-hit wonder

First, in full disclosure, the author is an enormous fan of Van Halen. Whether you are talking about the hits from the David Lee Roth years or “Van Haggar,” their catalog is absolutely amazing, in my opinion. There are probably a few readers that are asking the question, “But what about the Gary Cherone years?” to which the response is exactly the thesis of this piece. For the small minority that are asking, “Who is Van Halen?” my apologies.

On the flip side, the Rolling Stones have an equally amazing history that makes them arguably one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll bands today. In fact, much to everyone’s surprise, the Rolling Stones still perform today, 58 years after they originally formed their band. The fact that they perform today has less to do with their age and more to the point that there is a well-documented “toxic relationship” that exists between the lead singer and the lead guitarist. Rock ’n’ roll egos make for amazing stories.

Lastly, you have the band A-ha from the 1980s. Some rock purists would say it’s blasphemous to include them in such a list with rock royalty, but it is important to recognize that this alternative musical group won many awards and has often been attributed with revolutionizing the video music industry. Alas, this Norwegian one-hit wonder’s meteoric ascent was only matched by their descent back into obscurity. Sure, they stuck around until 2010, but ask anyone to name one other song other that famous melody “Take On Me,” and you would be hard-pressed to get an answer.

 

Whether it’s The Who, Led Zeppelin, Oasis, The Black Crowes or even BTS (just making sure you’re still paying attention), strife, unrest and the clamor for the limelight seems as rock ’n’ roll as laser shows, tower speakers and pyrotechnics. Lest you think you opened to an article in Billboard or Rolling Stone, it’s important to think about how the same chemistry in the greatest bands has some similarity to today’s construction organizations.

Consider this: Your organization is on top of the world. In addition to charting record volumes and appearing in all of the industry trade journals, the team has grown exponentially. With new personnel, there is an almost collegial tone, where associates mix it up as if every day were a pep rally. It doesn’t get any better than this.

And then one day, someone leaves your happy family. And then another leaves. A project slips, failing to meet its budget or deadline, sowing seeds of discontent. A new manager hops on board but doesn’t seem to have that tribal knowledge of the others in the firm, forcing them to leave a short time later.

Markets shift, confidence erodes and customers complain. One day, the team is winning “Best New Builder,” and the next, they are the discount contractor struggling to make payroll. What happened?

Ultimately, all companies evolve or devolve. Some pivot with the times, while others chase the same glory days as if it were lightning in a bottle. For others, that friendly, chummy environment bred complacency. Put another way, if you read the news about how great you are, you start believing it.

 

So, is the theme to have a not-harmonious environment; one where managers and superintendents roam the hallways like divas? No — but there’s something interesting occurring in some case study examples that bear mentioning.

 

The Rolling Stones

Not all teams have to get along all the time. However, they do have to get along enough to recognize the organization comes first. In fact, some of the greatest businesses have conflict on a daily basis. Conflict by itself is not bad. Lack of conflict resolution and the inability to foster a robust feedback system is bad. How often do firms stifle that constructive dialogue because they fear upsetting their fragile ecosystem?

Though Mick Jagger and Keith Richards may not have had a Kaizen event or brainstorming session to work out the kinks on “Sticky Fingers” or “Steel Wheels,” they both recognized that their greatness together far outweighed the pettiness of their individual egos. How many construction organizations are able to channel conflict in a constructive fashion, while overcoming those individual roadblocks?

 

Van Halen

 

Think of organizations that have been around for 50, 60 or even 100 years. During that time, regimes have risen and fallen, staff has turned over many times and many have fought to stay relevant. Not every organization can replace a key leader and still be relevant in the marketplace. In some cases, they try too hard to hold onto their old persona without allowing themselves to grow and evolve.

Van Halen managed to reinvent themselves amidst a transition of their lead man. With the risk of deteriorating into a musical diatribe, each lead singer had different strengths vocally and musically and the band managed to capitalize on those differences. Were they a starkly different band? Some would argue yes, but they also managed to create amazing music that was complemented by those differences.

And it worked well — once, at least. They later tried to reinvent the band again, but failed. Were they trying to insert a senior leader in a role that was simply a plug-and-play, hoping that the organization would adapt the new leadership with no discontinuity? Organizations have to be willing to adapt to change and not worry about not shaking things up simply to maintain a status quo.

A-ha

Firms do not need to be enormous, nor do they have to adhere to the norms of what others thinks they should be. If a firm is satisfied with $25 million to $30 million in revenue and some modicum level of growth, that is what is important. Often, firms race to the top of the mountain, only to realize they were more content as a small or midsize firm.

Would A-ha have preferred to have multiple platinum albums and make it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? Possibly, but it’s interesting to note they followed their groundbreaking debut with nine other albums. Firms create their own strategy and, more importantly, develop the business they want. While the market will dictate their commercial success, a firm can still control their own destiny.

 

There is no perfect construction organization just as there is no perfect band. Firms are full of personalities, conflict and egos just like the rock ’n’ roll world. The key to overcoming and channeling that conflict in the right direction is being adaptable to the skills and talents of the team and finding a place in the world that allows the organization to build according to their own vision, and not the vision of others.

In a world full of Abbas (sorry, Abba fans), wouldn’t it be nice to be a little more like The Beatles?