3-Step Guide to Construction Innovation
In all industries, successful transformation involves altering the way a business operates on a cellular level. This means building capabilities and changing culture in a way that can be sustained.
So how does that translate to the construction world?
Innovations are something that other industries have had a twenty year head start on. They’ve restructured their business, put money into an aggressive digital strategy, and adjusted to the digital era.
Meanwhile, construction has endured multiple challenges that hinder it. There are strong headwinds in construction that senior leaders need to acknowledge in order to be successful at transforming their organizations. These include a field-based workforce scattered across many jobsites, a project delivery machine that’s constantly broken down and re-assembled, and a highly opaque and fragmented value chain.
Many construction executives and senior managers struggle defining these challenges and therefore struggle in execution. It’s estimated that three-quarters of transformations end in failure.
Before embarking on a complex innovation initiative, construction leaders need to address three building blocks in their field teams.
While there are common tactical mistakes that construction companies make with early innovation initiatives, those that start by ignoring their field-based workforce and sidelining their field-level strategy will be at a serious disadvantage.
In consulting building contractors on construction technology & innovation programs, I outline here the three steps that help ensure each finds their North Star. These insights are not only valuable to initial road mapping — they also facilitate execution on the client’s transformational journey by focusing on the who, what, and why of jobsite dynamics.
1. Field Influencers.
- Why It’s Important: Transformations should not be something that is done to employees, it should be something that employees do. Perhaps the most important part of any organizational transformation are the people involved. In the construction world, a majority of our people are in the field. Your field influencers are the individuals across your construction project teams who are viewed by peers as the best sources of information, they are approachable and consequently in the highest demand as a social resource. Actively identifying and engaging with these field influencers should be a top priority in any transformation initiative.
Research shows that you don’t need to engage your entire organization in a transformation, but you do need buy in from a sizeable 5 to 10 percent of the business.
- The Challenge: Construction executives and senior managers often start their careers in the field, but their professional networks shift over time to become more focused on clients and other back-office managers. When forming an innovation group, these senior managers often develop their initial list of candidates from first-degree connections that they know well. This “usual suspects” list can limit initiative owners and ultimately create an echo chamber with little business lift. Targeting innovation to the 5 to 10 percent of an organization that will be responsive to change is a big challenge — while that percentage sounds small, it can represent a lot of people for even a mid-sized building contractor.
- What Happens Ignoring It: In one telling experience, a client had formed a small 2-person innovation group who’s role was to engage with a dozen or so pre-selected champions around the business. These champions were meant to provide coverage and energy from different parts of the organization. But a year into the initiative, the effort had failed to accomplish much in return. Once the client broadened their lens by leveraging the soft power of field influencers, they were able to initiate change closer to the workface. Around eight percent of the field were identified as targets for the innovation program. Their piloting process and implementation plans were consequently supercharged as a result.
2. Connected Workforce.
- Why It’s Important: The construction industry has a unique project delivery model that requires constant breaking down and re-shuffling of its workforce to match the needs of custom client requirements. Project managers, field engineers, foremen, and superintendents all shift over time as they move onto new projects. Each construction company therefore has a very dispersed professional networks of both newcomers to the organization and established individuals who have a complex chain of connections around the business. When quantified, this knowledge of field networks and field influencers is what helps ideas spread like wildfire around an organization.
- The Challenge: Most industries have clear networks of individuals based on functional roles, business units, or regional operations which makes implementation of new initiatives somewhat straightforward. Not so in construction. The trajectory of construction workers shifts geographically and professionally over time as they move from one project to the next — they all take their lessons learnt, technology tools, and personal connections with them as they go. Field influencers are central nodes in a construction company’s field networks. Like field influencers, an organization’s field network is many layers deep and oftentimes reveals unintuitive insights about how people are connected around the business.
Understanding field networks helps building contractors quickly navigate their field teams and move fast when new opportunities arise.
- What Happens Ignoring It: It’s not uncommon for a construction company to have a digital transformation initiative that operates in parallel to another technology department. One client found that after a year into their digital transformation plans, a critical part of their field operations was not fully bought into the process and system integration issues hosted by VDC never fully resolved. What happened is common across the industry: failure to engage parts of the business that can bring diverse perspectives, skills, and experiences to improve focus, process, and execution of initiatives. The experience was an example of the right hand not talking to the left, and it ultimately led to a readjustment in strategy to better appreciate field affiliations that can make or break an initiative.
3. Field Personas.
- Why It’s Important: Once identified, field influencers will be the fountain of new ideas, they will inform your strategy and will put in the hard yards to experiment with new ways of doing work. They’re also the ones likely to have a good grasp on the trends that are impacting the industry and how the trajectory of those trends will impact your construction operations. Once you’ve identified your field influencers, it’s important to understand how they view the future and get an understanding of the problem statements they surface.
- The Challenge: Because of the complexity of construction project delivery, there are often competing visions of the future from different parts of your business. A key step in successful transformation is building a roadmap that is not only executable but also grounded in feedback from employees close to the workface. Much of the challenge is that executive teams don’t know which way to turn in the face of rapid change — navigating a changing field workforce, new digital technologies, shifting client demands, and the emergence of new business models. Listening to your field operations will help improve messaging, understand needs, and broaden your strategic planning.
Instead of competing to look smart and impose ideas, executives should start by engaging deeply with their construction field users.
- What Happens Ignoring It: One building contractor had a telling experience with a failed big data project that they spent significant resources developing in-house. It was intended to be a massive repository of past project metrics that would automate the estimating of new jobs. Ambitious in scope, it was ultimately unsuccessful because of a more fundamental mistake: since it was an estimating solution that relied on back-end data, field teams weren’t viewed as stakeholders. However, field expertise would prove crucial to providing good data and giving context to data sources. The team was able to course correct by dramatically changing approach, but it was an expensive lesson learnt: all roads in construction lead to the field, whether it’s apparent or not.
Nate Fuller is Managing Director of Placer Construction Solutions, advising leadership teams to transform their organizations in ways that improve performance and agility at the field level.
He provides construction companies with a field assessment that delivers transformative information about their field operations and is proven to accelerate innovation & technology adoption for Top ENR contractors.
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