In the construction industry, people often think of innovation in terms of what they might lose rather than what they could gain.

People fear change even as they recognize its necessity and value. For example, proven advancements such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) have been around for more than twenty years, yet they are still not widely utilized throughout the industry.

Statements about how the industry is “broken” or dysfunctional or trapped in organization silos are commonplace. Less common are genuine solutions or probing insights into the cultures and attitudes that drive such dysfunction and simultaneously suffocate change. We need to infuse more creativity into our thinking.

How do we do that in an industry where unconventional, out-of-the-box thinking is often discouraged or even penalized?

Curiosity and imagination are required to break through these cultural barriers – both are necessary before we can even entertain creativity. It’s about thinking in different, collaborative ways that penetrate traditional silo boundaries.

Innovative thinking, design thinking, and entrepreneurial thinking – we need all of these to develop the products, processes, experiences, and business models that drive change.

We also need to add critical thinking and systems thinking that recognizes the interconnectivity and importance of processes. Too often, decisions are made with the gut or by shooting from the hip. It is not unusual for a team to spend a month preparing a thoughtful, detailed project bid, only to receive the final instruction from leadership, “Now lower the price by 20% and take six months off the schedule.”

Nowadays, creative thinking can exist within the sphere of digital thinking, which provides possibilities we could not have imagined even twenty years ago. Digital thinking infuses technology into entrepreneurship, creativity, innovation, and design thinking. Its potential is boundless, but unreceptive mindsets diminish its potential.

One of the barriers to change is habit. In an industry where we do the same things over and over, it is easy to become complacent or make errors. The most repetitive tasks are the ones most prone to carelessness and even malfeasance. What if we automate tasks nobody really wants to do and code transparency into redundant processes for more cost-effective and predictable capital projects?

Thinking creatively about change amid the new digital landscape means that we can automate functions that a computer can do better and faster, leaving us to analyze the exceptions and focus on the high-value tasks, which can lead to innovation and change.

It’s said that there are three basic types of change: 1) Natural evolution, where you are going toward a goal and the system evolves based on its fitness of purpose for that goal, 2) Punctuated evolution, where certain parts of evolution are accelerated by introducing agents of change, and 3) Revolution, which is sudden, unpredictable and potentially destructive for the whole system.

The preferred and most sustainable rate of change is punctuated evolution, which examines systems for potential improvements and introduces innovations in those places and at those times where they can make the most difference. Wholesale and rapid change looks too much like a revolution, for which the industry seems to have no appetite.

Meanwhile, natural evolution requires a few million years to get where it’s going. It worked out well for the shark and the alligator, but the construction industry might be better compared in evolutionary terms to the panda, with its highly inefficient diet and dubious commitment to reproduction.

Rather than triggering sudden, wrenching change, causing wistfulness about what was lost, we believe in introducing small but powerful changes in the way this industry functions and how it thinks. Changes which, if embraced, cause a willing release of what we should have given up a long time ago to make room for an accelerated economic engine of construction that will take us farther and faster than we ever dreamed possible.

Together let’s be agents of change!

PrairieDog thanks Jorge Vanegas, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Architecture at Texas A&M University, for his time and his insights on this article.  

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