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Bechtel’s Impact Report

Why is it So Hard to Innovate?

  • By
    portrait of David Wilson
    David Wilson, Chief Innovation Officer
  • 10 January 2019
     7 Min Read

I was recently reflecting on 2018 -- an end of the year ritual -- taking stock of the triumphs, challenges, and lessons learned before I begin to prioritize actions to further innovation and accelerate adoption in 2019. In search of inspiration, I found myself reviewing rankings published throughout the year; like “Fast Company’s” Most Innovative Companies of 2018.

I found many lists categorizing the most innovative startups, technology providers, and entrepreneurs. Each list has similarities you’d expect, but one commonality I found surprising was that none of them recognize companies in the construction industry, with CONSTRUCTECH being the only exception. In fact, there isn’t even a category for the construction sector in most publications. And I get it. The industry’s productivity growth has remained stagnant for the past two decades, we’ve been sluggish to adopt technology, have one of the lowest rates of research and development spending, and are one of the least digitalized sectors.  

Fortunately, things are changing. Three years ago, there were only pockets of conversation about game-changing innovations in the construction industry, such as building information modeling, artificial intelligence, machine learning, mixed reality, autonomous vehicles, robotic assistants, or additive manufacturing. These terms are now nearly ubiquitous in discussions with customers and competitors alike, clear evidence we’re on the right path and generating momentum.

Every sector, and most organizations, understand the importance of innovating to create competitive advantages and deliver greater value to customers. Unfortunately, identifying the need to innovate is only a small part of addressing the challenge, and many organizations struggle with both deploying and integrating innovation within their corporate culture.  

Why is it so hard to innovate? To help answer this, I’ve framed some of our learning into an easy to remember acronym: D.E.S.I.G.N. Innovation within any organization can be structured and unleashed by the design of processes, governance, and change, hence the use of the word DESIGN for our six lessons learned. The following are elements to consider as you set out to D.E.S.I.G.N. innovation and change your organization.  

Direct a course  

Do you and your colleagues understand what kind of innovation you are supposed to deliver? Without a clear strategy, language, definition of success, and vision, it will be very difficult to prioritize your innovation efforts and ensure resources are allocated to the highest potential innovations. Consequently, your innovators will feel as though they’re being asked to play the innovation lottery, where ideas randomly advance with no transparent or consistent criteria guiding what is pursued or abandoned. This is incredibly discouraging and will lead to diminishing engagement from those once excited. To avoid this: establish a clear vision to set the direction. For us, this vision and focus is around safer, better, faster, and leaner project delivery through improved productivity.

Embrace a future with new solutions

Neophobia is the fear of anything new. In its milder form, it can manifest as the unwillingness to try new things or break from routine. In every organization, there are elements of natural resistance to change and innovation because of the unknowns and the uncertainty. Some see innovation as a threat and will hold onto the known. If this is not addressed early, you’ll find pockets of visible and invisible resistance, resulting in further demotivation for your innovators. It’s critical to articulate why innovation will create more opportunity for everyone and how everyone will have a role in the future state – in some instances this will require training and development. Generally, successful innovation will eliminate repetitive and inefficient tasks (or waste), and create greater value for customers as well as more opportunity for our people – the increased competitive advantage will lead to winning new work. To avoid the fear of the future: communicate the benefits of innovation to everyone and make it personal – clearly describe how a willingness to adapt to change and embrace new skills will result in greater job satisfaction and security.

Simplify the path to action

Do you find there’s always one more person to get on board before a decision can be made? This can be a symptom of an overly bureaucratic system where all decisions are fully vetted before being elevated to a single decision maker. This results in a very slow decision-making process that ultimately stalls the innovation process and any attempt to rapidly explore and learn within your organization. The strength of the business case and the network dictate the success of an idea, instead of the merit of the idea. Forced-teaming can create a hostile environment where “what about” roadblocks are commonplace. Without a clear path to action, idea originators will lose control of their proposals and wind up frustrated with the whole process. To avoid this: create guardrails and establish governance models early, and then encourage innovators to run fast and explore. Make roadblocks visible and escalate with key stakeholders to remove constraints to exploration early.

Impact from innovation takes time

The value of innovative initiatives isn’t realized overnight, and often quantifying tomorrow’s solution with today’s understanding results in an incomplete view of the long-term impact. For example, Apple took more than five years to develop the iPhone and their business case was a vision of the future. If they had decided to focus on telephony return on investment (ROI), I doubt it would have survived. Also, the Wright brothers began their experimentation in 1896 and only achieved their first flight in 1903. The Wrights, like many others, succeeded because they had a vision for an improved future state and were not dissuaded by present-limited ROI calculations. A demand for ROI too early in the idea lifecycle can lead to premature termination of exploration. To avoid this: allow innovators to incrementally explore and advance promising ideas through the development lifecycle, hosting gate reviews throughout the process, and then actively archiving or advancing ideas based on their ability to deliver on the leap of faith assumptions (e.g. “I believe this is better because it will deliver this”).

Gain knowledge through exploration

The greatest innovators in history wouldn’t have known any success if it wasn’t for their repeated and oftentimes painful failures. It’s easy to find inspirational quotes from Thomas Edison to Michael Jordan outlining the value of learning through trying and continually exploring new methods, plays, experiments, shots, etc. A robust culture of innovation needs an environment where there is structured, safe, fast, and forward learning, which often requires some tolerance for failure-based learning. If innovators do not feel safe to explore and learn through failure, then you’ll find the only innovation you can achieve is consensus-based and incremental. To avoid this: take care in how you respond verbally and non-verbally to those who make mistakes as they explore and experiment with new means and methods. Second guessing reinforces inertia and inaction. This does not mean we should perpetuate repetitive failure, but we should encourage failure that results in new learning through a structured process (e.g. the scientific method).

Navigate the S-curves

Innovators should always be encouraged to go where no one has gone before, aligned with the vision and direction established. Rediscovering what has already been developed is highly demotivating for innovators. Additionally, limited autonomy will not result in transformational innovation. If exploration is constrained by consensus, then you’ll never break free from your current S-curve. To avoid this: communicate what has previously been explored and learned, and then unleash innovators to push the boundaries. Provide innovators with the freedom to experiment, the support and endorsement of the organization, and guardrails to advance new solutions - ensuring they advance new learning in a structured and transparent manner.

As we’ve innovated and advanced more than 500 ideas through the pitch phase, 250 concepts into and through prototyping, 120 innovative solutions evaluated via project pilots, and deployed mature innovations across more than 40 projects, we’ve seen and experienced the highs and lows of innovation. The benefits of D.E.S.I.G.N’ed innovation structuring are immediate and real. Today we count more than 160 deployments of mature solutions across the Bechtel enterprise, and the count continues to grow as more ideas accelerate through our innovation process.  

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