The road to innovation: Ideas need to be nurtured, then managed

Skepticism is healthy and can weed out half-baked ideas.

June 05, 2017 |

On May 11, BD+C hosted its first Accelerate Live! innovation conference, in Chicago, a multimedia event where an audience of more than 100 of the industry’s cognoscenti listened to a rapid-fire barrage of 15-minute presentations by 19 AEC experts.

Those lively talks approached innovation from just about every conceivable angle, from how gaming technology and machine learning redirect building design, to how artificial intelligence, SaaS (software as a service), and Big Data guide engineering and construction toward automation.

Each presentation offered useful kernels of information and examples that the audience could take away and apply to their own work. But one of the more thought-provoking comments I heard emerged from a post-event conversation with one of the presenters, Tyler Goss, Turner Construction Company’s Innovation Development Manager.

Goss observed that most, if not all, of the people in the room were already convinced that constant innovation is imperative to making buildings better and companies more successful. What was missing? “Skeptics” in the industry—those risk-averse, tech-allergic executives who view innovation and progress with suspicion, and sometimes with fear. 

Skepticism is healthy and can weed out half-baked ideas. But even in an industry not exactly known for its farsightedness, resistance to change is no longer tenable, as more AEC firms reorganize themselves specifically to stimulate and test new ideas.

SmithGroupJJR essentially ushered in new leadership in 2014 in order to break free from its operational conservatism and to create a culture of innovation. Recalling that transition, Russ Sykes, PE, LEED AP, one of three Managing Partners who took the reins, said that SmithGroupJJR began offering innovation grants and initiated an emerging leaders program that enrolls 15 employees per year and involves participation by senior management. 

Every one of the firm’s offices now incorporates virtual reality into its project management. And 25 of its engineers are dedicated to “looking at the future,” he said. As a result of these and other cultural changes, SmithGroupJJR is growing at a 15% annual clip, with higher profits.

What will separate great companies from merely good ones is how they manage change. Chris Mayer, Chief Innovation Officer for Suffolk Construction, explained how his company systematically evaluates each element of change via an integrated approach for planning and control that searches for the intersection of sustaining, disruptive, and transformative innovation. 

That framework is the basis for Suffolk’s “build smart” approach, which starts with innovation labs that focus on R&D and early-adoption development. Ideas worth pursuing are then moved into a pilot stage to establish standards in the event these ideas get rolled out nationally. 

Mayer cautioned, however, that companies will only be disappointed if they jump into a new idea or technology, such as drones, without researching how it would be used, and why it would benefit the company and its clients.

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