Reclaiming Innovation: How to Create a Proper Culture for New Ideas

The construction industry needs to adopt a culture that allows innovation to prosper—but it cannot always replicate what it sees in other sectors

Illustration by Kim Salt

Change is inevitable. Whether it’s a new technology, new demands or, more recently, a global pandemic, industries have to adapt and innovate—and the construction industry is no exception.  

But the construction industry faces unique challenges. The massive upfront investments and tight deadlines required of many construction projects limit companies’ ability to innovate as other sectors do.  

Innovation in construction, for instance, is not like the technology industry, which prides itself on disruption, according to Ricardo Vargas, an author and consultant on project delivery and executive director of the Brightline Initiative. “You can’t just try and fail and say, ‘That didn’t works so let’s just scrap it,’ because the cost is very high,” Vargas said.  

In a world where innovation and change is evolving rapidly, how can managers foster a construction industry culture of innovation, while still getting projects done on time and within budget?  

Building an open, creative environment 

Vargas believes that, despite some major structural differences between the two sectors, there are still some lessons to be learned from big technology companies when it comes to fostering innovation and change.  

Above all, construction managers should ask themselves: “What can I learn from this extremely disruptive industry that I can apply to infrastructure,” Vargas said. “The way they communicate; the way they engage employees; the way they foster leadership; the way they try to experiment in new materials.”  

Establishing the kind of open, creative environment that technology companies are known for is essential for construction innovation, but Vargas cautions that the same environment isn’t always conducive to execution in the industry. Managers ultimately need to marry two mindsets: an open, creative one to foster new ideas, and a more pragmatic one to turn those ideas into reality.  

Successful innovators know that it’s not just about coming up with new ideas, however. The workforce, the company and the industry at large have to be ready for them and the change that comes along, according to Samad Sepasgozar, a lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Australia, whose research focuses on construction project management.  

Does the industry itself have the infrastructure and mentality to accept an emerging technology or a new process? Is the organization willing to invest the time and money on the construction innovation and training? Do workers have the skills and education to use it?  

Implementation of an innovation can fail at any one of these levels. 

Haskell’s evolution with innovation 

Construction and engineering firm Haskell learned that the hard way. In 2018, the Jacksonville, Florida-based company created a separate arm, Dysruptek, focused on identifying and investing in new technologies and implementing them into Haskell projects.  

“We hit the ground running, looking at what’s out there that could help us become better or more efficient, and we found a couple of ideas that we had high expectations for,” said Hamzah Shanbari, Haskell’s manager of construction technology and innovation. “The way that we approached it at the beginning was, ‘here Mr. or Ms. Project Manager, here’s the new tech that we evaluated that we think you should be using. Let us know if you have any questions.’ That did not work so well.” 

Project managers tended to disagree with Dysruptek about where the inefficiencies were. “That was us trying to push technology on people within the organization, and that did not lead us anywhere,” Shanbari said. “So, we changed that model.”  

Dysruptek is still continuously vetting new and emerging technologies in the construction industry by asking: “What problem are you trying to solve?” But now they’re also asking project managers: “What problems are you facing?” Once it’s known what areas project managers are open to testing new ideas, Dysruptek can present them with a number of pre-vetted solutions.  

Still, the biggest challenge for Dysruptek remains user buy-in, and research shows that efficiency drops when new technologies or processes are implemented. That’s a major hurdle for small companies or projects with tight margins.  

“For industries like construction, the main thing is to have a benchmark,” Sepasgozar said. “It means that project managers need to see someone use the technology and increase productivity, safety or quality.”   

Ultimately, Shanbari said, creating a construction industry culture of successful innovation is about making sure everyone at the company is on the same page about both the project and the company’s larger mission. 

“It really starts with the people,” Shanbari said. “The more we talk to them about the mission and what innovation ultimately leads to, the better. So, we’re not trying to just change your workflow or change the workloads or spend more money on new technologies. We’re trying to become efficient, not as each individual, but as an enterprise.”  

The construction industry has been historically slow to adapt to new technology. Here’s how the tides are beginning to turn.