Collaboration is critical to growing innovation.
By Michael Boren
Problem solving is one of my favorite activities. Recently, I’ve gotten into creating custom cabinetry as a weekend hobby. Sketching designs, calculating the amount of material needed, and making sure all the tools are nearby is a regular occurrence around my house. However, I’m a hobbyist at this art form. Often, I ask other people on how to best approach a specific nook or cranny detail.
When I first started out, my projects were pretty basic but as I learned from others and shared ideas about designs and tactics, my weekend hobby has turned out some great work. I’ve come to realize when people are really passionate about something they are willing to help others regardless of whose name is on the final product. Why do we collaborate on hobbies but not in our professions? Competition is fierce within the AEC industry, so it’s easy to make the people who work for your competitor into the bad guys. Maybe you think their approach isn’t as good as yours, or they’d steal your clients or trade secrets in a heartbeat. But if we spend our entire careers keeping ideas bottled up and kept for ourselves then who are we benefiting? We would both be missing out on a chance to make our industry better for each of us, both of our companies, and the communities we serve.
AEC should be a collaborative industry. The best projects don’t succeed just because an AEC firm is great at running a business or writing good contracts. Most elements of the design and construction process have developed over time, through decades of people coming together to innovate new ways to make the industry better for everyone.
Whether we work together or not, we’re constantly learning from what the other person is doing. When we start to actively try to help each other fix the industry that we both share, that’s when great things can start to happen.
Be True to Yourself
My company believes that we can work smarter if we bring in some outside perspective. So we created the Industry Advisory Board – the first advisory group of its kind for construction estimating software – to help us define, validate, prioritize and test realistic, efficient technology solutions. The group is comprised of select general contractors from the ENR Top 400 General Contractors in the United States, and although they’re competitors in the outside world, inside the council they’re collaborators focused on solving urgent industry problems.
These advisors share freely, openly and honestly. Some are not our customers. All of them want the construction industry to be better. They bring a wealth of knowledge, experiences and ideas to discussions and are not bogged down by an “us versus them” mentality. The advisors know we are genuinely seeking their input because we cannot innovate in a bubble. As we collaborate with them, they also are diving into new ideas on better workflows and get a glimpse of the future of construction estimating.
Most companies don’t do things this way, and that’s a shame, because diversity of thought and experience is a wellspring of innovation. Some companies will tell you that innovation is one of their core values, but deep down, they’re really all about the revenue, and they jealously guard their secrets. That’s like reading someone’s online dating profile, and then meeting them in person and realizing they aren’t the person they said they were, and don’t even look like their profile picture. In dating and in business, if you’re misrepresenting who you really are, people will see right through you. Relationships are built on trust. And trusting someone is a leap of faith. You have to let your guard down. You can’t get defensive. If you refuse to collaborate with people who work for a competitor’s company, you’re limiting yourself. When you learn to trust people, you’ll find that others have great things to offer you.
If you decide to keep what you know close to the vest, and only talk to people within the walls of your own company or even your own office, you’re stifling the ability to grow. If your mission or vision statement talks about how you’re revolutionizing the industry, it’s important to recognize that unless you seek outside knowledge and test out your own ideas on other experts, your innovation will be limited to the brainpower that exists within your own silo. You might be able to solve problems with just your own inner circle, but you probably won’t be making any big-impact changes.
Get Out There
Obviously, there’s no matchmaker service for meeting other AEC professionals. But, there are many professional organizations you can not only join, but take an active role in. If there’s a company doing work you’re interested in, find out if they are fostering a collaborative group, educational event or advisory board.
At the 2017 Advancing Building Estimation Conference in Houston, for example, there may have been just one or a few companies leading each presentation, but a lot of friendly competitors in the room were busy having their own conversations about things like how to make costing more accurate. For that brief period of time, the walls came down, nobody cared who worked for whom, and everyone was focused on solving shared problems and helping each other avoid common pitfalls. Don’t rule out a new collaboration just because someone’s name tag has a different company name on it. That person you hesitated to introduce yourself to just might have the idea or approach that will solve your most vexing problem.
You also can learn a lot from people who aren’t even in your industry. Stanford University hosts Center for Integrated Facility Engineering, an academic research center for virtual design and construction of AEC industry projects. It’s not just construction experts sharing their expertise, though – there’s also brainpower from companies such as Microsoft and Google, as well as faculty members, researchers, students and experts in civil engineering, architecture, computer science, business and law. They’re all working together to find new ways to deliver high-value projects and achieve breakthroughs that will lead to more sustainable facilities.
The last time I was fortunate enough to attend a CIFE event, the group was working on using the Internet of Things to manage energy consumption within facilities – technology that could benefit everybody in the room. This spring, they were developing a data-driven feedback loop system for construction planning. That’s some serious cross-industry problem-solving brainpower, working together to advance the AEC industry as a whole. While some of those people might compete in the outside world, in that room, they hold nothing back.
Other groups, such as the Global Design Alliance, also bring forward-thinking companies together for collaboration and exchange of ideas. When people walk in to a group like the Global Design Alliance, it doesn’t take long for minds to open when you realize the shared vision of the group is to create better built environments.
They want to talk about what’s working, what could be improved, where they see trends and how the AEC industry should go about adapting to change. The group’s collective vision is greater than one single person’s.
It’s pretty eye opening to look at the process you’re used to through the lens of someone who does things a little differently. You might confirm your belief that you’re doing things the best way, or you might find an idea that you can adapt to make your processes even better. You might find your tunnel vision widening, so that you can look beyond revenue and profit and gain a holistic view of things like safety, or work-life balance, or how to reward innovation inside your own organization.
Wouldn’t that be worth stepping outside of your competitive comfort zone? Growth and innovation don’t happen in a vacuum. They happen because people make a conscious choice to knock down boundaries, build relationships, and learn from each other. Going it alone is like trying to put together a big puzzle when you only have half the pieces. You may not even know that a missing piece exists, until you get it from someone else.
Other industries have been doing this kind of thing for a long time, with buzzwords like “benchmarking” and “best practices.” Once best practices get shared around an industry, it raises the quality bar for everyone. Clients begin to take notice and get excited, too. What was once one person’s idea becomes a movement, and then it becomes the standard that clients know, trust and expect. That’s how entire industries grow and change.
As the chief technology officer, Michael Boren directs the product strategy and technology vision for all of Beck Technology’s products and manages the departments responsible for software development, quality assurance and technical support, as well as customer engagement. As a 20-year veteran in construction and technology, he has a passion for innovation and a deep caring for revolutionizing the construction industry.