Everyone talks about innovation.

Most companies have some sort of mission statement, ‘values’ or other corporate mantra that mentions innovation. Some might have a separate department who do new fancy stuff, while the rest of the business plods along as usual.

Politicians love it too- just Google “Malcolm Turnbull & innovation” (For non-Australian readers, Mr Turnbull is our Prime Minister, at least for the next 5 minutes….)


Malcolm Turnbull innovation Google trend.png

But how many genuinely innovate ?

In my observation, very few. There are usually natural innovators lurking in the corners of most organisations- but it takes the right culture and opportunity to draw them out.

The pattern often seems to be that innovators get little support; or have to endure  naysayers & criticism whilst a new idea is under development. However once something proves successful, there is no shortage of people wanting to associate themselves or otherwise take credit.

Innovation is not necessarily new technology or highly sophisticated. As I see it, innovation is more of an attitude rather than a result. A culture of allowing new ideas, experimentation and sensible risk-taking is the main requisite, not high technology or an ‘innovation quota’.

BIM, Construction & Innovation

Despite the fact that BIM is not especially new, it still gets painted with the innovation brush. Quite often, being seen to innovate with BIM is more important than actually doing it & I have covered this phenomenon in my post Talk the Talk. Walk the Walk ?

Construction is an incredibly risk-averse & conservative industry. As I explain in BIM: another construction headache ? given the choice of something new that is most likely faster & better, but with a very slight risk it might not work, versus something slow and inefficient but proven: nearly everyone in the construction world will choose the latter.

Race to the bottom

The aforementioned post describes how delivering a project in a exactly the same way as rivals, or merely repeating past practice is essentially a race to the bottom in margins. It is necessary not to just ‘innovate’ for innovation’s sake, but to actively pursue better methods not just once but continually.

Simpler than you think

Many people believe that BIM and innovation means playing around with gizmos such as 3D goggles, drones, or laser scanners. While it is necessary to generate interest and enthusiasm, this kind of thing is usually preaching to the converted. BIM doubters will not suddenly see the light when presented with said gizmos. They will probably just dismiss the presenter as a BIM geek & the gizmo as a toy; and they would be correct.

True innovation is simpler than that and usually about either behaviour or process. It  involves doing things just a little differently (and better) than yesterday.  As I describe in BIM: Less is More, simplicity is undervalued and this certianly applies to innovation.

Ask the right question

At one of my previous employers- the first questions asked for any kind of initiative were:

“How much does it cost ?” and “Which cost code do we put this to?”

My answer was always “I don’t care”. Needless to say, I didn’t last so long in the employ of that illustrious company. The questions should be:

  • “Is it important ?” or
  • “Is this better than how we do it now?”
  • “Will it win us work or deliver more efficiently?”
  • “Will it earn (or save) more than it costs ?”

A useful litmus test is the question:

  • “If this were your business, would you spend your money on it?”

People matter, technology just helps

I was lucky to be involved in the  UPM module project- which is part of the massive Hebron oil platform. Daniel Cahalarn & Tom Flanagan did a good presentation on it at the recent ‘Autodesk University’ in Sydney.
The bottom line was that by introducing a new method for capturing progress on site and therefore being able to better identify risks and opportunities resulted in a saving of approximately $50M and took 3 months off the program.

Furthermore, it was only introduced half-way through the project and with quite a limited scope so it could be argued that the full potential was not realised.

Daniel can explain it much better than me, but a key activity in the construction of this mega-project was the cable tray, cabling and connection of end devices. To put it simply, there is a long chain of dependencies and directing effort toward completion of systems (rather than just doing stuff) and the order in which work is completed makes a huge difference.

Daniel was the innovator and catalyst for making this happen, & Tom supported him at a management level. The solution really was not rocket science and quite simple in technology terms. But it took the right people willing to challenge the accepted method and to spend some time & money making it work.

Innovation Tips

  • Small & wildly successful is better than big & mildly successful. The former generates interest and enthusiasm, and makes a real difference to future attitudes & acceptance of change.
  • Take the initiative, accept risks and back yourself.
  • Don’t worry too much about cost/benefit analyses and business cases as the numbers can be fudged to support just about anything. It is more important to have people with vision, passion and commitment.
  • Decisiveness and action is more important than discussion & consensus.
    Therefore, don’t form a committee, as they tend to dilute great ideas and promote mediocre ones. Instead give someone personal responsibility and ownership.
  • Innovation is a bit like songwriting- you can’t force the next hit single.
    Natural innovators should be encouraged and supported. Good people & ideas will bubble to the top.
  • Part of innovation is failure. In other words, if all your ‘innovations’ succeed, you are not trying hard enough.

This post does not relate to my current employer, but is more a reflection on the wider industry and approach to innovation.