You can’t hide your head in the sand any longer. Or, perhaps more accurately for this particular audience, the concrete.
This was one of the cold, hard truths Barbara Jackson served up to a group of general contractors, architects and engineers who gathered in Denver on the frigid morning of Jan. 15. The group, A3LC—a liaison committee comprised of members of the Associated General Contractors, the American Institute of Architects and the American Council of Engineering Companies—invited Jackson to speak about transforming leadership and culture within the architecture, engineering and construction industry.
And she didn’t disappoint—or hold back. “Fundamentally, the industry has to change,” said Jackson, director of the Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business. “We need to shift from being merely order-takers to being value-generators. If all we’re delivering is the budget, the schedule, the quality and the safety, then we’re selling ourselves really short. And right now, this is all that’s expected of us. Clients don’t ask us for more, because they think we can’t deliver more, so therefore this is all we deliver. It’s what I refer to as the vicious circle.”
The Edge of Disruption
To become value-generators, Jackson encouraged the group to do business differently, which requires thinking differently. Her specific recommendations included collaborating with and engaging clients earlier in the process, stepping out of silos and taking a multidisciplinary approach, creating enterprise teams that train together and meet regularly, leveraging team members’ expertise and experience, setting “some big, hairy, audacious” performance goals as an integrated enterprise, and not getting hung up on hierarchy.
“We still have debates about who should lead the team from a discipline perspective,” Jackson said. “Should it be the engineer? Should it be the architect? Should it be the contractor? How about none of the above? What about integrated project leadership–individuals who are trained to leverage diverse team perspectives and optimize solutions, in addition to their traditional discipline expertise?”
“This should go beyond the bricks and the sticks and the concrete and steel,” she continued. “What is the business challenge our clients are facing? Will this project address that challenge? How will the built facility help the client meet their business goals?”
Jackson also recommended getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. “The opportunities to create the most value are found at the edge of disruption. You’re getting close to that edge when the assumptions become louder and harder to ignore. If it feels like what you’re about to look at may change the fundamentals of your business forever, that’s exactly the right place to look.”
Another critical place to look is toward the future and at hard trends—or things that are definitely going to happen. There’s no doubt, for example, that baby boomers are retiring, more autonomous vehicles will soon be on the roads, and bandwidth and processing power are rapidly increasing. “Workforce shortage is a hard trend and automation is going to replace workers to some extent,” said Jackson. “What if robotics and automation replace 60 percent of our workforce? We could think, ‘All these people are going to be out of work!’ But if we proactively engage the issue instead of letting it just happen to us, we can get ahead of it and find innovative solutions.”
Citing Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods in 2017, Jackson cautioned the group about not embracing inevitable change. “If we don’t transform the industry, outsiders will. Massive change came to the grocery industry and it came from the outside,” she said. “I guarantee this is happening to us as we speak. In the first half of 2018, capital construction investors pumped a record $1 billion into construction technology start-ups. Of the top 15 investors, only one was associated with the construction industry.”
Jackson believes that industry leaders could learn a thing or 10 from organizations like Uber, Alibaba and Airbnb. “They’ve created platforms to access abundant resources already in existence. Why aren’t we thinking like this? Where is the excess, where is the redundancy, where are the wasted or abundant resources in our industry that we could leverage if we thought from a peer perspective?”
‘Nothing Exists Without All of You’
But what may be the most powerful element in initiating a sea change in the industry, said Jackson, is a full appreciation of what it contributes to society. In a word: Everything.
“At the Burns School, we teach the concept of a triple bottom line, which is how we measure our impact relative to financial/economic outcomes, as well as environmental and social outcomes,” she said.
“Think about the impact you have on peoples’ lives. Without this industry, there is no education, there is no housing, there is no healthcare, there is no transportation, there is no energy, there is no worship, there is no recreation … nothing exists without all of you. Nothing.”