I like writing about tech companies, such as Apple and Facebook, because they show how fast you can apply innovation and grow – whether it is technology, business process or new best practices. But many people aren’t in the tech industry, and think innovation applies a lot less to them.
Whoa there cowboy, innovation is important to you too!
Few industries are as mired in outdated practices and slow to adopt technology than construction. Whether times are good, or not, contractors and tradespeople generally do things the way they’ve been done for decades. Even customers like to see bids where the practices are traditional and time-worn, often eschewing innovations simply because they like the status quo.
Skanska, a $19B construction firm headquarted in Stockholm, Sweden with $6B of U.S. revenue managed from the New York regional HQ refused to accept this. When Bill Flemming, President of the Building Group recognized that construction industry productivity had not improved for 40 years, he reckoned that perhaps the weak market wasn’t going to get better if he just waited for the economy to improve. He was sure that field-based ideas could allow Skanska to be better than competitors, and open new revenue sources.
Skanska USA CEO Mike McNally agreed instantly. In 2009 he brought together his management team to see if they would buy into investing in innovation. He met the usual objections
- We’re too busy
- I have too much on my plate
- Business is already too difficult, I don’t need something new
- Customers aren’t asking for it, they want lower prices
- Who’s going to pay for it? My budget is already too thin!
But, he also recognized that nobody said “this is crazy.” Everyone knew there were good things happening in the organization, but the learning wasn’t being replicated across projects to create any leverage. Ideas were too often tried once, then dropped, or not really tried in earnest. Mike and Bill intuitively believed innovation would be a game changer. As he discussed implementing innovation with his team he came to saying “If Apple can do this, we can too!”
Even though this wasn’t a Sweden (or headquarters) based project, Mike decided to create a dedicated innovation group, with its own leader and an initial budget of $500K – about .5% of the Building Group total overhead.
The team started with a Director of innovation, plus a staff of 2. They were given the white space to find field based ideas that would work, and push them. Then build a process for identifying field innovations, testing them, investing and implementing. From the outset they envisaged a “grant” program where HQ would provide field-based teams with money to test, develop and create roll-out processes for innovations.
Key to success was finding the right first project. And quickly the team knew they had one in one of their initial field projects called Digital Resource Center, which could be used at all construction sites. This low-cost, rugged PC-based product allowed sub-contractors around the site to view plans and all documentation relevant for their part of the project without having to make frequent trips back to the central construction trailer.
This saved a lot of time for them, and for Skanska, helping keep the project moving quickly with less time wasted talking. And at a few thousand dollars per station, the payback was literally measured in days. Other projects were quick to adopt this “no-brainer.” And soon Skanska was not only seeing faster project completion, but subcontractors willing to bake in better performance on their bids knowing they would be able to track work and identify key information on these field-based rugged PCs.
As Skanska’s Innovation Group started making grants for additional projects they set up a process for receiving, reviewing and making grants. They decided to have a Skansa project leader on each grant, with local Skansa support. But also each grant would team with a local university which would use student and faculty to help with planning, development, implementation and generate return-on-investment analysis to demonstrate the innovation’s efficacy. This allowed Skansa to bring in outside expertise for better project development and implementation, while also managing cost effectively.
With less than 2 years of Innovation Group effort, Skanska has now invested $1.5M in field-based projects. The focus has been on low-cost productivity improvements, rather than high-cost, big bets. Changing the game in construction is a process of winning through lots of innovations that prove themselves to customers and suppliers rather than trying to change a skeptical group overnight. Payback has been almost immediate for each grant, with ROI literally in the hundreds of percent.
You likely never heard of Skanska, despite its size. And that’s because its in the business of building bridges, subway stations and other massive projects that we see, but know little about. They are in an industry known for its lack of innovation, and brute-force approach to getting things done.
But the leadership team at Skanska is proving that anyone can apply innovation for high rates of return. They:
1. Understood that industry trends were soft, and they needed to change if they wanted to thrive.
2. Recognized that the best ideas for innovation would not come from customers, but rather from scanning the horizon for new ideas and then figuring out how to implement themselves.
3. Weren’t afraid to try doing something new. Even if the customer wasn’t asking for it.
4. Created a dedicated team (and it didn’t have to be large) operating in white space, focused on identifying innovations, reviewing them, funding them and bringing in outside resources to help the projects succeed.
In addition to growing its traditional business, Skanska is now something of a tech company. It sells its Digital Resource stations, making money directly off its innovation. And its iSite Monitor for monitoring environmental conditions on sensitive products, and pushing results to Skanska project leaders as well as clients in real time with an app on their iPhones, is also now a commercial product.
So, what are you waiting on? You’ll never grow, or make returns, like Apple if you don’t start innovating. Take some lessons from Skanska and you just might be a lot more successful.
image credit: business graph image from bigstock
Adam Hartung, author of Create Marketplace Disruption, is a Faculty and Board member of the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management, Managing Partner of Spark Partners, and writes for Forbes and the Journal for Innovation Science.