Innovation: the curiosity project

08 February 2017

Very early in my working life, I saw the following notice pinned to my manager’s desk. 

“The ambition of any civil engineer is to retire without being blamed for a major disaster.” 

I can still remember the sinking feeling I had because of what this said to me about attitudes and behaviours in that office. Needless to say, I did not stay with that firm for long. 

Now, I am fortunate enough to work with many inspiring people, involved in delivering iconic capital projects. They want to innovate, not only in terms of what their projects deliver but also the way in which they are delivered. In some cases, project budgets are so ambitious that innovation is a near necessity if the project is to be completed “on-budget”. 

I wonder how much of this talk about innovation is being converted into action? 

Productivity improvement in the UK construction industry has persistently lagged behind the rest of the economy for two decades. When I speak to friends and colleagues, at the sharp end of project delivery, their projects seem to be throwing up the same challenges that they always have. While innovation is often cited as key to success at the start of a project, something seems to happen along the way that stops this aspiration being converted into reality. 

Sadly, I think there is a little of my former manager’s attitude to blame here. In our drive to deliver “on-time, on-budget”, we seek to avoid risk. This in turn restricts our ambition. We actively seek tried and tested solutions and are suspicious of novelty. We expect our people to comply with processes, standards, regulations, contracts and a whole myriad of other things that tell them what to do and how to do it. Sometimes it seems that the reward side of the equation - the one that says taking a risk could be a good thing – is forgotten. 

We want people to unite behind our project goals but that does not mean subjecting them to a single pattern of thought or process. We need the challengers in our project organisations. They might just be more valuable to us than the supporters. We should nurture this instinct rather than suppress it. If we always play safe and ask people to use standard toolkits and work within the limits of what they know, it is not surprising if they fall out of the habit of being curious. 

If we are serious about innovation, we have to redress the balance: in our attitude to risk; and more importantly, in our attitude to our people. Curious people with a love of new ideas can innovate if they are given the space to explore. You probably already have these people in your team. Merck Group’s recent research suggests that 1 in 5 of us self-identify as curious. Perhaps you just have to provide the right environment. 

Project leaders can start changing the environment in their project teams with even quite small changes in emphasis. Compare the amount of time you spend solving your project’s challenges with the amount of time you devote developing your people. If these are seriously out of balance, why not do something about it? Set aside some time each week to focus on the team rather than the task. 

Once you start thinking about your people, you will probably find that there are many simple changes you can make. eg

  • Why not welcome the next suggestion that you disagree with instead of shooting it down? 
  • Consider asking more questions of your team and giving them fewer directions. 

Making several small changes like these could be all you need to do to create a more innovative culture in your project team. If you are looking for further inspiration, try Gino Francesco’s article about constructive non-conformity, “Let Your Workers Rebel”, published in the Harvard Business Review. 

If you’re a thwarted innovator who has forgotten how to ask questions of the world around you, maybe you should find you voice again. The Merck survey also found that 63% agreed that curious people are more likely to get promoted!

Andrew Kidd | Manager - Capital Project Services, Technology Strategy Lead
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