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Repurposing construction – The search for appropriate change models

Combining Dame Judith Hackitt’s Review and its ‘golden thread’ with other calls for us to change including the Farmer Review, The Value Toolkit and the Gold Standard for Frameworks, we are now getting to the crux of the next emerging paradigm and how we in construction can transition to it.

This month Martyn Jones explores what change models might best suited to guide us through this shift to the next paradigm.  Will the models advocated in the 1990s – as we then pivoted to the ICT Paradigm – cut the mustard in meeting the opportunities, challenges and purpose of the emerging paradigm?

Let’s start with the nature and scale of the change or repurposing we face. Farmer’s blunt branding of his report has been criticised but he remains unrepentant on “modernise or die”.  “It was very deliberate: it was the message I wanted to give,” he says. “There are too many apologists that think things are always going to be like this and that the industry will struggle on. But I’m saying it’s going to get worse and worse. I wanted people to understand the seriousness of it.”

Alongside this, Hackitt has expressed “serious concern” over a lack of take-up by the construction industry of tools and frameworks that have been developed to make high-rise residential buildings safer following the Grenfell Tower disaster.

She said there was a “mixed picture” in terms of the industry’s response, with some organisations making “excellent progress” while others are “holding back” until they see more detail and are required to make changes as a result of legislation.

She went on: “It has been crystal clear to many of us from the outset that legislation alone will not deliver the outcomes we are looking for. The culture of the industry itself must change to one which takes responsibility for delivering and maintaining buildings which are safe for those who use them.”

We’ve been here before. Back in the 1990s, construction was being challenged by the Egan Report to embark on a revolution.  What can we learn about the change models we used from that era?  Let’s remind ourselves of what, back then, were seen as the common factors characterising successful innovation:

  • Recognising the need for change
  • The commitment by leaders to change and the acceptance and sharing of the risks involved
  • Treating innovation as a strategic corporate and supply-chain endeavour with a systematic approach to developing, implementing, monitoring and (importantly) sustaining it
  • Positioning key individuals or champions of change at influential roles within organisations, at the interfaces between organisations and at crucial decision-making points in projects
  • Supporting an effective ongoing shared learning process making use of external advice and support
  • Being responsive to the technological and other changes taking place within and between organisations and in the wider environment
  • Achieving effective linkages within and between organisations leading to more collaborative relationships
  • Developing and sustaining an intra- and inter-organisational culture to support innovation

Some of these are clearly still relevant. But that was then and this is now. Is there any learning we can carry forward from the change models we used then to help us pivot to the next paradigm or are they out of date and too mechanistic for today?

Well, for a start, it’s important to recognise that they weren’t the Heineken of change models (other lagers are available) as clearly the Egan agenda wasn’t universally adopted and we didn’t see a revolution in construction.  Those of us who have been around long enough will remember Sir John Egan’s own comment on the industry’s response to his report. Paraphrasing what he said:  I called for a revolution and we ended up with a bit of change.

Our frankly lacklustre response to calls to change back then is not inspiring.  Also, nothing stands still.  In the meantime, of course, the values, needs, aspirations and concerns of individuals  – our customers and those working in the industry – and collective as a society as a whole have changed.

The industry of the future will need to enthuse Generation Z, attracting them into the industry and enabling them to thrive. To help them find meaning in their work, align themselves with other people and projects of shared interest, and elevate communication and collaboration through increased empathy and co-creation.

And here’s another thing: it seems that the very basis of our business-as-usual rationale is shifting too, from today’s Fordist emphasis on productivity, efficiency, and output (although we could do with more productivity and efficiency) to creativity, innovation, and a new purpose focused on the safety and wellbeing of our end users and own our people, and protecting and repairing our planet.

As our Procurement Theme Group has consistently argued over a number of years, our operating structure, culture and business models need to be repurposed. They have largely remained remnants of Fordism and the Industrial Age, even though we’ve been living in the Information Age for the past 30 years. And while we in construction are still trying to catch up with the current paradigm, the world is yet again already moving into the next: the Age of Purpose.

Given the scale of repurposing that’s needed, we need to rethink our change management models. Designed to serve organisations of the past, we need to move away from change management methodologies that consider organisations and our operating system to be machinelike with top down, hierarchical structures that can be programmed in a certain way.

To change construction into a modern industry, we need to shift from process-driven, mechanistic models of change management to more human-centred approaches that appeal to the wants and needs of individuals, both inside and outside our industry.

We need to actively and collectively sense changes in our wider environment and respond by adapting ourselves and our reactions to them and repurposing our value propositions. We need a more human-centred perspective that reconsiders construction as a vibrant organism of free-thinking, empowered individuals freed from the shackles of the industry’s traditional operating system, business models and behaviours.

We will need to be much better at nurturing creativity and innovation. We need to encourage empowerment, entrepreneurial thinking, and risk taking.  In the words of Hackitt and many others, we need to change the culture of the industry.

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