Leadership is a balancing act that’s not dominated by black-and-white answers, but by the right combination of “gray” to succeed.
In a previous issue of The FMI Quarterly, we discussed several premises that leaders should be aware of when striving for success in our tumultuous industry. Those premises were leading indicators versus lagging indicators, adaptability versus efficiency, learning versus knowledge and systems versus goals. In this continuation of the article “Future Shock: When Good Is No Longer Good Enough,” we will expand on the dichotomies that leaders face and show how to overcome them.
If you are familiar with the leadership guru Jim Collins, you may remember his theory of the “tyranny of the or” in “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.” In this book, he and co-author Jerry Porras discussed leaders’ tendencies to look at two options and automatically assume that you must choose one or the other. The insightful commentary discussed the benefit of considering how both options could work. For example, many people find themselves asking whether it is better to have a successful career or a good family life. Instead, they need to consider how to do both.
At times, the need to base decisions on these two-pronged, either/or options limits our ability to truly make the best choice to move forward. Below we focus on the comparison and contrast of stillness versus stimulation and innovation versus repurposing — ideas that address the business balance achievable through combining options. Throughout this article, the reference to balance is not meant as a 50/50 split, but that the split is a manageable one — whether 80/20 or any other — which will offer the best results. The sets of opposing forces that we explore are manifest in numerous ways within our industry, and we encourage you, as a leader and in your business, to revisit your approach to each.
Stillness vs. Stimulation
We are barraged with messages virtually 24/7. The average person checks multiple personal mobile devices (phones or tablets) around 150 times each day! Our ability to think and act strategically is under siege like never before. The constant stimulation and feeling of being “busy” has created a whirlwind of adrenaline, which can lead to an unnerving sense of unease if we aren’t constantly doing and going. The instant gratification of sending off an email, taking the immediate call or completing a to-do list trumps the delayed gratification of thinking about a challenge for an hour. We default to the realm of urgency more than any other.
Yet, it is the silent, still times that allow for greater depth of creative and innovative thoughts for our businesses. True leaders recognize that the things most worth doing take time. In a world where we are constantly pulled from one task to another, leaders must forcibly carve out quiet time to contemplate their decisions.
For the construction industry, the work that we do succeeds or fails by the clock. On virtually every hard-bid tender, a contractor’s failure to submit its proposal by the appointed time — even if by mere seconds — results in a disqualification. Similarly, public agencies often specify the hours a contractor can access the work zone with substantial penalties enforced for violations (i.e., lane rental provisions in highway improvement projects, etc.) Therefore, the urgent matters are constantly falling within the stimulation category. A piece of us enjoys this constant go, go, go mentality. It makes us feel important and needed.
The truth is that without a break, a mental pause, time for reflection and a step back from the urgent, we will not get to the breakthrough and strategies that will propel our companies to perpetual success. Organizational leaders from Silicon Valley companies like Apple, Google or Intel incorporate the discipline of allowing time to think into their schedules.
This applies to more than just tech giants and innovative companies. Creating quiet time or a time for meditation (not the “ommm” kind, but the kind that clears your mind of the constant clutter of thoughts) gives a sense of stillness. In turn, it is with a clear mind that we can focus on:
- Envisioning the bigger picture for the business. (Where are the markets taking us? How are we staying ahead of these changes?)
- Addressing challenging situations that we are facing. (Who am I grooming to continue our organization’s success?)
- Reflecting on our own leadership. (Where are my blind spots? Whom do I have that is strong in my areas of weakness?)
Stillness also allows for self-awareness. In a recent study by the Korn/Ferry Institute, stock prices for companies that had a higher percentage of self-aware employees outperformed those with fewer self-aware employees over a 30-month period.
The amount of time devoted to stepping away mentally from the day to day needn’t consume hours of your time. It may be just focusing on clearing out all of the thoughts racing around between your ears for a single minute. Flushing out this continuous stream of consciousness for five minutes will probably be a challenge at first. After you have had an opportunity to clear your thoughts, focus on one challenge or area of growth. Create three actions that you will take because of this time. The benefits of giving yourself time to reflect will not only open up greater opportunities for your business, but also help you grow personally.
This is counterintuitive to how most leaders operate. When faced with overwhelming challenges, most leaders speed up their work pace. The assumption is that you have to move faster to get more done. It reflects the prevailing culture of the construction industry: high task focus, prioritization of effort and action to drive achievement, expectation of extended work hours in deadline situations, etc. In reality though, the best leaders recognize that sometimes you have to slow down to speed up.
Innovation vs. Repurposing Ideas
The idea of innovation is enticing and encourages us to act differently — perhaps by adding flair through technology all while simultaneously disrupting (in a good way!) our industry. Webster defines innovation as “a new idea, device or method; the act or process of introducing a new idea, device or method.” For such a simple definition, the concept of innovation is much more complex. To be innovative requires time, energy and resources. Being innovative requires an investment of resources with little immediate return, but with a high return expected over the long term. How do you know when it is in your organization’s best interest to invest resources to be innovative or to continue to repurpose past ideas or methodologies?
Innovation trumps repurposing when the area is a core differentiator and when it fits into the business’s overall strategy. Repurposing is the better option when efficient and effective operating systems already exist.
Innovation is your best option when:
- It aligns with your organizational values.
- It creates a key differentiator for your business.
An example would be investing in new software. If this software is key to a new project-design element, or if it provides an opportunity to enter an adjacent market, innovation would be an option. Innovation does not always have to be transformative. If your business plan mimics one of a successful company in your industry, it may be illogical to try to reinvent what already works. One can argue that given the widespread use of BIM in the construction industry, it would be a rare general contractor that could wisely justify developing a new modeling tool from scratch. A far simpler (and safer) approach would be to merely survey industry peers’ experience with commercially offered software packages.
The important item to assess when considering innovation is whether it’s core to your business, if there are substitutions that would work as well or better than investing time to innovate, and if it will be a differentiator to the business.
Twenty years ago the notion of wireless communication applications in the construction industry was limited to two-way radios and simplistic mobile phones. A few pioneers thought it possible to use satellite links to capture heavy equipment telematic data (i.e., GPS, engine run hours, pressure levels, etc.) on remote construction projects. In that season, many contractors developed and applied this innovative technology to lower operating costs by radically improving equipment uptime and associated productivity. Today, virtually every OEM and many rental houses have a proprietary system rendering innovation (for contractors) ill-advised and inefficient.
Although there is no formula for innovation, many great resources are available to determine areas to innovate and how those align with your strategy. One source that provides distinct areas for innovation in a business is “Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs” by Larry Keeley and Helen Walters. Another treatment is found in “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen.
The Great Balancing Act
Leadership is a balancing act that’s not dominated by black-and-white answers to questions, but by finding the right combination of “gray” to succeed. In our industry, it is not budget or quality, design or construction, nor leading or managing. What truly matters is the fusion of these complimentary elements.
Physically, our cerebellum is the part of the brain that controls our balance; we know when it is off because we stumble, experience headaches or even fall down. In business, we should have checks in place that also signal when this balance is misaligned. A lack of organizational strategy could indicate a dominating amount of time spent in stimulation mode. A stale bottom line might necessitate reassessing if you need to innovate or repurpose parts of the business. Whatever the indicator, business also has a balance. We hope that leading indicators from “Future Shock: When Good Is No Longer Good Enough” can assist in detecting your company’s areas that need attention. The next step is to create the stillness necessary to identify and address those needs and adapt accordingly.
Paige Ferguson is a staff consultant with FMI Corporation. She can be reached at 303.398.7254 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Michael Mangum is a senior consultant with FMI Corporation. He can be reached at 919.785.9219 or via email at email@example.com.