Innovation is tricky but essential
October 15, 2018
It is a balancing act to fit innovation into the daily practice of architecture and engineering consulting. Whether working for public or private clients, or in any of a variety of markets, consultants navigate a maze of twists and turns on our projects.
As AEC firm leaders, we juggle many business and human interests that demand our attention. It can feel difficult to fit anything more into your day. However, we must adapt and innovate even — and especially — when faced with internal pressures and accelerating external change.
Think artificial intelligence, block chain, autonomous vehicles, smart sensors, extreme climates, war for talent, workplace flexibility—the list goes on. Major change can happen slowly or all at once. Sometimes, change creeps in surreptitiously and blossoms before we know it.
I believe in the long-term sustainability of our company. A core value at Mead & Hunt is to continue our tradition of passing employee ownership to the next generation. We must deeply ingrain innovation into the culture of our firm, so we can thrive in the face of continued change. Big infrastructure and building challenges are not going away. On the contrary, they will continue to multiply. The ever-changing nature of our industry and our world demands leadership and innovation.
Defining innovation in architecture and engineering
Mead & Hunt defines innovation as any improvement or significant contribution to a product, process or service. Simply put, innovation is doing new things or finding new ways to create value for our employees and our customers.
Mead & Hunt is an innovative company. We could not have survived and thrived for well over a century otherwise. We adopted a Strategic Plan for Innovation in 2015. In this plan, we forecast that “innovation will continue to add strength to competitive advantage, energy to creative thinking, and increased value to clients as Mead & Hunt journeys deep into its second century of success.”
Our strategic plan recognizes that the implementation of innovative ideas is the key to our success. However, implementation is widely recognized as the most difficult step in innovation. Companies can utilize various processes—such as agile, design thinking, LEAN™—to help mitigate this challenge.
The driving force behind implementing innovation at Mead & Hunt is our “Innovation Project” program, which is led by a multidisciplinary and diverse team. Through this program, employees have received funding and time through grant support for innovative projects. Projects include UAS/UAV (drones), 3D imaging and modeling, better ways to locate utilities, advanced camera technologies, and climate change adaptation. From our newest hires to most seasoned professionals, Mead & Hunt employees are creating and innovating in ways that help our clients and sustain our future.
Addressing challenges to remain innovative
We face numerous hurdles to remain innovative. Market pressures and time constraints can push innovation to the back burner. It can be difficult to get individuals within a large firm to speak up and share ideas.
How can we circumvent these challenges? There are implementable actions we can take that help create and maintain an innovative corporate environment:
Make it safe – Establish a culture in which all employees feel free to contribute ideas. Mead & Hunt’s strategic plan states: “Company-wide communication and technological improvements will have transparency, and every individual with an idea or passion for improvement has the opportunity to contribute.”
Find a way to win – Early, publicized success will yield positive attention for innovation. Mead & Hunt’s effort was launched with pilot programs that advanced new technological initiatives within an 80-hour budget. The successful completion of these projects demonstrated the benefit and validated future projects.
Make it simple – Remove barriers that stem from a complex process. Our “innovation form” requires only a short description of the idea, purpose statement, identification of uses and desired outcome. Employees can receive 80 hours of time and up to $10,000 of equipment and materials to test an idea. The Innovation Team, comprised of a volunteer, cross-disciplinary team of coworkers, approves the request.
Budget for R&D – Set aside dollars in the company’s annual budget to fuel innovation, above and beyond typical developments. At Mead & Hunt, our Innovation Team asks for and receives about $200,000 per year. This is a modest investment for a significant long-term impact.
Attract new and more varied talent – Most Millennials seek diversity and inclusiveness when deciding to join a company. Research has found that companies that encourage retention and promotion across the race, sexual orientation and gender spectrum are more innovative. The more viewpoints and backgrounds considering a problem, the more varied and creative the solutions. Diversity is essential to overcoming the complex business challenges that AEC leaders face.
Set a clear vision – Mead & Hunt will continually strive to increase our competitive advantage. This will be driven by innovation. We will adapt to market demands and technological advances proactively. We must adapt to emerging technologies and external forces with innovative operational initiatives that improve current functions and project delivery.
Share information broadly – An important tool for communication at Mead & Hunt is the Innovation Lab on our intranet. The Innovation Team collaborates with corporate communication staff to deliver regular messaging about company advances in innovation through various media. Our annual training conferences highlight news and updates about company innovation. The Project Managers’ Conference focuses on operational innovation and grant opportunities; the Tech Expo focuses on emerging technologies and case studies.
The challenges we face require us to think, struggle, act, and sometimes fail. Founded in 1900, Mead & Hunt remains strong today because we live the principle that we are never satisfied and must continuously improve. Innovation is vital to the survival of not only our firms, but our communities as well. We will continue to strive for new and better ways to achieve our goals and meet the needs of our clients and communities.
Amy Squitieri is Vice President and Group Leader for Environment and Infrastructure. As an elected member of Mead & Hunt’s Board of Directors, she provides strategic and policy guidance to help our century-old consulting practice grow and thrive. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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