Increasing Industry Vitality Through Innovation
by Ray Daddazio
Thornton Tomasetti is a 1,500-person E/A firm with the audacious goal to be the global driver of change and innovation in our industry. To accomplish this, we need to be ambidextrous. What that means is we need to focus on our current business and results while at the same time, make relevant bets to insure our future.
In 2017, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) working with Fortune Magazine introduced The Fortune Future Index. This index is a ranking of global companies with the best prospects for long-term profitable growth. Leading companies demonstrated both steady execution and forward-looking strategic nimbleness. BCG developed a model to evaluate companies through publicly available information. None of the public companies in our A/E/C space is near the top of the list; this is not surprising since a 2014 Harvard Business Review article ranked construction last in the adoption of innovation out of 40 different segments of our economy.
Thornton Tomasetti engaged BCG to take a deeper dive into our operations and culture in order to develop a quantitative measure of our vitality. We saw what we did well, we saw where we could do better, and we’ve taken these findings to heart. For example, rigor in our approach to innovation and its efficient dissemination throughout our firm were highlighted as areas that we need to improve.
Since innovation is the foundation of our big goal, we hold innovation tournaments a couple of times a year. Participants bring five ideas to the tournament—so, if you have 20 people that means there are 100 ideas coming out of the gate. Everyone has to pick their top two, and then make a quad chart (one sheet divided into four quadrants) that explains the idea, how it will be executed, what resources are needed, and its benefits/return on investment. We hang the quad charts on a wall, and participants get to vote for their favorite ideas. The participants then form teams and work to develop the top four ideas. They spend a few hours developing the work plan and putting together a brief presentation. We generally fund the labor and equipment to realize these ideas over the following six months or so.
We have program reviews to track their progress; some ideas have the potential to develop into a phase two or in some cases, the technology could be spun-out though our innovation incubator, TTWiiN. Our intranet is the repository of these captured ideas—every single idea generated over the last three and a half years is there for people to see.
As we look to the future, and to encourage wider participation, we are making our innovation tournaments regional instead of larger global events. We’ll have one in the United Kingdom, one in India, one on the West Coast, and one in the Midwest—it will be beneficial to have them a little more dispersed, and we are eager to see to how this shift in scale may foster different types of innovation.
We are fans of McKinsey’s three horizon model for innovation where innovation is categorized as incremental, adjacent, or transformational. An incremental innovation such as a new button on a Revit toolbar can combine several mouse clicks into one operation. This won’t win a Nobel Prize, but if 100 engineers save several mouse clicks multiple times a day, they will be a happier and more productive workforce.
We’ve also spun-off separate, independent companies. One of them is called Konstru which began about ten years ago as a nascent interoperability platform that enabled information to be exchanged between BIM software and structural analysis packages, entities that didn’t talk with each other. In-house, our CORE group developed approaches such that all of those programs could push and pull information from each other.
Over the years, the capabilities of Konstru have been extended to provide faster model updates, easier collaboration, more software plugins, and reliable change management for BIM models. Konstru saves time and improved the quality of our deliverable. In 2016, we spun off Konstru as a separate, independent company through our TTWiiN technology accelerator, and it became one of TTWiiN’s portfolio companies.
Getting back to vitality, when we start a job, we try to facilitate taking a fresh approach to how it is undertaken. Each of our ten practices has created an evolving list of items which the global practice leaders consider a fresh approach to the problem. Typically, many of those items are related to the tools you might use in working on a project. The principal in charge of the job sits with their project manager, and as they’re thinking about how they’re going to execute that specific job, they specify which tools/approaches from the freshness list they are using. We don’t mandate anything, but we keep track of whether people are using what the global practices think would be the better and more efficient way to do things. If they’re not, we can ask why. We do this to make sure people are aware that there is a potentially different and better way to execute a part of the job, and this approach allows us to better track the quality of our product.
Communication on these types of issues can be difficult; no matter how many times you say something, you probably need to say it ten more times for it to take hold in the company. If you take a group and train them on how to use the latest and greatest piece of software, it is human nature to forget if you don’t use the software on a project right away. It’s really best to do that training around a current job. We are fortunate to have our data-rich intranet that is used throughout the firm to share approaches and ask questions. We also send out a newsletter once a month from our CORE group that highlights successes, new innovations, and different applications.
I would love for this approach to vitality to become an example for our industry to help push us up the innovation curve so that we are no longer ranked last. In the United States, construction is a $1.3 trillion industry, and we need to become more efficient, more innovative, and provide better deliverables. We can do better, and if we prioritize communication and the technological advances that come from innovation and improved efficiency, we will.
Ray Daddazio is president of Thornton Tomasetti, the international engineering design, technology, and forensics firm.