When a construction company needs to introduce new approaches to safety, quality or productivity, the champions who lead from within are an asset. You probably already have them—the key is letting them shine.
At Procore’s recent How We Build Now 2020 webinar, champions were identified as invaluable for supporting positive changes in industry culture, technology uptake and improvements to safety.
Working with champions is a different approach to top-down change management. According to AltusQ Business Coach Stephen Shepherd, there are many reasons it can actually be more effective.
The First Step is Talking About Change
A major disadvantage to top-down approaches to change is a potential lack of engagement from staff, he explains.
“You get the senior executive who goes to the mountain and comes back with the tomb, and it’s all white papers and enthusiasm,” Shepherd said. “But the mistake they often make is they fail to engage the team ahead of that.
“Going to the workforce first and explaining a change is being considered and asking them what could be done is a better way to start. You often get quotable quotes and valuable insights from that.”
This can then inform an initial framework which can be further discussed and refined with workers. When people are brought into the mix, the broader workforce feels their voice is heard. This will help ensure their buy-in to implement the change in the long run.
“The number one thing people ignore when instigating significant change is they go straight from problem to solution. There is an ecosystem [in an organisation] which is often invested in the status quo, with a number of unspoken fears and concerns,” Shepherd said.
It is important to create an opportunity for these to be unearthed and considered as part of the change process.
“In construction, they are practical people. [Things work] if they understand the why and have a voice and then get involved in developing the solution and engaged in the how.”
Next—Spot the Champions
There are two groups of people to look at to champion change—the people who step forward with ideas and engage, and those who “sit in the back corner throwing rocks.” The rock-throwers may not be acting out of malice. In fact, according to Shepherd, some of them may be doing it because they deeply care about the issue or the company.
“Make sure you are listening to people who are coming from a space of care,” Shepherd explained.
You do that by asking questions and providing space for answers. This way you can learn what is behind their concerns.
Look for the people that take initiative and also those who regularly ask “why?”
There will also be people on a site who don’t just walk past an issue but engage with it actively. They will have the conversation right then and there. For instance, they may be asking questions like “where’s your harness?”
These champions are particularly valuable where there are a number of subcontractors working together. They will speak up about a safety issue, quality concern or other problem even when it is not their trade or their company’s immediate responsibility.
Shepherd believes that for construction in general, managers should be encouraging a culture of “not just walking past stuff” and “instilling that as part of creating champions.”
“If you have that presence and culture—it will be led by the people who get it.”
Create a Team of Champions
When looking for champions, look for older workers with many years of experience that others in the company look up to, Shepherd said. You need to get them on board.
“You also need people with a fresh take on things,” Shepherd said. “Those younger people are maybe less cynical and more prepared to try new approaches.”
“It’s a balance.”
One of the benefits of involving both older, experienced workers as well as younger ones in championing change or improvements is it also offers an opportunity for mentoring.
“Mentoring is the most effective way to transfer skills and knowledge through a business,” Shepherd said. “It is also enjoyable and rewarding for both mentor and mentoree.”
The mutual respect and understanding that is involved also “goes to the heart of ongoing innovation,” Shepherd said.
What are the Qualities of a Tech Champion?
When a company is looking to implement technology, choosing tech-focused people as the champions may not be the best way to proceed, according to David Mitchell, Chairperson of BuildingSMART and founder of QSx Technologies.
The first step to encourage engagement is identifying how a technology will be good for the business, he said.
“Going digital is a change management exercise,” Mitchell said. “There may be very strong, logical reasons, but they don’t necessarily engage people’s emotions. The case for it needs to be compelling.”
When it comes to tech, Mitchell said a champion needs to “have a passion for it.” However, their passion needs to be grounded in the practicalities of how it can be of use.
Mitchell said some firms look to the “newest and youngest” staff to take responsibility for implementing new technology. They operate under the assumption they will be IT savvy—but that’s not always the case.
He said that the ability to adopt and champion a new approach or technology is not actually an age-related factor. Instead, he pointed out, it is a “people thing.” Keep an eye out for people who are capable of doing things differently.
People who identify problems and have ideas of how they can be solved, whether it is a safety issue or a financial issue, are good champion material. Part of their role then becomes informing the broader organisation that a problem exists, as some may not have even realised it, Mitchell said.
Retaining and Sharing Knowledge
One challenge an organisation might encounter is resistance to the increased organisational transparency that comes with going digital.
“Knowledge is power,” Mitchell said. Digital systems, such as BIM, open up knowledge and therefore share that power.
“Generally, in construction, people are really, really good at doing projects but terrible at retaining corporate knowledge,” Mitchell explained.
Project teams change from site to site, and often key people are not retained.
So, another quality of the champions is—they are respected and, if possible, long-term members of the team that understand the company way.
“Take some people who are respected in the organisation and put them in there with highly experienced specialists,” Mitchell said.
What’s more, it is crucial to have some people who really know and embody the specific “company way.” The right infrastructure should also be in place to assist with a change like going digital.
“There are a whole pile of things that could make [implementation] go wrong, for example, if mobile coverage out on site isn’t good,” Mitchell said. “Even when you have a good technology solution, failure of infrastructure can undermine it.”
How to Support Tech Champions
Another important factor to keep in mind is that a proposed solution needs to have a high likelihood of success.
“Prototype solutions with a small team first,” Mitchell said.
This team should be lean, agile and have the purpose of developing solutions. The team also needs to have engagement with projects, rather than being positioned as “an overhead on the side.” Mitchell reminded, “It is a slow road to converting the whole [organisation].”