Innovation: The Key to Growth

The residential construction industry is a big business. It is diverse and highly competitive, with a number of established “players” in every geographic market. To gain market share, a new or existing venture must have a great product or service to attract consumers. This is particularly true for design/build firms because our type of business has few established precedents. A small design/build firm innovates by creating a culture in which developing new products and services is the rule, not the exception.

This culture, of course, starts with your employees. To create an innovative culture, you must encourage each of your staff members to come up with the next big idea and act on it. This may mean implementing small ideas and acting on them, such as devising a new way to bill vendors or a more efficient production process. Then step back and give the ideas time and room to grow. Do this, and you’ll go a long way toward kick-starting innovation in your company. But if you don’t follow through, the exercise is a colossal waste of time and money.

“There is nothing wrong with a sudden brilliant idea,” says John Pipino, who directs technology strategy for innovation strategy firm Doblin in Chicago. “But innovation is also about hard work and good discipline — choosing the right number of innovations offered at the right pace to the right group of customers.”

Here are some of the strategies we have looked at over the last few years to help our design/build company be innovative and grow (courtesy of some very smart entrepreneurs):

  • Take a fresh look at your customers’ wants and needs. Start by assuming you know nothing and have to build up your understanding from scratch. Roger Martin, dean of the School of Management, University of Toronto.
  • Be proud of your weirdness. Innovation is about being different. Learn the best practices from your competitors, but remember to hold onto the things uniquely you! Dev Patnaik, principal Jump Associates.
  • Set up new systems. Develop the infrastructure for innovation by using trusted partners to help visualize and test scenarios. Jeneanne Rae, co-founder, Peer Insight.
  • Dance with the date that “brung ya.” Innovation is about having an intimate connection with your customers. Stand by the people who believed in you from the get-go. At the same time, be aware that new customers may find you appealing for entirely different reasons. Keep the conversation going with both sets. Dev Patnaik, principal Jump Associates.

Here are a few examples of innovations our firm has instituted. Please note, again, the innovation does not need to be a product innovation. It can be an innovation that lets you operate more efficiently, or an innovation that improves customer service:

  • While standard in many industries, Policies and Procedures manuals are not standard in ours. Yet we developed a written Policies and Procedures manual documenting every facet of our operation. Our employees must sign that they have read it prior to starting employment.
  • We changed accounting systems. This isn’t very flashy, but it improved our accounting processes. As our company (ies) grew, we switched from Quick Books Pro to Master Builder. Master Builder affords us more flexibility with multiple companies, some accrual, one cash. The possibilities within Master Builder are endless.
  • We began notifying clients’ neighbors when we start jobs. That way, if the neighbors have concerns, they can contact us, not their clients. This idea incidentally came from one of our employees, proving again that employees are the best source for innovative ideas.

When it comes to innovation, employees take their cues from you. Without desires — our goals are simply dreams — something that we imagine would be nice but likely will never achieve. We must define what our goals are and strive to achieve them. Compile a plan and follow it. As long as we truly know what we yearn for, desire will kick in and make us do what is necessary when we hit the hard parts of our plan.

As Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.” Without desire we don’t have a shot, we will never score, and never win!

Michael a. menn, aia, cgr, caps, is a principal in Design Construction Concepts. DCC is an award-winning design/build firm that was honored as the Chrysalis State and Midwest Remodeler of the year in 2003. Menn is a licensed architect, remodeler and frequent industry speaker. He can be reached at