Collaborative innovation

My last article, “The Vision Thing,” showed how the internal communications skills needed to create a company vision and mission can give that company a real competitive advantage. Effective communication is also a prerequisite another important task: helping the company adapt to shifting market conditions that range from a shortage of skilled workers to more budget-minded homeowners.

Here I look at the most effective way to structure and handle communications in a change management effort. Recent research sheds some interesting light on what works, and the conclusions may surprise you. The gist of it is that your chance of success depends on how well people from different parts of the organization collaborate with one another. Most managers understand and agree with this in principle. Unfortunately, few know how to make it happen.

Before getting into that, I want to quickly review why the ability to manage change is so important. Change management is the work of re-thinking and re-tooling your business, and it's a critical discipline for builders who want to grow during the next 3-5 years.

One reason it's so critical is that it can help you figure out how to overcome labor constraints. In past business cycles, large builders could simply hire their way out of these constraints because skilled workers were more readily available. No more. How many of you can beef up your field construction workforce by 20% on short notice, or quickly bring in an outstanding candidate for a management position, whether Director of Sales, Director of Construction or Vice President of Operations?

The probable answer is that you can't, which means you need to find ways to eliminate wasted effort and do more with less. Solutions could range from eliminating structural options that take too long to build, to moving toward allowing the completion rate to dictate the start rate.

Because everyone in the company has to be involved in these efforts, the change management team needs representatives from all departments. This ensures that each department sees how its actions affect the others. Take the example of value-engineering a home to remove cost. The architectural and construction managers must obviously be involved, but there are also strong arguments for giving other departments a role in the effort. If, for instance, you don't include the warranty people you risk making product substitutions that make callbacks more likely. And if you leave sales out of the picture, the architects may not realize that 90% of buyers want that nine-foot plate option on the second floor (which argues for making it a standard feature in the value-engineered plan), or that only 15% ever opt for turning the bonus room on into a bathroom (which means the option should probably be eliminated).

Similarly, few salespeople really understand how an option sale flows through the organization. For instance they may not know how adding an extra bath affects construction costs. Having the sales manager in the room is important to getting the front line sales staff on board with any changes, and to helping them understand how a particular change that they might be tempted to resist will actually help them sell more homes.

Getting Unstuck
But the best collaborations are more than a bringing together of sometimes competing viewpoints. They're a synergistic interaction that gives birth to ideas that would not otherwise have been considered, and for reasons that few would have guessed.

An interesting recent study on collaborative problem solving showed how this works. [1] The study, conducted at Chalmers University in Goteborg, Sweden, examined how students solved engineering problems individually and in groups. In all cases, groups of students were able to solve more complex problems than the smartest person in each group could solve alone. In fact, including students with varying abilities in the group often yielded the most impressive results.

According to the study's findings, an important benefit of collaboration is that individuals do not get intellectually "stuck" to the same extent when they are in groups. Even the most brilliant people eventually run out of ideas, energy and momentum when alone working to solve complex problems. Collaborative teams capitalize on the various strengths and weaknesses of the individuals in the group to find a way around, under, over or through these obstacles.

The research also found that it wasn’t always the most knowledgeable team members who helped the group get past the obstacles. Often, it was the person with the least amount of expertise in the problem area who asked the key question needed to move the team forward. In a home building company, for instance, the purchasing manager would be more willing to ask a question about a construction issue that the construction manager wouldn't ask because the question seemed "dumb" or the answer obvious.

I would venture that any of us who has worked alone on a difficult problem can relate to the challenge of hitting roadblocks in our thinking and the benefit of getting a different perspective. How many times in your schooling or career did you take a break from a difficult task, encounter a colleague, friend or family member, and just by talking with that person come up with the way to break through and move the problem solving process forward? It makes intuitive sense, doesn’t it?

Making it Work
Unfortunately, just throwing a group of diverse individuals into a room doesn't guarantee results like those above. In a collaborative change management effort, the members all have to keep their minds open to ideas that might directly challenge their often entrenched ways of thinking.

This is not about getting together to be fake nice to one another. Rather, it’s about people with diverse skill sets coming together to get their hands dirty, making sure that they have properly defined the problems and then developing, testing, questioning, improving and ultimately implementing solutions to those problems.

This brings up one last, crucial element of a successful collaboration. Even with the right group of folks from different departments involved, the change management team will be most likely to find creative solutions to problems if it's lead by a qualified facilitator, coach or moderator who is trained specifically for that role. This individual must maintain an impartial position from the group’s perspective, but must also know when and how to intervene to keep the dialogue moving in a productive direction. The ability to do this requires a unique set of skills and a certain degree of real or managed detachment—tall orders in what can sometimes be a very emotionally charged atmosphere.

For this reason, many firms hire outside consultants to moderate the change management group. Wherever the facilitator comes from, however, the important point is that a collaborative team needs a skilled leader who can coach the discussion, ensure that all voices are heard, and maintain the team's forward momentum.

The bottom line is that change management is a mission-critical discipline for builders in the current and future business environment, and that an artfully managed cross-departmental collaboration is key to making the change management effort successful. Most home builders have not built up significant capabilities in either of these areas. Do yourself a favor ask the following of yourself and your leadership team: Are we really the one exception to this rule?

______________________________________________________________________ 1. “Comparing Group and Individual Problem Solving: A Case Study from Newtonian Mechanics,” M. Berge and T. Adawi. The paper was presented at the SEFI (European Society for Engineering Education) 40th Annual Conference in Thessaloniki, Greece 23-26 September 2012.