As I discussed in this post, the pace of innovation in the home building industry is increasing rapidly. The smart home category alone generates new ideas and devices daily. Throw in emerging technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality, and the notion of “connected everything” via the Internet of Things, and it’s impossible to be completely ready to take advantage of all that’s new.

Sitting on the sidelines isn’t an option. Whether you are a builder, an architect, a manufacturer, or a contractor, the key lies in finding the level of innovation preparedness that makes sense for your world, rather than trying to emulate someone else’s processes.


Rick Gardinier, chief digital officer at independent marketing agency Brunner and founder of BHiveLab, has been helping companies across various industries prepare to take advantage of innovation for more than a decade. I sat down with Gardinier to see if I could find out what lessons he’s learned from other companies in other verticals and how we might be able to apply them here in the home building industry.

We’ve all heard how good tech companies are at innovation, but who’s doing a great job at becoming more innovative outside the realm of housing?

RG: One of my favorite recent examples comes from Saltwater Brewery. It developed edible six-pack holders, replacing the dangerous plastic holders with an environmentally safe alternative. I think it shows that companies of all sizes can come up with brilliant ideas.

Why? What are they doing right?

RG: Innovation is all around us. But, the best examples tend to solve real customer problems. Developing cool technology just because we can is a lot of fun, but it gets old very quickly and is usually not very innovative. Once we can identify a well-defined business problem, then the ideas usually flow easily.

Who else is doing it right?

RG: Well, it’s no secret that Lowe’s Innovation Labs have set the bar very high. In fact, I’ve used Lowe's approach as a model as we’ve shaped our own lab. While certainly focused on retail technology, what I really like is how Lowe's infuses thinking from outside the industry to inform its experiments. For instance, it looks at science fiction to inform the future of retail.

There seems to be a proliferation of innovation “labs” lately. Do they work? Is that the answer?

RG: I get asked this question all the time. My answer is, “Yes, but...” because while a lab can certainly formalize and kick-start the effort, quite often the success or failure depends on the leadership structure and the commitment to make it work from the top down. There are other innovation models that can work, too. For instance, open innovation and partnering strategies can be very effective, as can internal initiatives like hackathons and incentives. I often tell people to start with what feels right for your culture, and then you can always evolve the approach over time.

Aren’t many of the latest innovations in the home building category aimed at consumers? If I am a builder or an architect why should I care about innovation?

RG: The No. 1 rule of any business is to know your customer. So if I’m a builder, I want to be aware of emerging trends like smart home technology so that I can meet the needs of my customer. Beyond the consumer aspect, there are many areas that I would recommend keeping an eye on. For instance, there are some great new collaborative design–oriented virtual reality tools like Gravity Sketch and the new Facebook Spaces being developed that I can see architects and product designers using in the very near future.

This all seems overwhelming. Are there small things that I could be doing even if I don’t have the resources or expertise inside my company?

RG: Finding the right partners to align with is one easy way to get started. You can look to startup incubators or venture capital firms in your city as one avenue to tap into innovation. Many of the leading universities have innovation, engineering, or experience design programs and they are looking for companies to use as project opportunities. Touring existing innovation labs is another way to dip your toe in the water before making a big investment.

How do I get started? Do I have to hire new people? Do I have to invest in training?

RG: We’ve found that innovation is first and foremost a mindset. You must find ways to “unlock” the potential. Empowerment is one easy way to get started. It sounds simple, but let your team know that you want their ideas and reward them for exploring new ways of working. Another way would be to set aside just a small budget for test-and-learn projects. Doing this will formalize the effort.

After my conversation with Gardinier, I realized that innovation doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen because you made a hire or created a box on an org chart. It’s hard work, it takes an investment, and it requires a leadership commitment if you want it to become a reality. But no matter the size of company, or the industry you are in, my big takeaway is to just start somewhere. The first step is the hardest. So just do something. And don’t be afraid to innovate as you go.

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