Ten years ago, I left the construction industry because I needed a change. I wanted a break from the constant travel, and I wanted to get to know my home town of Denver again. So I took an opportunity to run a foundation and, later, became assistant dean at the University of Denver's business school. Last year, I was coaxed back to the construction industry to become president of Continuum Advisory Group, a management consulting firm focused on our industry. After a decade away, I decided to catch up on what I had missed by interviewing 40 owners of the industry's largest firms, many of them past clients.

I asked these people, "What keeps you lying awake at night?" and "What opportunities are there for leap-frog improvement in our industry?"

Their answers confirmed that things have changed dramatically.

The first major finding is that the speed of innovation must increase. Gone are the days of doing what we've always done and expecting significant improvements in performance. Owners are demanding that their engineering and construction partners—the designers and contractors they employ—bring new thinking and new methods to the table.

One small example comes from a presentation I recently saw by Skanska, during a Construction Management Association of America conference. Skanska was involved in building thousands of feet of ceiling rack in a warehouse location. To improve productivity and safety, they jacked 100 ft of rack into place at a time. Simple as that.

The takeaway is that, in the next decade, the winners will be the companies that are breaking down thought barriers and reevaluating every aspect of how they do business.

The second key finding is that organizations must learn how to learn, remaining nimble and reacting quickly to changes in the business environment. Like the title of the classic management book, we must constantly be "Teaching the Elephant To Dance." It's not enough to have talented people who consistently apply the same internal processes. Companies' future success will be determined by their ability to develop new processes to meet the needs of an ever-changing market and implement those processes quickly.

Learning Organizations

In addition to being architects and engineers and capital program managers, we must become learning organizations. We must respond to environmental challenges, evolving technologies, the turmoil of the financial markets and political crosscurrents.

How our organizations learn and change will be a critical aspect of future success. Information technology is driving change in our industry and drowning us in data. We must learn to analyze data and transform it into usable knowledge. We must learn to anticipate future information needs. And, above all, companies, leaders and project teams must learn how to learn.

When I left the industry, integrated project delivery (IPD) was just a twinkle in someone's eye, a natural progression from the "partnering" efforts of the 1990s and 2000s. We've been trying for decades to learn how to create integrated project teams that collaborate and innovate together. We all understand the high cost of conflict.

While not yet an industry standard, IPD is now much more widely practiced than before. And now is the time to get it right, to create the capacity to learn.

Our work with clients in the gas-utility space offers many excellent examples of innovation, learning and collaboration. It is not possible to increase an organization's capital spending to $700 million from $70 million without thinking outside the box and partnering with your suppliers. Necessity has bred new thinking.

I challenge the leaders of the construction industry to foster breakthrough innovation. I encourage each of you to think about how we learn and create nimble, high-performing organizations and project teams that achieve record-breaking success. What are you doing to drive innovation in our industry? Those of us who have grown gray (or blonde!) must inspire the next generation of great leaders in our industry, encouraging them to be bold and find new ways of doing things that we have yet to imagine. 

Gretchen Gagel, president of Continuum Advisory Group, a Denver-based management consultant, can be reached at 303-564-4164. Download the study at www.continuumag.com.