Innovation is about more than technology

Aug 14, 2022

Real innovation is about a shift in perspective to progress forward, not the latest gadget or software.

The origin of the phrase “innovate or die” is often disputed. Though others may have shared similar expressions, Peter Drucker, the well-known management consultant, educator, and author, famously declared it. But regardless of who said it first, the sentiment is now widespread – stay ahead of the pace of change, or you could be out of business.

The first thing most people think of when they hear the word innovation is technology. But meaningful innovation comes in many forms. Technology is certainly one way, but also marketing creativity, business processes, workflows, modern office spaces, employee engagement, and even mindfulness should all be part of the innovation conversation.

Real innovation doesn’t rely on the latest gadget or software application to progress forward. Instead, innovation is a human-centered perspective and mindset. For example, I am always inspired by the story of how Skunk Works came to be and what it represents in terms of game-changing thinking.

If you’ve never heard the story, the Skunk Works, conceived in 1943, became a think tank division of Lockheed Martin, where no idea was off the table, regardless of how eye-rolling or impractical it seemed. They were given the mission to build America’s first fighter jet. German jets had appeared over Europe, and the U.S. and its allies needed a counterpunch. As with virtually all Skunk Works projects that followed, the mission was ultra-secretive, and the deadline was impossibly tight. The Skunk Works director promised the Pentagon they would have their prototype in 150 days. Their engineers turned one out in 143 days, creating the P-80 Shooting Star, a sleek, lightning-fast fighter that went on to win history’s first jet-versus-jet dogfight over Korea in 1950.

Over the years, the Skunk Works division in Palmdale, California, was given a more official moniker, Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs, and went on to develop some of the most innovative aircraft on the planet, including the U2, the world’s first dedicated spy plane; the SR-71 Blackbird, the world’s fastest and highest-flying crewed aircraft; and the F-117 Nighthawk, the world’s first stealth fighter jet. Today the name is a registered trademark of Lockheed Martin, and the Skunk Works facility has its own logo.

The story’s point demonstrates that if you lock people in a room long enough, they can come up with unique ideas and solve impossible problems. Unfortunately, in the AEC industry, there are still a lot of processes and procedures we follow that are the same as they were many decades ago. Do they work? Yes, but do they advance the profession forward? Not really.

If there is a silver lining to COVID-19, it’s that our businesses have had to adapt and evolve over the last three years at a faster pace than in the previous 50 years combined. As a result, many examples of AEC innovation have emerged, and we can all learn from them.

Innovation doesn’t always have to cost money either. Sometimes it just means learning to get outside of one’s comfort zone, a significant change in attitude, or developing new habits.

Wearing my marketing hat, I always try to think of the next best thing. I absolutely loathe the status quo and love to be disruptive in how we communicate.

Innovation for our firm might be different from what your firm needs, but the goal remains the same: Make decisions that will progress the company forward – if not ahead of everyone else.

I am proud to say we have made much innovative progress in recent years, but we should never be satisfied. Finding some challenge to overcome gets me out of bed each day and makes me eager to solve problems.

There are dozens of innovative ideas we have implemented, but here are a few examples that have worked for us over the last couple of years:

  • Focus on video. We left printed collateral (brochures) behind 10 years ago, but much of our marketing material was still locked up in text and bulleted list form. If you still rely on pages of text, consider this: According to new research, the average reading attention span in 2022 has shrunk to 8.5 seconds from 12 seconds in 2000. In fact, scientists postulate that humans have a shorter attention span than goldfish. Other studies show that viewers retain 95 percent of a video’s message compared to 10 percent when reading text. Also, according to Hubspot, 80 percent of customers remember a video they viewed in the past month. Videos allow you to package the information you’re trying to get across into a short narrative that will engage viewers in a way that text can’t. Today’s phones are capable of 4K stabilized video, and there are a plethora of editing tools that make any marketer’s job easier. You don’t need an expensive production studio. Turn those boring narratives into memorable video stories.
  • Automate workflows. People around the office are getting tired of my latest mantra, “Let’s get out of spreadsheets and into the software.” The AEC industry sure does like Excel. It has its place, but there are so many better solutions than storing business development, project management, and human resources information in a spreadsheet. Take, for instance, the resource management module from Deltek’s Vantagepoint system. While not perfect, their resource management system allows our project managers to pre-plan all the hours and tasks for each person on their design team. It seems simple, but many of the PMs I talk with at other firms are still planning everything out on their own spreadsheet, making it impossible to communicate apples to apples when sharing work in another office. Imagine having a system where you can drag and drop personnel resources, and those same people will know exactly what they will be working on in advance each day. That same system also allows upper management to see via a color-coded heatmap where people are overloaded or underutilized and move the teams around where it makes sense. All it takes to develop such a system is buy-in from project managers and tough love for those who resist.
  • Mindfulness at work. As I mentioned, technology is often defined as innovative. But technology is easy, the human part not so much. It is easier to understand technology than human behavior. During our most recent strategic planning retreat in 2021, we decided to spend a good portion of that time focusing internally rather than becoming the usual exercise around growth, sales, and SWOT analysis. One area we explored was mindfulness at work. For example, people who try to multitask are less effective than if they focus on one thing until it is done. This is where “mindfulness” comes in. People trained in mindfulness say they become more aware of how their own mind works. As most of us have experienced firsthand, stress and anxiety can significantly affect the mind and body. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than 40 percent of American workers feel that the stress of the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health. Nowadays, staying calm and adapting to ever-changing circumstances with an open mind will be a competitive advantage. Additionally, a mindful workplace can be a powerful tool for recruiting purposes. If given a choice between a company that invests in its employees’ mental well-being and one that doesn’t, which would you choose? Our firm is becoming more intentional about increasing mindfulness at work. We strongly believe changes like these may lead to higher levels of commitment and increased engagement, helping to reduce costly turnover. 

Kraig Kern, CPSM is vice president and director of marketing at WK Dickson. Contact him at

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.