Leading an innovative culture

Sep 16, 2019

Ask yourself how you can remove constraints and let ideas flow, so they can be shared, shaped, and applied.

What is our role in leading innovative organizations? Talk of innovation and technology adoption permeates discussions across the profession and the broader industry. Our clients are challenging us, looking for guidance on how to think about and respond to these changes, infrastructure challenges, and rapidly evolving technologies and tools. As leaders, the organizational culture we create – including the limits we unintentionally set on our people – may limit our ability to innovate.

At WGI, we believe technology alone will not define our future, nor our path to innovation. These technologies – artificial intelligence, cloud computing, machine learning, virtual reality, etc. – are nothing more than the latest set of tools. Rather, we are defined by our own innovators who possess a passion for creativity, service, and the knowledge that we can do something different and special. As leaders, we work every day to avoid being limited by the past.

Unlocking the power of innovation is neither easy nor intuitive for an industry largely defined by problem sets, codes, and standards – an industry that encourages consistency, repetition, and legacy achievements. Further entrenching these behaviors is a public client base which, in many cases, prefers time-and-materials contracting, encouraging a status quo approach to work that does not incentivize alternatives.

Our people are the wildcard in this equation. Given the opportunity, they can be game-changers. However, any of us with long careers in the profession are hampered by traditional cultures of hierarchy, control, and fear of failure. If we cannot find a way to erase psychological limitations, we risk permanently ensuring a future that looks very much like the present and the past. WGI focuses on reinforcing leadership behaviors that promote and support a culture of innovation in three primary ways:

  1. In my role, you regularly hear reinforcing messages on utilization, responsibility, and discipline. They are necessary in any services organization that must turn talent and time into revenue and margin. But, if we limit ourselves to that alone, we will never know our only asset’s true potential. While it may sound trivial, actively listening to the things our teams are thinking about offers important insight into what should hold our attention as their leaders – and more importantly, their mentors. Further, encouraging and supporting their ideas, either formally or informally, is important to reinforcing a culture that leverages the value of its team members. Struggling against commoditization is our pathway to differentiation. Lastly, if we don’t embrace our associates’ ideas, we all but guarantee a largely disengaged workforce.
  2. Reporting lines, swim lanes, and accountability all play important roles in every organization. However, they too often become rigid paradigms with high reinforced walls protecting the power bases of middle and senior managers. Instead, our role should include kicking down the doors of bureaucracy, helping our thought leaders navigate the organization, and removing the grit in the system.
  3. Finally, become a champion of learning versus leading by fear of failure. I will never forget the day I went through an Order of the Engineer ceremony in a classroom at my university, and placing that steel ring on my pinkie. I felt both pride in my new role in society and an incredible responsibility. I committed to be a protector of the public welfare above all else. This also translated into the mentality that, in our profession, failure is not an option. When public welfare is at stake, this will and always should be the case. Experimentation must be separated from public risk. However, it should not exclude the possibility that improving WGI’s outcomes for our clients and society requires us to assume the risk of testing, piloting, and researching alternatives that will not work the first time. We are getting more comfortable with outcomes that, while not perfect, improve our understanding of the problem and move us closer to the ultimate solution. Being a leader that encourages learning, embracing imperfect outcomes as an important step in advancing our knowledge, sets us apart in a profession that intuitively seeks perfection.

Innovation happens; it is a natural part of any professional’s DNA. Whether the seeds of revolution are discarded or planted, watered, and harvested is the difference between the winners and losers. At WGI, innovation is as much about providing the safety, encouragement, and support for new approaches and ideas; and supporting versus controlling what is naturally a dynamic and synergistic workforce, more than it is any piece of technology or software. We are committed to moving beyond control and focusing on our most important job – creating a culture which maximizes potential and extracts the latent value pent up in our team. Every day, we should be asking ourselves how we can remove constraints and let ideas flow, ensuring they can be shared, shaped, and applied.

Greg Sauter is president of WGI. Contact him at greg.sauter@wginc.com.

About Zweig Group

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.