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“We would like this project to be innovative, please,” says Mrs. & Mr. Client. The concept isn’t new. As human beings, we’ve been innovating and creating actively since the first time someone was hungry. The most famous innovative time in our history is the industrial revolution. The mid- to late-1700s was the start of innovation becoming the norm in business and competition. Many world industries were astounded by the idea of a machine completing tasks once done by hand.
How did this happen? Why do people want to innovate? What even classifies innovation?
Verbatim from Webster’s: “in•no•vate / verb — make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas or products.”
So, you find yourself sitting in the conference room waiting for the project to begin. The client starts by introducing you to the company’s dreams and aspirations for the new facility. “We’re going to bring a whole new perspective to our industry.” “Our staff is going to be able to work smarter and more efficiently.” “This new building, with the help from our design team, will be the most innovative of its kind, across the country.”
And there it is. The client just explained to the entire project team that you will be bringing the new methods, ideas or products to the new facility.
As an engineer, you’ve been paid your whole career to think outside the box and solve problems as they arise. Innovating on a project should be no different. We evaluate the problem and then use our skills to solve it. I looked for two hours in all my engineering books and Google for an equation on how to innovate. (I did find a book called The Innovation Equation which I thought was intriguing.)
Unfortunately for us, there isn’t an engineering equation to innovate on a project. Your TI-89 calculator doesn’t have the answer to this. It’s going to be about people and experience, and for some engineers that makes us uncomfortable.
There is a way you can innovate on your projects but you’re going to have to get uncomfortable. You’re going to have to ask questions. It is the basis of what I think you need to bring innovation to a client. With some very thoughtful questions, I believe you will be able to find the answers you need to innovate. Chances are your client already has three or four strategies on how this new project can be better.
Whether it’s a new technology, construction process or system design, your client can feed you these answers. They might not inherently know the answers but I can guarantee you they know their problems. The concept might seem underwhelming and obvious, but it’s extremely effective and successful.
I’ve been on seven projects with the same client and we approach each project with some of the same fundamental questions:
• What does this project mean to you?
• How can we improve on the last project?
• What new insights do you have from the industry
we can incorporate here?
• What are our energy goals?
• Sustainability initiatives?
• Construction stretch goals?
• Resiliency goals?
• Process changes?
• Technology opportunities?
We get our best reactions by being prepared, curious and engaged. This is where most of the engineering team will need to dig deep, pull out their extrovert personality and get a little uncomfortable. You may need to ask three or four follow-up questions to get to the root of the client’s problem. The first response you receive could be more of a macro-level problem that a specific solution might not be able to answer. You must keep digging until you can narrow down the specificity of the problems.
“We have limited facilities personnel and struggle with maintaining all of our facilities,” says Ms. Hospital Director. An answer to this problem would be to have fewer buildings or hire more people. You should see the obvious problems with the resolution. Maybe the follow-up question should be, “What specifically takes up the majority of your staff’s time in their day?”
What if the answer to this question was flushing water closets and lavatories to keep the water system from being stagnant? It’s a very specific problem with several solutions that could be deemed as innovative. Could you install a solenoid at the end of each floor branch that gets sent to an irrigation holding tank? This solution would have a combination of full-time equivalent savings, patient safety and sustainability.
This first step was the easy part. You now have to roll up your sleeves and dissect the problems. The solutions might not be obvious. You’re going to have challenges in determining the correct solutions. Here are some reasons or excuses why your solutions will be extinguished:
1. Financial. Chances are if the client’s problem has an obvious answer, it’s not implemented because of financial reasons.
2. Physical. Maybe your solution just won’t fit in the physical design of the building.
3. Procedural. It’s probable that hundreds of people changing the way they do things will be met with some adversity.
4. Construction. Your solution might be new to the contractor and could pose a risk to his tried-and-true methods.
5. Fear. Failure is probably a good reason not to do something but you have to trust yourself. Trust that you’ve done your homework and your engineering fundamentals. This is last on my list, but will probably be your biggest hurdle on introducing something new.
What if I’m not smart enough to come up with innovative solutions? Good ideas aren’t unique to the smartest people in the world. They prefer the relentless and hungry. We have to surround ourselves with people who embrace challenges, are empathetic, and willing to work hard and learn. Make sure you’re reading magazines, watching YouTube videos and going to ASPE technical presentations. Invest in your creativity and your craft after your workday ends.
Just because something is innovative doesn’t mean it’s going to be for your project or your client. You have to make that call. Do you remember the scene from Jurassic Park where Dr. Ian Malcolm says, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.”
It’s going to be what keeps you up at night thinking if you did the right thing. I leave you with this thought-provoking quote from Wayne Gretzky, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.”
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