Illustration: Aleksandr Solodkin

Climate change, increasing urbanisation, and the rapid pace of technological change have confined “business-as-usual” to the business books of yesteryear.

Such is the scale of social, economic and environmental change that status quo has become the status no. Change is now a non-negotiable when it comes to ensuring a sustainable future for our cities and regions.

What is negotiable is an organisation’s response to change. Here are five tips for firms in the built environment to think about when it comes to disruption:

1. Disrupt yourself

Most companies think about disruption from the outside in, but not many invest the time and resources to consider how they might disrupt from the inside out.

For some this is innovation, yet it is also an opportunity to develop a culture of questioning, to breed intrepreneurs that could significantly streamline or replace the systems slowing your business down. Appoint a devil’s advocate in all internal meetings as it is not just about making processes faster and easier, it is about questioning why they exist at all and what value they add to the business.

2. Think in scale

The business models of professional services in the built environment are often heralded as innovative because they are bespoke: every project has a different set of conditions and solutions that are unique. Yet there are aspects of projects that can be captured, commercialised and re-used – particularly intellectual property. The consulting industry is so used to signing away IP that it sometimes fails to consider how it can be applied outside the job at hand. 

As most great disrupters operate with some degree of scale, it may be time to reconsider this approach – keeping in mind that scale does not need to equal commoditisation or loss of value.

3. Think beyond your client

As clients often have drivers that limit peripheral vision, firms should always consider the users and broader community of the projects and solutions they design. This helps to sharpen focus, and clarify scope and conditions for success. Additionally, firms must contribute to the bigger picture. There are many external aspects of our business model and supply chain that are ripe for disruption: regulation and procurement come to mind. Firms that are participating at the forefront of this thinking will find themselves at an advantage in participating in the business environment of the future.

4. Move faster

Built environment professionals are typically conservative in their approach yet risk aversion can lead to perfectionism. This in turn can inhibit experimentation and slow down the pace of change. Consulting firms need to identify areas of their business where calculated risk-taking can encourage safe-to-fail environments. They also need to prepare and embrace faster-to-market solutions. As a business leader, if you are feeling comfortable with the pace of change, you are probably not moving fast enough.

5. Set the scene

The culture leaders set in their business will either enhance innovative thinking and energy of staff – or completely destroy it. If the cornerstones of disruptive thinking are collaboration, diversity and inclusion, think about how these concepts are energised in your staff.

Do your staff see you only ever focusing on the job/client/project at hand, or do they see you participating in broader industry events, collaborating with academics or other professionals, or expanding your thinking? What messages do you send in terms of the value you place on time spent in creative and collaborative ventures? Do you pro-actively seek out diversity of feedback and opinion, and value different perspectives? These actions will speak louder than words when it comes to fostering innovative culture in your organisation.

Megan Motto is chief executive of Consult Australia, which represents consulting firms in the built and natural environment.