How to make technological transformation projects succeed

For the last three years of my career in the built environment, I have been involved with transformation in one form or another. I have seen first-hand what works, and more to the point, what doesn’t work.

As an industry, we are poor at sharing our successes, let alone where we failed. I want to share some of my experiences with you in the hope that it improves your chance of succeeding in whatever transformation project you’re involved with. 

Don’t underestimate the power of leadership. 

I have seen the good and bad of transformation leadership.

In my experience, there are three mistakes that leaders generally make when they are managing a transformation project.

  1. They don’t understand their teams and the abilities they have 
  2. They concentrate too much on processes and pre-conceived philosophies
  3. They invest too much in new systems without focussing on the impact to organisational culture

My biggest point about leadership is around the experiences of decision-makers. A lot of the time, those in positions of authority aren’t as experienced in digital as you may hope. 

Having empathy is key when explaining to leaders how their business needs to change. How would it feel to be told you need to embrace a technology that you don’t fully understand?

For successful technology transformation, don’t focus on technology

I know this sounds odd but it’s a mistake made time and time again. Organisations fall into the trap of buying a product without truly understanding why they need it and how it will be used. 

Organisations generally know what they want the technology to do, so they start with this. They buy a product based on its functionality and not how easily it can be used or if it will improve how employees deliver projects and do their jobs. 

This again comes down to empathy. How will decisions made during the transformation project affect those you are asking to change?

Put employee engagement first

I helped run a transformation project where we asked staff what innovation meant to them in a simple, approachable way. 

We asked them what they are proud of and what they would like to do. This enabled us to gain a baseline of where the business was in terms of innovation and technology, while also engaging employees with the work we were doing. 

Simple, yet effective. 

In the past I’ve seen, and been involved with, transformation projects that don’t have this approach and instead look at the bottom line. Projects that don’t adequately engage with staff and instead are obsessed by return on investment may succeed for a short period but fail to stick and truly transform the organisation as intended.

You must change perceptions if we are truly going to transform

If you are trying to do something new then you are going to bring something alien to the organisation. This could make everyday procedure difficult or even uncomfortable for a while. 

This needs to be tackled head-on. The way you do that is by playing on the fact that things are developing by bringing a new way of leading to the project. 

Bring a brand identity to what you’re doing, something that is a little contrasting to the organisation. Communicate differently and communicate a lot. Report your wins, losses, progress and what you do on a daily basis. More than anything, have fun with it. 

We take ourselves too seriously in the built environment and bringing some fun to the transformation project will go a long way to making the changes stick.

Time for Change

Why we started This is Change and why now, above all other points in history, is the time to rethink the way we do things

 My crazy journey to transform the construction industry / For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the built environment. I have admired and enjoyed the structures that surround us and love trying to understand how these things go together. I originally wanted to be an architect but my path eventually led me to become a design manager and I loved it! I love the cut and thrust of delivering a job, I love overcoming challenges either on-site or in the office before a project gets to site and, above all, I loved working in a team to deliver something that would truly change the World in a small way. Whether that’s through providing scientific research, education or jobs… what a feeling to be able to change the World!

Yet I find myself frustrated, pissed off, angry. Why is the construction industry only famous for being late, shit and over budget?

If I’m honest, we don’t help ourselves.

The construction industry is in a bad place right now and tier 1 contractors are really wobbling and struggling to move forward. Grenfell, issues with delivering Crossrail, uncertainty around major infrastructure projects and, most notably, the collapse of Carillion are hitting the industry hard. 

 We have a major skills shortage which isn’t going to be helped by BREXIT. People don’t want to come into the industry and I can’t blame them with the way the industry is portrayed. 

The industry is slow to adopt new technologies that could help to plug this skills gap. We have been trying to drive the adoption of BIM and yet people still ‘don’t get it’.


We have a mental health crisis with more suicides than any other industry in the UK. This is, partly, down to how male-dominated the industry is with toxic masculinity a real poison that is crippling the industry.

We are not diverse enough as an industry. Too many men. Not enough BAME. Lack of real support and inclusion for the LGBT community.

This list of negative stories goes on and this doesn’t help an industry that is self-conscious following years of put-downs from the media and public and years of not advertising itself well enough.

Towards the end of 2018, this negativity started to get to me, more so than it had started to encroach into my own business. I looked around the industry for leadership, those who are dragging the industry forward, changing perceptions, shouting down the neigh-sayers. 

Admittedly, there are some doing some great work but nothing collective. Nothing that truly champions the people of the industry. I mean, where is our Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Richard Branson? Where is the charismatic leadership that will truly transform the industry and inspire change? 

I failed to find this. So, I thought I’d do something myself.


What am I doing?

There is a lack of charismatic, strong leadership in the sector to truly transform and champion it. It is my belief that people should be at the centre of any change and, in particular, digital change. I feel companies should manage people based on their motivations rather than a process. This is no more apparent than in construction where we are told to be more like manufacturing and automotive industries an eliminate people from the process more and more.

 As well as the negative perception, there is a hell of a lot of change happening in construction at the moment. Some for the good and some for the bad. Some around quality and some around technology. We need to look at this as a time for opportunity, a time to embrace change.

 I am fascinated by leadership and its impact on business, industries and people’s lives and when it is done badly, it really pisses me off. I believe that everyone deserves to be managed by the content of their character and by what motivates them, not by a process that governs them. Everyone deserves a voice that will be listened to. Everyone deserves to be empowered. It is now, at the centre of so much change, that we need to rethink the way we do things and put people first. People before process. People at the centre of transformation. People empowered, with a voice.

So here’s what I’m going to do to change all of this:

  •  Speak- we want to inspire people and share this message at events across the UK. 
  •  Host ‘This is Change’ events- I want to host events, starting in the north west, that bring people across the industry together. An event that celebrates construction whilst highlighting where we must change. 
  •  Create a #thisischange revolution - through a blog, across social media, and through a dedicated website. I want to create the go-to place for industry thought leadership and best practice.

We are going to show people how to lead the industry by celebrating and empowering the great people within it. This is Change and I can’t wait to get started.

- Rob

Transformation – Learning from my football frustrations

What has supporting my football team taught me about Digital Transformation

Introduction / I have the unfortunate confession of being a lifelong Man United fan. Due to my age, this means that I knew nothing before the Sir Alex Ferguson era. I knew nothing of anything but winning trophies, beating rivals and setting records. 6 years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson retired from football management leaving Man United behind. The Man United he left behind was one of a title winning but aging, limping squad. The exit of 'Fergie' led to the recent turmoil at Man United… enter the transformation on Man United.

Now, this is a blog about change and about business so you're probably thinking, what's the point of this?

But, like many transformation strategies, the story of the leadership following Sir Alex's exit and the relationship of that leadership to how the transformation of this team has progressed, rings true for so many organisations around the World.

We can learn from how each of these different leadership styles led  to more heart ache for the team and for the fans… 4 managers, 4 different mistakes, 4 lessons that can be learnt. 

Photo by Juan Salamanca from Pexels

 1. You cannot begin a transformation project with wholesale changes

David Moyes joined the club as the 'chosen one' following Sir Alex's exit. Having had success at developing teams in the past, Moyes was seen as the correct person to carry on in the ethos of Alex Ferguson; trust in youth and building a team over buying in big names.

This all seemed great but what people didn't foresee was the poor quality of the squad Sir Alex left behind. Above all that, though, was the overall pressure on David Moyes. A pressure to continue the success of the club.

The pressure to follow his hero into a dream role. The pressure to make his own mark on the club. It was that last point that was, ultimately his downfall.

 Moyes got rid of all of the backroom staff and replaced them with his own people. This isn't a problem but the timing of it was.

He did this as soon as he got into the role. Not just losing a title-winning group of staff but also a group of staff that knew the players and their capabilities more than the incoming staff.

Making a statement like this one sets a difficult tone for the club and it's evolving culture. Ok it's a statement of intent and change from the incoming leadership team, but it shows a lack of trust, understanding and respect for those that have achieved so much at the club.

What message does this send to the rest of the club?

 This form of leadership style continued with experienced players at the club. A famous situation that was reported was when he told Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic that they should defend like a defender at Moyes's old club.

These 2 are considered the best centre back partnership on the Premier League era in England and now they are being told to improve by watching someone they deem not as good as them?

Moyes used to get Man United to prepare for games by worrying and preparing for the other team's threats. This was unheard of under Sir Alex who trained and taught the players to play how they wanted and force their philosophy on the game, not worry about others.

 All of these elements led to a poor season for Man United and ultimately the downfall of David Moyes. All of the above examples highlight a common mistake made by leaders when approaching a transformation project.

They follow their ego and past experience rather than listening to the team and staff and taking time to understand the culture of the team. If Moyes had paused, reviewed what he had inherited and listened when he started at Old Trafford, maybe he would have lasted more than the 1 season.

Photo by Fachry Zella Devandra on Unsplash

 2. One size fits all doesn't fit

Enter Louis Van Gaal (LVG). LVG has had lots of success at a number of high profile clubs across Europe so seemed like the ideal fit for Old Trafford. He brought in some big named players and let some other big names go from Old Trafford.

He brought with him a proven philosophy and a way of playing that had served him well at previous clubs and in the World Cup prior to his arrival at Man United where he guided his Netherlands team to the semi-finals. This all was set to a revival of the club in the 2014-15 season.

 It all started well with some free-flowing, exciting football but it didn't take long for things to unravel. A lot of people will say LVG's reign was a success having regained some stability at the club and having won the FA cup in his second season.

He also gave first team debuts to future England World Cup stars Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard so there was a focus on youth with LVG. That said, I want to focus on the signings he made, the style of football he believed in and the way he managed some major talents within the team. The stubbornness to change his philosophy is key to this. 

 LVG made a lot of signings, some of whom are still at the club and some of whom are still contributing in the shape of Luke Shaw, a player that won the player of the year award for the 2018/19 season. There can be a lot said for the signings LVG made but, for the point of this post, the 2 I want to discuss are Angel Di Maria and Memphis Depay.

Both Di Maia and Depay were incredibly positive signings for Man United. Both fast, attacking players that fit into the Man United philosophy of football. Di Maria was a proven talent and exciting. Depay was up and coming and talented.

Both players started their careers at Man United in a really positive way and the fans were loving what was on offer but, after a month or so, both players stopped attacking as much and went into their shells.

 This was widely reported as LVG forcing the players to pass rather than take on their opponents with pace and skill. This was LVG imposing his philosophy on the players. It is because of this trust in his own philosophy and way of playing that Man United didn't progress and transform as they should have done.

We see this a lot in business as well. We have leaders that are experienced and 'have done and seen it all before' come into a business or launch a transformation programme and they apply a tried and tested strategy from another business.

This is all well and good but it forgets all about the culture and talent of the people you are asking to transform. As we saw with LVG, he took players that wanted to play a certain way and were motivated by playing attacking football and demotivated by telling them not to play that way.

Leading people based on their motivations and what they love to do is a key factor to success. Hit the right cord and your most talented people will be motivated to fight for the cause and help you deliver on your strategy and transformation programme.

 LVG didn't get this right and his demotivated stars meant a poor style of football was seen leading to the frustration of the fans and the Man United board. This led to his dismissal after 2 years with another familiar face coming in in his place…

Photo by Ruthson Zimmerman on Unsplash

3. Investment doesn't directly lead to success

 Jose Mourinho came in in 2016 with the title as one of the best managers in the 21st Century having had terrific success at every club he had managed.

For many fans, he was the right man, not just for the job at this time, but the right man to have taken over from Alex Ferguson straight after his retirement. 

Mourinho came in and invested heavily in talent and had some instant success winning 3 trophies in his first season and coming second in the Premiere League in his second.

Everything seemed rosy but things began to break down towards the end of his second season and they certainly came to a head when he was sacked at the start of his third season. So… he had success, made some good signings so what was the problem? The problem was his leadership style.

 Mourinho bought good players but also left new signings out of the squad. He seemed to make some signings that didn't make sense. Case in point Alexis Sanchez whose signing and salary caused major problems in the dressing room and beyond. Mourinho’s public criticism of some players wasn't well received.

His open arguments with the board of directors also left a bad taste in the mouth. All in all, Mourinho turned the culture of the club toxic and negative and that led to worse and worse performances from the team. And when someone didn't perform, he was out of the team and someone new was signed and came in to replace them.

 This happens all the time in business. Leaders invest massive sums of money in new systems, new training, new talent without realising what they already have. Without realising the impact of these changes.

Without asking the people, first, what it is that they want to transform about the business. This leads to a lack of support, a lack of motivation and, subsequently, a poor performance.

 Finally, the negativity of Mourinho was the worst thing about his tenure.

Not because of his personality but because of the way that was communicated in the press. Imagine having a leader in your organisation that was criticising you publicly to motivate you?

It may work for some but you need to know how to motivate your people. And the bad press brings bad vibes into the dressing room and training ground… it's infectious. Good communications from leaders, even if performance isn't as it should be, is so vital to the culture and performance of their business.

sticking plaster concrete
Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

4. Fixing a culture with sticking plasters

Now we have a Man United legend at the wheel in the form of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Ole was no body's first choice and came as an option from left field. But his appointment brought instant success and an improvement in form at Old Trafford. How?

He reminded people that they were great, he told them to remember the culture of the club, he approached everything with a smile on his face and this positivity allowed everyone at the club to breathe a sigh of relief. Finally, something we can get behind!

The good results went though and the players reverted to type… stopped working for the team, lack of confidence, unsure of how to play in an attacking way.

This shows that bringing in positives and gimmicks will work for some time but you need to address the foundations of your culture.

Go back to the very start of the transformation, the reason why, the root cause, only then can you start to move forward.

What this long and personal example shows is that one size does not fit all when it comes to leadership and transformation but there are common mistakes we can all avoid:

  • Avoid wholesale layoffs when you haven't had chance to review what is infront of you
  • Don't assume those in your team don't know how to do their jobs. Listen to them and learn about the talents and ambitions of your people. (assume they ARE talented)
  • Don't blindly follow a process without considering how your people want to be led… what motivates them
  • Don't invest without thinking of cultural impact
  • Remember the importance of communication
  • Show positivity but don't paper over the cracks with gimmicks.

Above all else, it is the impact of the above on your people that will kill any transformation project.

Look after the people within your organisation by engaging with them, listening and discovering what it is they do and what they want to do.

Celebrate and champion the great things they do and recognise this. If you leave your people out of your transformation programme, you will never truly transform.

Taking the technology out of BIM

I haven’t been in my BIM-focussed role for too long but I have been aware of BIM since its inception and watched its growth throughout the industry with interest. I’ve even championed it in the past and done trial projects to understand its benefits. I get BIM and what it can do for the industry and have done for years but I am still left wondering, why hasn’t it taken off properly?

I think I have gotten to the bottom of it and it isn’t down to the lack of standards, workflows, processes or technological solutions, it’s down to one thing… empathy.

The focus of BIM has, so far, been focussed on technology, standards and processes

Nothing within the implementation has focussed on people. There is a general fear and technology and how it can replace people in their roles. There is inherent emotion associated with change and transformation. With both of these challenges, there has not been the counter-argument of how we protect our people from the effect of this.

So how do we begin to change the way we do things and speed up BIM implementation?

The key is having empathy.

I hate the phrase ‘data is king’ or something along those lines… stop focussing on 1′ and 0’s and start having empathy for those that work for and with us.

People are meaning monsters, they want to have a purpose, they search for purpose, they want to feel safe.

How are we making people feel when we are constantly telling them they are late shit and over budget?

How do you think it feels to know your job could be automated or done by a robot?

Are you really going to welcome this change with open arms?

Digital transformation needs empathy

The problem is that word digital. We keep focussing on digital and the issue is digital doesn’t have emotion.

Why do you think BIM is struggling to get going? When has anyone ever looked at BIM from a people-first perspective?

The whole process hasn’t been shaped with people in mind. Look at the fucking BIM wedge, how is that meant to make anyone want to get involved?

Now, we have come so far and so much good work has been done but we need to rethink our approach to this. We have to look at our people and understand how they feel about what is coming. Change the speeches, change the way we train people to change the way we talk about BIM.