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How "The Art of War" Can Help You Outthink Your Construction Competition


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That master strategist Sun Tzu knew a thing or two about out-thinking the competition. Turns out his focus on strategy over strength can be applied to gaining an edge in the construction industry. Once you recognize that it is more important to outthink the competition rather than to outfight (or outbid) them, you can strengthen your position in the marketplace.

You don’t have to be the biggest contractor out there to win projects that will set your firm apart. You just need to be the company with the right strategy in place.

Here are a few pieces of advice from the 2,500-year-old classic, The Art of War, you can take to your next strategy session.

Avoid what is strong. Attack what is weak.

The construction industry has some well-documented weaknesses. Companies that focus on challenging the weaknesses, such as including frequent delays, cost overruns, high levels of waste, gain a considerable edge over the competition.

You don’t have to be the biggest contractor out there to win projects that will set your firm apart. You just need to be the company with the right strategy in place. 

For example, some organizations focus on partnering with off-site construction partners to reap recognized prefabrication benefits including increased productivity, decreased budgets, and waste-reduction.

Others companies look to bypass the industry’s poor implementation of technology. While many contractors have embraced BIM, some use it as a stepping stone toward virtual design and construction, where project plans, schedules and budgets are viewed in a connected, real-time environment. Through VDC, contractors can bridge the disconnects that exist on most projects more fully. 

The book Implementing Virtual Design & Construction Using BIM describes a building information model as a hub for sharing more detailed project information. When a decision is made to make a change to a different component or system, all parties instantly understand how other areas, including schedule and cost, will be impacted. But to be effective, contractors must give up many traditional workflows and commit to VDC — a risk with potentially big payoff.

Be decisive and quick.

Adopting cutting-edge strategies can be risky but as Sun Tzu said, “Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight.”

If you wait to evaluate how other companies put new technologies to use, you have already lost the battle.

Consider that 95 person of respondents to KPMG’s 2017 Global Construction Survey agreed that technology/innovation will significantly change their business and 74% believe such a change will happen in less than five years. And yet 57% of the respondents acknowledged themselves as “followers” or “behind the curve”. Actually, only 5% self-reported as “cutting-edge.”

57% of the respondents acknowledged themselves as “followers” or “behind the curve”. 

Certainly, there are major challenges to technology adoption, ranging from massive costs to the time it takes to implement and train staff on new processes. So take this next of advice from the master strategist.

Deliberate before you make a move. 

Do not just jump on the bandwagon of certain tech tools simply because everyone else is doing that. Understand how this move will help your business meet targeted goals. Create a technology strategy that outlines how to implement a technology solution today, where you want to be at the year’s end, and the ultimate goal for this integration. Then do it.

Consider starting with what KPMG calls a “quick win” solution that visibly demonstrates adoption benefits. The firm suggests data analytics as one such strategy; it is cost-effective since contractors generally have access to most of the data needed. However, it can help build in project efficiencies that set the stage for greater investments in the future.

Strength against the competition depends on strength in leadership.

Sun Tzu put his focus on the general as the bulwark of the State, noting that if the general “is complete at all points, the State will be strong.” Investing in multidisciplinary training of your workforce can help you develop a force of leaders who are able to act on these competitive advantages. Recent research indicates that this investment can not only help you retain top-performers, but is a tactic few of your competitors are pushing.

In its October 2017 Talent Development report, FMI Corp. found that few construction firm are focusing on personnel development. Of the 245 firms surveyed, 55% reported that they had no formal process in place for identifying and developing high-potential employees. Rather than investing in the development of a pipeline of future leaders, most construction companies are trying to hire skillsets that are increasingly hard to find.

55% reported that they had no formal process in place for identifying and developing high-potential employees. 

While FMI notes that more construction companies are putting strategies in place to improve training, overall development programs continue to have mixed results. It cites the biggest failure of these programs as the approach that training is a one-off problem for an individual or certain group of professionals rather than a systems issue.

Per the report “winning the war for talent” demands a long-term planning approach that integrates learn­ing and development as part of a broad talent management program. Talent management should be integrated into the organization’s vi­sion and strategy. Without strong “generals” in place, your firm is doomed to lose.

Don’t just win, but win with ease.

When you have processes in place to support your goals, you will be able to go out and deliver exactly what you promise, time and again, earning your firm a deserved reputation as an industry leader. But Sun Tzu would caution that industry leaders are always studying ways to outthink the next encroacher.

If you liked this article, here are a few eBooks you may enjoy: 

How to Grow Your Business

Cover Your A$$: Real Time Quality Assurance on the Job Site

How to Hire Talented Workers Even During a Labor Shortage

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