Insights and best practices for construction management technology and project delivery

Disrupting with Intent: Bechtel's David Wilson on Innovation in Engineering & Construction

Welcome to the first installment of "Trailblazers" our blog series exploring frontiers of innovation in construction and engineering. Throughout this series, we'll share insights from innovation leaders into the state of innovation in the project delivery world, how to foster new ways of thinking within an organization, the most promising emerging technologies in E&C, and more.   

Digital transformation is rapidly accelerating within the E&C industry, driven by the proliferation of technology as well as the additional complexity in project delivery and a desire to improve outcomes— and to differentiate in the market.

Companies are increasingly embracing new approaches and technologies— including artificial intelligence (AI), building information modeling (BIM), and machine learning, among others— to continually innovate and augment the effectiveness of how E&C professionals handle or use information.

David Wilson, chief innovation officer for Bechtel Corporation, is an instrumental change agent within E&C. He defines his role as “disrupting with intent,” with one guiding question in mind: “How do we create a better experience for our builders?”

Dr. Burcin Kaplanoglu, Oracle senior director of industry strategy and innovation, recently sat down with David to discuss his career path and experience at Bechtel— and where he thinks the industry is headed.

BK: What's your current role, and how has your career evolved since you started in the industry? 

DW: I'm Bechtel’s chief innovation officer. If you’d asked me five years ago, it’s not a role I would have predicted existing — or that I would have been in it. I came into Bechtel as a college hire — 17 years ago. I started as a mechanical system engineer at a waste treatment facility before joining Six Sigma.

Leading Six Sigma was a chance to learn how we could improve engineering, procurement, and construction. We also learned how we could structure a process around innovation and apply the scientific method to really drive innovative results to improve the business.

Six Sigma helped us structure an innovation program that drives process and disruptive change in a consistent manner – where mature innovation is delivered to our jobsites and innovation theater is discarded.

In Bechtel, because of the diverse nature of our work, businesses, and geographies, it’s not unusual for people to stay the entirety of their career – it’s easy to have a varied career within the single organization. 

BK: What's your view of the state of innovation in the E&C industry, both as it stands today and where we’re heading?

DW: The industry is really accelerating. Two and a half years ago, there were only pockets of conversation about BIM, AI, ML, MR, autonomous vehicles, or additive manufacturing in the industry. These terms are now all nearly ubiquitous in industry discussions, panel presentations, and keynotes – it’s effectively become buzzword bingo.

Innovation is at the point where what was disruptive and progressive two and a half years ago, is now table stakes. As the industry accelerates it’s increasingly difficult to disrupt and push the edge of the circle beyond the known and expected.

My job within innovation is to continually find the edge and push ideas even further toward the future.

As fast as the innovation discussions are progressing the problem quickly becomes…how fast can we convert discussions and discovery into deployment, adoption, and institutionalization? Adaptive speed and efficiency are quickly becoming the differentiator within the industry.

BK: What are the biggest challenges to innovation and how did you resolve them for Bechtel?

DW: Innovation isn’t inherent. It's not to say that people aren’t born with the ability to be creative or innovative, but it’s a muscle and a skill set that needs to be developed, flexed, and strengthened.

That’s where “design thinking” can begin to help build the capability to create and innovate.

If the innovative skills have not been strengthened, it’s really hard to create and discover the 10x ideas – 10x ideas can be grown within the right structure, and with the right development of teams. 

Innovation at Bechtel is a constantly changing landscape, as with most organizations. When you begin to innovate a portion of the organization will be excited, another portion resistant, and a large portion will hedge.

The Excited Group

“The excited group” understands innovation and the disruption of tasks and work processes is not attacking them personally. The challenge can be around focusing their excitement and enthusiasm - they can become discouraged if their initial “great” idea is rejected due to merit – this is where we can begin to help the individual develop the creative skill and abilities, as well as connect them to ideas they can help develop.

Calibrating people who are excited to understand innovation is a volume game. It takes a quantity of colliding ideas to create high quality ideas. It’s like batting practice: you need to take a lot of swings before you hit a home run.

The Resistant Group

There’s a small group that will actively work against innovative efforts. Some people see innovation as a threat to their career and job security, and so hold onto old processes. If you don't help articulate why innovation offers more opportunity for them, then you run the risk of creating resistors.

Innovation and disruption aren’t about eliminating people; we’re talking about eliminating tasks.  And if we do this right, there’s more opportunities for people to redeploy new skills, new technology, and new approaches to help them transition into roles that don't exist today.

We’ve done a pretty good job of addressing detractors, but as any organization evolves the landscape constantly changes. If you’re going to innovate, you need to continuously change the approach to stay ahead of resistors, while also reinforcing excited parties.

The Hedging Group

This group isn’t initially supportive. At the start, “the hedging group” ignored us. They’re betting innovation won’t succeed and the status quo is going to overcome the change initiative – organizational immune systems are very strong.

For those betting against innovation, it’s important to have them contribute to innovation as opposed to control innovation. The typical response from those hedging—is, once innovation gains popularity and they see a chance to advance their careers, they’ll shift from hedging to excited – or possibly worse, controlling.

We’re now working to mitigate “the hedging group” from taking control and diluting innovation through over involvement – rather we’re trying to align their newly formed interest to help drive innovation.

BK: How do you foster a culture of innovation?

DW: At some point, others pick up the ideas of the innovators and the creatives and carry them forward. When someone comes and tries to pitch you your idea that’s something to celebrate - it means your idea is gaining traction and taking on a life of its own.  

That’s been tough for some folks to grapple with. It really helps to communicate this dynamic early and encourage creatives to keep moving towards the edge once their initial idea has begun to thrive within the broader organization.

BK: One person may have had the idea, but, overall, it takes a lot of effort from many different people within the organization for the pieces to come together to make this a reality. It only happens as a team.

DW: That’s exactly right. And, at some point in time, the organization becomes immune. You must constantly be changing if you're really going to innovate in a sustained fashion. The landscape has been very interesting. 

Read Part II, “Emerging E&C Technologies: Bechtel's Chief Innovation Officer Speaks”, the second half of our interview series with David Wilson.

Read our eBook: "Innovation in Construction, Perspectives from AEC Innovation Leaders"

Explore innovation in action at the Oracle Construction and Engineering Innovation Lab, a simulated worksite with integrated technologies.

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Comments ( 3 )
  • Steve Cole Wednesday, August 8, 2018
    When talking about innovation I usually like to frame it in terms of tools, process and people. I think David did a great job of characterizing the different POVs of "people" and would like to hear more about how to better engage people in the innovation process whether it is through open collaboration or even gamification. Generally, if there is a visible process where ideas are nurtured and shared and "matured" then that often helps drive active participation and creative proliferation. Finally, tools can often enable these collaborative, loosely-governed innovation processes. Would like to understand David's thoughts on these points...
  • Sandeep Singh Thursday, August 9, 2018
    Feel proud to be a part of Innovation in Bechtel. Good going David
  • Corie Cheeseman Monday, August 13, 2018
    Hi Steve, Thanks for your feedback. Stay tuned for future posts discussing how to engage people in the innovation process. Part II of David's interview will also explore how technology helps foster innovation and collaboration within project teams.
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