1408 words: 9-minute read

The Construction Sector’s recurring challenges are well documented.

You’ll no doubt have come across some of them yourself:

  • budget overruns and project delays
  • low margins and many margins across a fragmented supply chain that drive up cost
  • risk transfers to those who least understand them
  • adversarial negotiating cultures that create a race to the bottom on price and a misunderstanding of value
  • low-priced bids and high-cost claims that put trust on the line
  • slow uptake of digital technology, low levels of innovation and productivity
  • late payments, skill shortages, mental ill health concerns and more.

Tragic as Carillion’s demise was, some suggest it was an inevitable consequence of the above. Perhaps there’s more to come, perhaps it represents a turning point for the Industry’s reputation.

In either case we need another way. Soon. And we can do it.

We just need to be as diligent in our understanding of how the mechanics of the mind work, as we are about constructing and managing physical assets. That way we’ll solve the right problem and avoid going around in circles on those that have held us back for years.

Six discoveries from philosophy and neuroscience that make a big difference

Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” In other words by realising what causes us to experience life as we do, we learn to understand others, and open to possibilities that would otherwise be unavailable to us.

“Isn’t that a risky, long, complex, drawn out, therapeutic, naval-gazing and non business-like process?” I hear you ask.

It was, until recently, before neuroscience came along. Nowadays, however, it needn’t be.

Take a look at the six scientific findings below. Try them on for yourself and see if they fit. If they seem a bit odd at first that’s fine. Equally if they make complete sense that’s fine too.

Just sit with them awhile and explore the extent to which they explain why you and those around you feel and behave as you do.

Note: none of them are suggesting what experience you should have, they merely point to how experience works, be it good, bad or indifferent.

  1. You’re alive and conscious of whatever you think.

The basics – you can’t have an experience without any one of these three.

  1. You’re not your thoughts nor in control of those that pop into your head.

We all have between 80 and 120 thousand thoughts a day; we’re unaware of most of them as they whizz through us. We’re only conscious of those we pay attention to. We do have some influence over the meaning we create from these (see Finding 5 below.)

Where our thoughts come from is anyone’s guess. They just arise.

  1. Your mind works inside-out not outside-in.

It’s not a camera that takes snapshots of what’s happening around you for processing. It’s more like a projector; casting meaning on what you see before you.

To illustrate, your experience of reading this blog and someone else’s won’t be identical, despite the fact you’re both reading the same words.

Similarly with events, circumstances and people in your life, the thinking you project onto these causes your experience of them, not, as it so often seems, the other way around.

  1. There is only now.

The past is stored in memory as facts and a kind of in-the-background story. And it’s over. Similarly, the future is still to happen. Both the past and future are only brought to life by the way you think about them in the present.

  1. Whatever you think, you feel.

Your thoughts and emotions are linked. When thoughts first come to you, they’re neutral. Then, in a split second, you fuse meaning into those that get your attention.

Take rain as a simple example. You recognise it as water from the sky and think “Oh no I’ll get wet,” or “Thank goodness, we need it.” In the former case you may feel mildly anxious, in the latter gratitude; your feeling comes from your thinking.

Sometimes this works the other way around: you can’t pinpoint why you feel as you do, you just know something’s not quite right. Knowing this emotion comes from your inside-out projection onto events, people and circumstances, gives you more influence. It helps prevent too much rumination and looking in the wrong direction, and makes insight possible.

  1. Insights happen when you’re alert and relaxed.

In this state your mind produces new thinking and offers up a new perspective. People get insights in the early hours or whilst in the shower and out walking etc – anytime they’re alert and relaxed.

Unlike fleeting ideas, insights have a compelling quality to them, they inspire action, they don’t just come and go. You’ve had big and small ones before.

In business we typically don’t get as many insights as we’d like. We emphasise analysis and figuring stuff out. Important though this is, it doesn’t produce the breakthroughs we need, which is why problems persist. Insight, or “our own wisdom” as Aristotle would describe it, only arises when we’re chilled out and our mind is free and open, rather than full and closed.

Realising how these six findings shape experience in practice, makes problem solving simpler for teams in two main ways:

Better conversations lead to the root cause problem sooner

The six findings suggest all business challenges are held in place by the thinking teams project onto them.

Consider late payment as an example. Teams resolve this in different ways. Where it’s problematic – the need for working capital to fund overdrafts and more investment in credit control grows – teams will seek to limit the impact by focusing on how late, how much, which customers, reasons for retention, no. of chase-up calls made, size of overdraft needed etc.

Understandably this becomes their normal. It’s ingrained into their routine way of doing business and a necessary thing to do. That doesn’t mean they like it, or think it’s fair though, they just put up with it.

If the team doesn’t know the problem is a projection of their thinking (Finding 3 – inside-out) and they needn’t be bound by the past (Finding 4 – there is only now,) they’re unlikely to talk about it in terms other than their norm. They therefore have little option but to innocently keep on doing what they’ve always done with the likely consequence of getting the same or only marginally improved results.

But what might be uncovered if they did understand the six findings?

This becomes possible: directors see that they, like everyone else, are prone to tacit thinking habits that aren’t always helpful in every situation. For example, they might cite mindsets such as “the customer is king” or “we’ll win new work if we don’t rock the boat” or “doing business together for many years counts” as their guiding lights.

Though useful in many situations, in the context of late payment these mindsets can leave the supplier believing they have less power than their customer and are subservient in the relationship. They help explain the team’s feelings of unfairness and reluctant acceptance (Finding 5 – we feel our thinking.)

Conversations that surface underlying emotions like subservience, and the thinking that’s holding it in place, reveal the most likely root cause.

New perspectives deliver breakthroughs

Root-cause conversations transform a team’s perspective of the problem they need to solve.

In our late payment example the issue is now as much about rebuilding esteem, to counteract subservience, as it is about following a process to minimise overdraft requirements.

A new perspective fuels curiosity; people wonder about different possibilities. They see light at the end of the tunnel. Knowing how insights work (Finding 6) frees up the mental bandwidth they need for breakthroughs to emerge that were previously inconceivable.

To boot, root causes often explain problems other than the one at hand. Late payment might be the tip of the iceberg, subservience may affect bidding, pricing and productivity too.

The great theoretical physicist and philosopher, Einstein, warned of this trap, “You can’t solve problems using the same thinking that created them.” Understanding root causes and insights ignites your wisdom: it prevents you falling into it.

If you found this blog helpful, there are others on this site in a similar vein.

For example, the data on budget overruns and project delays suggest optimism and strategic misrepresentation are the root causes. Similarly, productivity is a wellbeing problem more than it’s connected to efficiency and stereotyping clouds our ability to get equality, diversity and inclusion right.

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