Fruit flies and elephants

23 Aug 21

What can the construction industry learn from fruit flies? More than you might think says Nick Francis, Director of GIRI Training & Consultancy. Insects are the most successful group of organisms on the planet, and as the construction industry grapples with new and emerging challenges, it could learn a thing or two about successfully adapting to change from these evolutionary champions.

“Evolution tells us that we need a diverse gene pool and the ability to adapt to survive as a species,” says Nick. “Insects have vast populations and short reproductive cycles and can evolve that much faster than the much less populous and longer-lived elephant, for example. This means insects are much more likely to survive climate change than elephants.” But while the construction industry is large, it does not benefit from a diverse gene pool, and this could hamper its ability to adapt in a rapidly-changing environment.

This lack of diversity is an acknowledged issue in the sector, and the current recruitment crisis is just one of a number of arguments that support broadening the net, alongside legal and moral obligations. But Nick argues that greater diversity can also enable the industry to get things right and improve productivity, project outcomes, and business performance. This is because a more diverse workforce – from inherent diversity such as gender and ethnicity right through to acquired diversity such as educational, professional, and social background – will bring in a broad range of perspectives not currently represented in the industry and better equip it for the challenges ahead. 

“Some people consider arguments in favour of diversity as an attack on experience,” says Nick. “That is, the equivalent of saying ‘the way you have always done things is wrong’. Or that someone else will be better at your job just because they have a different background. But that is not the case at all. It is saying that that the world is changing and the way we used to do things is no longer sufficient on its own to meet these new challenges. Change is a process of evolution, and the first requirement of evolution is the replication of things that work across generations. In other words, experience. But just as essential is variance – the introduction of new ideas that improve on experience to ensure success across future generations.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” he continues. “Climate change, digital transformation, new materials, methods of construction, and user requirements – all these are changing construction’s known challenges. If you have a known challenge, and you have people who are experienced in dealing with it, it makes sense for them to continue to do so. But when there are new challenges, it is less likely that prior experience alone will be enough to solve them.”

Another objection often levelled at diversity targets is that they undermine meritocracy. The argument says that recruiting for diversity could result in the best candidates being discarded because they fit the traditional mould. But a more fundamental question is how ‘the best’ is determined and, more importantly, who determines it. “If you are building a team to tackle a complex task, you want the best people by your side to ensure success,” says Nick. “But would you choose ten people with the same skills as you or ten people with different skills? The best individuals do not necessarily equal the best team.” 

In his book, Rebel Ideas, Matthew Syed talks about the CIA’s failure to prevent 9/11, which has been blamed on a lack of diversity stemming directly from recruitment practices designed to select ‘the best’. The CIA repeatedly picked candidates who fitted a certain mould, came from a particular background, and scored well on certain tests. Each individual may have been highly capable, but they all had similar skillsets.

This is known as ‘homophily’, the gathering together of people who think the same and, often, look the same. Online ‘echo chambers’ are a prime example. But similar outlooks can create collective blind spots. In the case of CIA, they consistently underestimated the threat posed by bin Laden because they misinterpreted certain cues that a more diverse team may have picked up on. They dismissed the threat because they saw a man in simple clothing in a cave speaking poetry; their western, white perspective missed the powerful symbolism in these images.

But how does this relate to construction? Homophily and groupthink within an industry can reinforce practices that lead to error and stifle the diversity of thought that is needed to address the evolving challenges faced by the industry and society. “Expressing different points of view can help to identify issues that may have gone unnoticed. Making space for different voices encourages diversity of thought from which new approaches and solutions can spring,” Nick explains.

It is also worth considering that homophily is not necessarily a product of intended discrimination. “Having an engineering degree is a sensible pre-requisite for engineers working in the construction industry, and similarly maths and physics A-levels are sensible entry requirements for an engineering degree. But what impact does this have on our collective decision-making and industry blind-spots?” asks Nick.

“The vast majority of students taking A-level physics in the 1980s were male, and hence the senior leadership in the construction industry is now overwhelmingly male. This cohort not only shares homophily (a lack of acquired diversity) as a result of their education and experience, but also homophily (a lack of inherent diversity) because of their pathways into, and peer group within, the industry. The lessons from 9/11 should tell us that a non-diverse group is innately incapable of spotting collective blind spots, and inherently lack the variance required to be able to improve and evolve.

To bring it closer to home, GIRI’s Lego exercise gives small groups a building challenge using Lego. “We see the highest incidence of errors from teams where they all start with the same perspective and just dive in because they assume they can build the model quickly,” says Nick. “When we have more diverse teams, they are forced to discuss the problem. This challenge enables the teams to spot their errors and blind spots before they start construction, and the more diverse teams consistently perform better.”

What’s needed in construction is not a wholesale throwing out of the old in favour of the new, but a balance between the two. “Experience and diversity must go hand in hand as the industry adapts to the changing requirements of the society it serves, because the ability to adapt is a vital ingredient of success,” says Nick. “We can only improve and reduce errors in construction if we evolve. We can only evolve if we combine experience with variance. And we only get variance by removing the barriers to diversity.”


Watch the recording of GIRI's discussion forum on diversity in construction or read the key takeaways.

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