Strategic Leadership Group - Emer Murnaghan

14 Jul 21
Strategic Leadership Group - Emer Murnaghan

What do you hope to achieve by being part of GIRI’s Strategic Leadership Group?

In my early career I was a very keen follower of both the Latham (Constructing the Team) and Egan (Rethinking Construction) reviews of the industry - in fact, I would even refer to myself a ‘Latham baby’. I was an early adopter, living in that 'innovation bubble' for at least five years. But when I finally stepped out of demonstration projects into the wider industry, I could not believe that the Latham/Egan collaborative, inclusive, innovative approach to infrastructure delivery had not yet been adopted. 

Subsequently I joined the ICE's best practice group where I met others who felt the same frustrations, including Ed (McCann) and Alistair (Hitchcock) [also members of the Strategic Leadership Group]. As engineers we agreed that if we were doing the same things, and getting the same answers, and these weren't the answers we wanted, then we should be questioning why we are doing it this way and moreover what we can do to improve the process.

Getting the process right is relatively straightforward, it’s the cultural and behavioural aspects of the work that represent our biggest industry challenge. It’s my experience that things go wrong because someone has ignored the process or prevented it from being applied as intended. GIRI training is geared to address this.

Back to your question - as engineers we are used to focussing on outcomes, but it’s increasingly crucial that we consider impacts too; impacts on the economy, the environment and society.

The GIRI SLG is positioning itself to help shape the direction of change in the industry in a sustainable way – it is a personal privilege to be part of this team.

How does your current role align with GIRI's objectives?

Being a civil engineer means being prepared for a life of continuous change – new projects, new people, new learning and so on. Every 18 to 24 months you join a new team, and for that period you are totally immersed in the team - the successful delivery of the project is all that matters.

But unless we capture the lessons learnt, unless we honestly challenge whether we could have done it better, then we fail to leverage the continuous improvements and innovations that emerge. We miss huge opportunities. 

In terms of my role as innovation director at Graham Civil Engineering, it’s a question of constantly challenging those processes, so that we can be sure that the way we are doing things now is appropriate and delivers what we, and our clients, are looking for.

Graham's 'new' innovation strategy is not just about new technologies, digital solutions and so on, we will also be looking at behavioural and cultural innovations – after all, it’s people who deliver the business.

What do you see as the top priority for the SLG?

I feel it is important to mention the loss of GIRI’s executive director Tom Barton last year. As well as being very sad for us all on a personal level, Tom’s death led to something of a hiatus in GIRI’s work. This forced us to pause, rethink and consider the best way to move forwards.

The appointment of Cliff Smith, as the new GIRI Executive Director, and the creation of the Strategic Leadership Group has reset our aim is to get GIRI’s excellent knowledge and training resources recognised and implemented across the industry. GIRI resources need to be useful, usable and used for maximum impact and industry benefit.

What do you see as the biggest barrier to reducing error on a meaningful scale in the construction industry?

Traditionally the industry is characterised by a closed mindset – at all levels – and not being prepared to challenge what we do. I’m not suggesting we throw caution to the wind, but we should be considering whether things can be done differently, and who else we could involve in order to progress new ideas. 

At every stage of the cycle we need to ask: what do we need to do to make this even better? This process applies as much to those who procure work as it does to those on site.

We need diverse thinkers to disrupt this, otherwise we are really missing opportunities to innovate. Research shows that recruiting people from different backgrounds, different lived experiences and different cognitive ability creates a really rich diverse mix that encourages incubation of new ideas.

We also have to get used to accepting things can and will go wrong and owning our mistakes, not ignoring or glossing over them. They don’t go away, they fester.

Instead, when something goes wrong, we should pause and analyse the reasons. We should use this new learning to improve our processes or behaviours to get it right the next time. It’s that simple! 

How do you think the industry's priorities have changed in the last 12 months and what impact has this had on error reduction?

I think it’s too early to say what impact the pandemic has had on error reduction; we’ll be keeping an eye on that and monitoring any changes.

However, construction was very rapidly acknowledged as an essential industry and the ‘build back better’ initiative gave a clear message that what we do – infrastructure construction and maintenance – is a critical contributor to rebuilding the economy.

In addition, COVID has been expensive, budgets are constrained. This is where the GIRI focus on eradicating waste and challenging efficiency and productivity is ideally placed. It’s not about ‘value engineering’, it is about optimisation and reduction of waste; it’s not just about money, it's also about carbon. What’s more it does not only apply to the construction stage; the biggest potential gains will come through the procurement and design phases. We are all responsible for getting this right.

What first step/easy win would you suggest to someone just starting on their journey towards zero error?

Don’t settle for ‘good enough’!


About Emer Murnaghan OBE

Emer is Innovation Director Civil Engineering at contractor Graham. She joined Graham Construction in 2011 to develop and implement a business improvement programme for the group. More recently she has helped evolve and communicate a sustainable business strategy for the £750 million group, reporting directly to the managing director of Graham Civils.  

She is a chartered civil engineer, a chartered environmentalist, a chartered member of the Institute of Water and a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers of Ireland. In June 2015 Emer was awarded the OBE for services to civil engineering and further education in Northern Ireland, and in November 2018 she was appointed as a trustee and one of the Vice Presidents of the Institution of Civil Engineers with responsibility for the UK regions. She is also an ambassador for WISE (Women In Science & Engineering), acting as role model and working to promote gender balance at the highest levels within the UK.


Meet the other Strategic Leadership Group members

Paul Lowe, Partner, Kennedys

Dr Alistair Hitchcock, Head of Engineering, Phase Two, HS2

Mark Hansford, Director of Engineering Knowledge, Institution of Civil Engineers

Ed McCann, Director, Expedition Engineering, and ICE Vice President

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