Anyone who has invested time in renovating an older home understands surprises and conundrums emerge every time a wall or ceiling is breached. I resisted the irrational urge to take on a monumental task at our lake home as a do-it-yourselfer, and I breathe a sigh of relief every time I overhear the tradespeople utter “Why did they do that?” and “That’s going to be a problem.

Fortunately, these people are good, and I watch in near amazement as they uncover and then solve one wicked electrical, mechanical, or structural problem after another. There are more than a few great management lessons emerging from how this team operates in the face of sudden surprises that demand they innovate and deviate from the base plan.

7 Management Lessons from a Home Renovation Project

1. Think in terms of a “system”

While we may not think of a house in systems terms, it’s a complex environment where many factors come into play to create a positive living experience for the occupants. Decisions on location, layout, windows, lighting, air handling, and many others interplay to create or interfere with comfort and utility. Keeping the bigger picture in mind is critical as the contractors adapt and alter the environment to achieve the project objectives.

Managers facing new challenges or the need to implement change are well served by looking beyond the immediate work and workers to how the changes will impact everyone involved, including internal and external suppliers and customers. Too often, organizational changes or work-flow changes are implemented in isolation. They look good on paper, but once placed into action, the law of unintended consequences takes over.

2. Think twice and then three times before you bludgeon the environment

Your first instinct in the face of new market realities, competitor encroachment, or performance indicators heading in the wrong direction may be to blow-up the structure and start fresh. It’s tempting but often wrong and frequently disastrous.

It’s instructive to watch as these talented tradespeople navigate one impediment after another, where it seems intuitive to take a sledge or saw to the situation. Instead, they opt for finesse born of critical thinking.

Finesse over force first is a good mantra for managers.

For our home renovation project, the contractors are finding approaches that respond to emerging discoveries of structural limitations, by adapting their original plans and adopting different materials and processes. The system integrity is maintained or strengthened without having to blow anything up along the way.

3. But, sometimes you have to bludgeon the environment

Sometimes the sledgehammer or power saw are the right tools. If the ceiling has to come down, the doorway moved, or the plans altered, good managers like good contractors reach for the right tools and change the situation.

For organizations striving to respond to new market realities, the old walls around process, products, and approaches often stand in the way of progress. After exhausting the ideas to adjust and adapt, sometimes you have to take a sledgehammer to the way things are.

4. Challenge each other to think harder

Good performing groups know how to fight effectively with each other over ideas and approaches. My contracting crew argues a great deal over the best methods for solving a newly discovered obstacle. The arguing turns into ideation, iteration, and then a plan. And once the plan is in place, they work together to bring it to life.

For managers and management teams, cultivating the comfort and confidence to disagree and even debate different approaches is critical for success. It might sound like arguing, but in reality, it’s about kicking bad ideas and group-think to the curb and identifying strategies that solve the dilemma, maintain the integrity of the project and respect the system.

5. Use What If? and Why Not? Questions

I love the creativity my renovation contractors display daily. There’s a frequent interchange of ideas, usually characterized by some variation of, “What if we did it this way?” While the responses might sound irreverent or disrespectful, the team has chemistry where those shots are part of the creative process, not personal attacks.

I love when my managers and team members offer ideas in the form of, “What if?” Unless the idea threatens the structural integrity or systems integration, a good response from a manager is, “Why not?”

And then, let them try.

6. Listen to ideas from unexpected sources

There’s no doubt our histories bias us to approaches and shut down lateral thinking. Smart managers look and listen for ideas outside the norm, and they challenge their team members to bring them to life.

For our home renovation project, I offered two suggestions for different, vexing challenges, fully expecting to be politely dismissed, possibly with a few eye rolls. Instead, the crew looked at me, looked at each other, and said, “That’s a good idea” and implemented it. For the other, I proposed an out of the box approach, and while it wasn’t workable, they used the idea as a springboard to reach the ultimate solution.

7. Don’t do plumbing work if you’re the HVAC person

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. The contractors had to call in outside expertise even though collectively they might have been able to pull off the challenge. If you’re leading a project team, the right know-how might exist outside your group. It’s good to ask for help.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Whether you are managing project teams or functional groups, there are parallels to the successful completion of complex renovation projects. Both take creativity, a willingness to listen and learn, a thorough understanding of the goals, and respect for the system and how it will impact people. Just remember, “Why did they do that?” and “This is going to be a problem” are simply invitations to engage in creative and critical thinking!

Art's Signature