Today we sit and chat with David Wilson, Principal Vice President and Chief Innovation Officer at Bechtel Corporation. Bechtel is one of the most respected engineering, construction, and project management companies in the world. David is also a playful father, husband, and curious learner.
Mr. Wilson credits “Being okay, not knowing,” and “Figuring things out by doing,” as skills from PLAY that have guided his success.
Through the lens of an artist-turned-engineer, David Wilson is able to recognize a system that is “Educating us out of creativity.” Therefore, he is purposeful in designing a culture that is able to execute by fostering creativity and sparking innovation. This culture is achieved by:
- Embolden Psychological Safety – Eliminating the “No” Button.
- Empowering, Go Big, or Go Home! – The crazier the idea, the better chance at carving genius.
- Inspiring Interest Intersections – Rousing personal interests toward unique solutions.
It is imperative that the team Wilson builds is filtered through a diversity of experience. Some of the key characteristics he looks for include:
- Willingness – both to be creative and to change the status quo.
- The Triad of Personality:
- Creatives – The challengers of the status quo.
- Adaptives – Those that adapt it, push it, and drive it to completion.
- Bridgers – Those that blend the two.
Wilson notes how all three personalities are critical to successful innovation and fulfillment.
At Ludolo we believe that organizations can use Play-based learning to foster a culture of innovation, while developing the emotional well-being of their employees. Through collaborative play, our natural tendencies and behaviors come out. Therefore, serving as a great diagnostic tool on team dynamics, and offering the ability to create habits that allow both the individual and team to be more collaborative, productive, and curious.
In this interview, you’ll discover how:
- To create a framework that encourages innovation
- To prepare people with the tools to challenge, to stretch, and to develop random ideas
- Personal interests can enrich your work (and vice versa)
Listen in above, or read below the transcript of our interview on How To Create an Organization around Innovation and Fulfillment with David Wilson.
Roger Manix: Hi everyone. I’m Roger Manix, co-founder and chief creative officer at Ludolo. We are a play-based learning company that sparks innovation, strengthens culture, and fosters human connection all while developing emotional and social intelligence. We’re also a fast company world changing idea in education.
We’re doing a series of interviews with organizational leaders to help better understand and shape the future of learning and development initiatives. Today, we have the pleasure of speaking with David Wilson, Principal Vice President and Chief Innovation officer at Bechtel Corporation. Hello, David.
David Wilson: Hi, good afternoon.
Roger Manix: Hi. Bechtel is one of the most respected global engineering, construction, and project management companies. So thanks for joining us today.
David Wilson: Happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
Roger Manix: You got it. I’m going to jump right in. First question, what did you play as a kid? Was there a Go-to or a favorite game that you’d like to play?
David Wilson: Yeah, that’s such a great question. I grew up as an only child with both my parents working. So I spent a ton of time at my grandparent’s house. I played everything from “fix the sprinkler system” for my grandfather, to “paint the garage”, to build model planes. And at the time when you’re growing up you don’t realize it’s work… It’s just a lot of fun to do all those things with the grandparents. Things like play with (use) the tools, use the saws, and be treated as an adult. And you don’t realize that at the time you’re effectively free labor for your grandparents.
But it was a great experience and it really opened the door to where I felt empowered to try new things. I really just loved the chance to fix things and to understand how they worked. That was largely my play… staying busy with my hands, thinking, and trying to break stuff apart and then put it back together.
Roger Manix: Tinkering. It’s such an important part of our growth. It’s funny, my dad is a chef. So he owned a restaurant when we were growing up. So I thought it was always fun to play waiter, but really I was just my dad’s free worker for about 10 years there.
David Wilson: Exactly, exactly.
Roger Manix: So I get it.
David Wilson: But it’s a great time. I had a lot of fun being treated as an adult and figuring things out, and not necessarily being protected from making mistakes and learning.
Roger Manix: Yeah, because I mean, listen, if we’re being protected from making mistakes while we’re learning, then, FYI, we’re not learning.
David Wilson: Agreed. Totally agree.
Roger Manix: And what about today? Do you play today? Do you still play today? What might that look like?
David Wilson: Yeah, so the play today is a little bit of a mix with my kids. And that’s everything from outside in the backyard kicking the ball around, to throwing the ball around with my sons, to watching them play soccer and grow up. And then it drifts into video games. They’re both very into video games and into computers. And so some of that’s just being invested in what they’re doing and understanding what they’re playing. Right now they’re teaching me things like Hearthstone…It’s a card game of sorts.
Everything from the modern-day chess and checkers, and other games they play stimulate thinking but also create a connection.
Similarly I’ve found that play with friends (colleagues) is about stimulating the brain, and it’s also a great way to create a connection, that I wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to build.
Roger Manix: Yeah. On both levels, it’s sort of deepening our community. Our community with our family, our community with our friends who are also an extended part of our family as well, too. The kid answer is like a staple for this question when we answer it. Kids have this real playful instinct that keeps us in ours. But I think somewhere along the lines while we were growing up, someone said, “Cut it out. Stop that. Stop playing. Don’t do that anymore.” Which was a real, I think, unfortunate and pivotal time in our education. So I’m glad to hear the boys are prompting you well.
David Wilson: Yes, I think that’s right. I think unfortunately we at times educate out creativity and play. I actually grew up as an artist in school, drawing and being creative in that fashion. And just gradually as that converted into engineering, I did less of that than I was accustomed to unfortunately. How we incorporate both is really a great question.
Roger Manix: That’s fascinating. So you grew up as an artist and drawing and then you found your way into engineering. That’s funny. I was great at math, so I went to school and studied math and then civil engineering. And then that just turned into math and theater. So I get having both sides of the brain going on there.
David Wilson: Both sides of the brain really bring a lot. I think you may see, having the math and the theater background, you bring a different perspective on how to approach things in the corporate world. Or as you try to solve business problems, that ability to tell stories, that I’m sure the theater brings to the table, or communicating visually, or through words, is so critical to influencing and leading, and helping stimulating organizational change.
Roger Manix: Agreed. Both sides of the brain I want coming to work, never just the left or the right hemisphere’s.
David Wilson: Completely Agree.
Roger Manix: So we understand every organization is different. What’s your role as Chief Innovation Officer at Bechtel, and then maybe tell us a little bit about the team or the teams that you lead?
David Wilson: I am the Chief Innovation Officer at Bechtel, as you mentioned. And the role there is to, my view of it and the mandate, is to both stimulate and facilitate innovation in the organization. How we create the processes, the structure, the space, and the time to encourage employees of the organization to innovate… to create, to look at new problems and solve them. My role is not to have a small team that does the innovation for the organization, but to create the means and mechanisms, and help develop the skills of the organization to further innovate. To take the innovation and develop it and deploy it on our projects so we can help our projects execute safer, better, faster, leaner.
And so every day the focus is on how we can create the framework. How do we help prepare people with the tools. How do we challenge them to stretch and develop. And then how do we engage them in that process and encourage participation so that they can see that they can be creative and innovative.
One of the messages we share with the organization is that creativity is not isolated to an inherent ability. It’s largely a muscle that’s developed, grown, and worked on continuously. If you don’t feel like you’ve got it, that doesn’t mean you can’t have it or develop it. I use fitness all the time as an example – it’s like leg day, you just have to keep working on it. Because it’s there and it just needs to be developed. There are things you can do – don’t be worried if it’s not a great idea out of the gate, just keep working on it, shaping it, and sharing it with others.
That’s my job in the organization – to help mold, encourage and protect ideas, and then create ways for the ideas to mature into new ways of execution.
Roger Manix: I use the gym analogy all the time as well, David, and I constantly say, “Listen, I don’t have, I’m not fit because I go to the gym once a month. It requires dedication, it requires practice, as any sort of skill would.” So it goes hand in hand with this idea of creativity as a leg day. What might something like that look like when you’re talking about kind of creating the environment to foster the creativity or to spark the innovation? What might that look like?
David Wilson: Part of it is setting the expectations… we ask the organization to participate by saying, “Early, we want a volume of ideas. We want quantity over quality just to get you thinking and get you engaged and then develop the ideas.” And part of that is to deplete the ideas on the surface, or top of mind, so that you can push people to stretch to the deeper ideas or the more creative ideas.
Another one we tell people is the crazier the better because it’s much easier to take a crazy idea and walk it back into a genius or largely disruptive idea, than it is to walk a mundane or an incremental idea towards genius. Helping people understand that has been pretty critical.
Then we use examples. Things like inflatable scaffolding and artificial clouds – both sound incredibly ridiculous. But when you start to look at the idea, understand it, and understand the principles of it, you realize, well there might actually be something there. It’s helping people understand that, go through process, and share examples which has been pretty effective.
Roger Manix: It sounds like not only is the real gymnasium being put into place for the workout of the creativity, but also setting the tone for a culture of kind of psychological safety and support, where people feel included and safe to share their ideas as well.
David Wilson: Exactly. That’s exactly it. Really getting away from bringing the “no” button or the idea killer button when people hear ideas. It’s important to set aside the space so that you can share ideas and not immediately assess their merit until all have been exhausted. People should really be focused on the ANDs as opposed to the noes early in the process.
Roger Manix: Yep. A lot of what you’re talking about I’m hearing has curiosity in it, and curiosity is a core element of creativity. They both fuel innovation. This goes sort of piggybacking on that last question of like what are you currently doing now to drive curiosity or to drive creativity within the organization?
David Wilson: Part of it is instructing folks to be more aware of the things that we’ve all become numb to – the things that may annoy us, the things that may drive us crazy in the day-to-day – one way is to keep a diary of the things we’ve historically complained about that we are now accepting as the norm. Start the diary with those things that just drive you crazy, then use that as a good starting point to innovate or to create.
And then encourage people to not accept – which becomes a prompt to be more creative or ask the question of why do we do that this way and could we do it a different way. And so one’s creating that prompt of understanding as to where there might be areas to innovate.
The other prompt is – be more aware of what you do in your personal life, or what your interests and your hobbies are outside of work. You then start to see where the seemingly random personal pastimes or interests intersect with the problems or complaints from work. And maybe that creates something new that you weren’t thinking or considering. Telling folks to not limit the problems they see and the things they do to what they do day to day is important. Get outside your swim lane and understand what’s happening, but also look for intersections between what you do the other 14-16 hours of the day. How do some of those solutions intersect with your work?
Whether it’s cooking, painting or music – there are things you can learn from cooking, things you can learn from painting, and things you learn from music. Whatever your hobby is, there’s something in each of those that you can learn, translate, and apply into potentially solving a problem at work – something that you maybe didn’t think you could create. If you’re aware with your eyes open, you might just see something new that you hadn’t recognized previously.
Roger Manix: That’s great. When I do this exercise, when I teach, grab everyone in the room, look around and I just say, “Tell me everything in the room that’s red. Just make a list in your head. Don’t say it out loud, but quick, quick, quick. Everything that’s red in the room.” And they do that. And I go, “Close your eyes.” And they do. And then I say, “Okay, now tell me everything that’s blue.” And the room is like “Uh.” And it’s because we’re only looking for the red but the blue is always there.
So when you start to see it then you know that it’s all there. You’re also talking about a key component of emotional intelligence, which is self-awareness. And for people to give themselves the time to have self-awareness and self-reflection to sort of see. I often say how I do something is how I do everything. So if I can start to incorporate, possibly, you know this “what’s going on outside of work,” because that’s work as well, I may be able to help myself find an answer. That’s a great idea. And then maybe is there a specific time that you can share about when you had a team really hit a block or they were having a hard time overcoming something that you know an example of that you might be able to share?
David Wilson: Yes, it’s a few years old, but it just still sticks with me. One of the challenges in construction is that at times design and other information is provided others – we call it vendor information. If we have a piece of equipment or a component that’s provided by a vendor then it’s getting the information in a format that we can incorporate into our design and work processes. All of that is to provide construction what they need to go execute the build. It’s a challenge to get the information in a format that’s consumable.
So we had a group try and tackle that problem, looking at differently. We used a tool, an innovation tool, called Random Stimulus and Forced Association. We picked a random word or random object that had no conceivable application to vendor information – I think the one we used was toll roads. We took it and then listed all of the attributes associated with the random stimulus. What are the characteristics of it? Describe it. And then for every one of those characteristics we had the team brainstorm a possible solution for vendor information that mapped back that same characteristic for the toll-road prompt. Not everything was a hit…
Roger Manix: Yeah, of course.
David Wilson: But it got the team thinking. It got them out of the rut of the way we’ve always done it. And it broke the cycle or pattern – going back to fitness, it broke that muscle memory – and really opened them to seeing it differently. From there we were able to spin into further brainstorming, and then we got all sorts of random and crazy ideas. It resulted in a volume of ideas we could then work with, and start to shape and develop, where they had been stuck before. That’s one of the examples that always sticks with me.
Every group I’ve used it with always responds the same, “Well, this will never work. You can never take a random thing and connect it back to what we’re doing,” but it always works. These types of activities have been effective at breaking people out of the routine and getting them to look at solutions differently.
Roger Manix: What you’re talking about is play.
David Wilson: Exactly.
Roger Manix: Being playful. And what play does is it frees us from established patterns. Play is the cornerstone of innovation and creating new neural networks. And when brainstorming is going well, it’s very similar to play, with these crazy ideas and there’s a diminished sense of self and time is going by. But the catalyst for all of that is about really moving us from the known into the unknown. So something different has an opportunity to manifest. And I find play is like that because it trains us with being comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. Because those are givens in any, well, life. Whether at home or at work. I got two last questions. One is what would you say are the top five skills that you look for when assembling a team?
David Wilson: Yes, so easily it would be the diversity of experience and thought, because it prevents group think. I think that’s at the top on the list. The other ones I would look for would be the willingness put yourself out there and share ideas without a fear. The ability to contribute and embrace psychological safety that you mentioned. As well as people that are able to be creative, be crazy, and challenge the status quo. And then there’s the ability to adapt, as well as the ability to really push through and drive something to completion.
It’s a mix of diversity of thought, the willingness to put yourself out there and be uncomfortable. And then the willingness to, once something is developed, to grasp it and to run with it and deploy it.
You need balance. When we look at it there is a need for a mix of adaptives and creatives. And really there’s three types we try include – the adaptives, the creatives, and then there’s the glue or the bridgers that vacillate between the two. You need that triad of personalities in the group so you can get really creative, but then bring it back to something you can deploy. Otherwise you spiral into chaos, which is okay for a time.
If you have too many adaptives, you focus more on actions and lists, which results in the spiral of diminishing return. So it’s a balance of those personalities and those thinking approaches that are pretty critical. Those are a couple of the things I look for in groups – that balance, that willingness to be uncomfortable, that diversity of thought, and then the mix of personality types; adaptives and creatives.
Roger Manix: That last is so important. It sets them up for success as well, too. You got to have a nice keen eye to support them and have that balance. And you bring up willingness a lot. And when I facilitate play experiences, I often say, “Willingness is the one thing I can’t give you. So if you come with willingness, we’re going to have a really big shot. But if there’s no willingness, boy we’re going to have a hard time here collaborating together.” So my last question, it goes back to our initial question of you tinkering with your grandparent’s sprinkler systems. When you shared about that sort of play as a kid, what skills did that play develop which have been useful throughout your career?
David Wilson: I’d say being okay not knowing and just trying to figure out how things work. I guess it’s that tinkering – that figuring things out by doing – that has been largely helpful and beneficial in my career. We’re going to try, and maybe it won’t work, but we’re going to figure this thing out.
And I think that one of the things, as you look at people in organizations, is there are those that get to where they’re at by learning, seeking, and developing through action; and through doing they will largely be adaptive and amenable to change. Then there are those get to where they’ve gotten by perfecting one thing. And when you focus on the perfection of one thing, you’re much less adaptive and malleable.
Ultimately, when you’re put in situations where you don’t know, you’re not the expert – And if you’re okay with that it leads to better questions and the curiosity we talked about – opening you up to exploring new solutions and being wrong; I think that’s a huge piece of it.
Roger Manix: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Having the resilience within that as well, too. And I love this. It still maintains how play brings us to the unknown and to sort of explore that on our own and with others as well. This has been, I could keep talking forever, David. But I want to be mindful of our time. I’m really grateful that you shared this past 20 minutes with us. So thank you really a lot for your insights and your time.
David Wilson: My pleasure. Thanks for the thanks for the discussion.
Roger Manix: Yeah. And you know, we at Ludolo believe that collaborative play is nature’s greatest teacher to train the mind and body and what it means to be human in our digital age. So with that, I leave our listeners, and I hope you have a great day and look forward to hearing more about playful and curious times over at Bechtel.
David Wilson: Thanks, Roger. You got it. So long.