We use a fair amount of space in this magazine and on our website talking about innovation in the housing industry, and I’ve written here and elsewhere about “disrupters” to home building’s status quo. But what does it mean—and look like—to be a true disrupter destined (or at least trying) to shake up an industry steeped (or stuck) in tradition and resistant to forces that appear to demand new ways?
Rich Rodriguez knows. That’s because the longtime builder and current chief operating officer of construction and development for The Amherst Group, a real estate firm in Austin, Texas, is one ... though he’d never say so. “You can’t call yourself a disrupter,” he said in his keynote address at the Housing Innovation Summit in April. “Others have to refer to you as that.” And in Rodriguez’s case, they do, and for good reason. Maybe not in the Uber or Tesla sense of the term, but for his approach to innovation that adheres to a vision, exerts control over the process, and delivers a clear, competitive advantage that keeps others playing catchup.
- Housing's Incremental Innovation Path
- The Amazon of Home Building—or How to Disrupt the Industry
- Killing Home Building's Sacred Cows
Disrupting the Status Quo on Many Levels
In Amherst’s case, the firm applies its brand of disruption to help solve the housing shortage, relying on modular construction for build-to-rent (BTR) homes to place on about 20 million shovel-ready lots across the country. But Rodriguez’s definition of disruption can apply to almost any innovation, from sales and marketing technologies to AI applications, fintech, and even team dynamics. Consider his criteria:
• You are who you hang out with. If you want to innovate and disrupt, build a team that shares that mindset and commitment.
• If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. Don’t pretend (or convince yourself) you have all of the answers—because you don’t. Get smarter from smarter people ... or fall into old ways of thinking.
• Innovate to a vision. First, get a vision (for example, modular BTR), then use it as your guide when you consider innovative ways to achieve it—and not just for the big picture, but also for the subparts. The disruption, they say, is in the details.
• Operationalize the innovation. New ideas can’t live in a vacuum; there must be clear, measurable value attached to them, such as a market advantage, internal efficiency, or a revenue stream. “Yes, it’s cool,” says Rodriguez about any innovation he encounters. “And ... ?”
• Protect your mavericks. The housing industry is littered with rogue warriors who tried to upset the apple cart and got thrown under it. But Rodriguez celebrates them, shields them from naysayers and roadblocks, and rewards them for being “dogs on a bone” as they work to solve real problems with new approaches.
Those lessons and others apply to any business or industry, home building and media included. If your dream is to be called a disrupter—internally or publicly—and to reap the benefits, then Rodriguez’s road map is a good place to start.