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Why is Change Hard for Builders to Embrace?

Eric Herman
photo of a person's fist coming out of the water
Shutterstock.com | Monchai Tudsamalee

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."-George Bernard Shaw 

It should seem rather self-evident: Changing the way you do things for the better is always a good thing. Right? After all, the very concept of “progress” itself, in all walks of life, depends on people willing to take a critical look at the status quo and implement changes that can offer greater value and benefits going forward.

Makes sense, so why is change so tough for so many people?

One of the many answers might just be found right here in our own pool construction industry. Consider the fact that over the years, a great many people serving the industry have shown how updating common practice would make for better products and happier customers.

I can think of numerous examples off the top of my head: applying sound hydraulics by upsizing plumbing and downsizing pumps, making greater use of geotechnical studies as a basis for site-specific structural engineering, updating the way pools and spas are treated chemically, setting a higher standard for compaction strength in gunite and shotcrete structures – such a list could go on and on.

Yet, as many are often inclined to point out, a lot of people in this industry are highly resistant to change, even when it’s based on irrefutable evidence. It’s not unusual to hear refrains along the lines of, “I’ve been doing it this way for 40 years, it’s always worked, so why stop now?”

That kind of reluctance to accept new methods often comes across as the proverbial horse led to water. And it begs a bewildering question: Why are so many people hesitant about changing the status quo when doing so would be in their best interest? There’s a tendency to denigrate people who resist self-betterment as, to mix metaphors, having their “head in the sand,” or just acting stupidly. Although that’s probably true for some people, it’s unfair to assume that everyone who resists change is simply stubborn to a fault.

All of this makes me think of one our industry’s most controversial figures, the late Jock Hamilton, founder of United Chemical.

Hamilton passed away in 2002. For those who aren’t familiar with his legacy, he was a genuine maverick in the pool industry, especially when it came to how pools are chemically treated. He developed his own water-balance index, appropriately known as The Hamilton Index, as well as new techniques for start-ups and remediating a variety of plaster problems. He was a colorful character, to say the least, who proudly wore a reputation for speaking his mind regardless if it stirred the pot with some people. In fact, it’s probably fair to say he actually relished controversy.

I had the privilege of interviewing Hamilton on several occasions and always found the process lively and mostly quite enjoyable, although he did take me to task a few times. But that’s the way he was, simply one of those people with a gift for prompting others to challenge their own thinking.

I recall one conversation where we were talking about this very subject, reluctance to change, which led him to offer a particularly insightful comment. To paraphrase, Hamilton said the problem with getting people to change the way they do things is that when someone implements a new program of some kind, the very act of change itself indicates that there was something wrong with the way they were doing it before. Therefore it’s really just human nature to resist. Beyond simple points of pride, however, he also pointed out that in the construction business change for the better will also inadvertently lead to greater exposure when it comes to being held accountable for project problems and failures based on past practices.

And therein lies the rub: Attorneys will read industry information and use change as a legal stick with which to beat contractors in lawsuits, especially if by way of changing construction techniques the supposed offending contractor ostensibly admits their prior methods were flawed.

Now if that doesn’t present a nasty conundrum I really don’t know what does. On one hand, there’s the obvious upside to evolving in favor of reducing problematic issues in the future, but on the other, who wants exposure to increased liability?

To be clear, none of that is to say that anyone should avoid using state-of-the-art information, techniques or technology simply because doing so impugns the past. Still, it does leave the problem of what to do about all that work in the ground that was done beforehand.

As one who has persistently advocated for positive change within this industry, I have to admit that even this far down the line, the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” facet of progress is not so easily reconciled.

Perhaps that’s why George Bernard Shaw was right; change does depend on the “unreasonable man.”

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail eric@aquamagazine.com.

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