To Pause or Not to Pause Is Probably Not the Right Question

I’m not saying you should never pause.

You pause before you change lanes when driving down the expressway. You pause before you throw a free throw. I can think of lots of examples of when you pause.

But, I can also think of situations where pausing will do more harm than good.

When my peripheral vision saw the car coming at me through the red light, I didn’t hesitate. I turned the wheel of the car away from the direction he was coming from and avoided a T-bone surviving a crash that totaled my vehicle. Pausing would have probably killed me.

I think the word “pause” came into our vocabulary much more when COVID-19 hit the world. Everyone went on it. Or, maybe the word was “stopped” – not pause.

In any case, when you examine reports or listen to construction forecasts or podcasts these days, you’ll still see and hear the word used over and over.

The problem with all words is that if you use them too much, they tend to lose their true meaning. It’s like using the word “friend” to everyone you meet. Unless you define “friend” to also mean acquaintance, it’s difficult to believe that anyone can have many “people whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.”

So, the question isn’t whether to pause or not. The question is after you define the word, WHEN you should and WHEN you shouldn’t pause?

A pause means hesitation. My father never used the word. He used to say to me when he saw me thinking, “He who hesitates is lost.” He had a point. But, he also made many mistakes by not pausing when he should. Who knows where he got that saying from.

Suffice to say that when you pause, you’re not taking action, or you view the pause as an action itself.

Self-fulfilling Prophecy

There’s another psychological truth operating around the word pause: self-fulfilling prophecy. This type of situation is where you expect something to happen. It happens because you believed it and “shaped” subsequent behaviors to bring it about. In other words, you make it happen because you believe it. High performance athletes use it to project and predict performance.

Are we in such a self-fulling state now in going on perpetual pauses?

In other words, these negative observations about construction around us (and it’s not just construction) seem to be feeding themselves. Maybe it’s just time to stop pausing or hesitating and just get on with it, whatever “it” happens to be.

Some Observations

A recent construction report spelled out the following reasons as to why the conditions around us exist for pausing:

  • There were no mega-sized project startups.
  • Contributing to the month-to-month decline in February was seasonality. Harsh winter weather normally takes a toll on starts.
  • Exceptional material and labor cost increases for projects being contemplated, as part of the run-up in inflation generally, are causing some owners to pause before hitting the ‘go-ahead’ button.
  • Design and contracting teams are being asked to take another look at where cost savings might be realized.

Let’s take these points one at a time.

There were no mega-sized project startups.

What they call “mega-sized” projects are the ones that suck the energy out of the room. They pull billions of dollars like magnets moving the downward pointing arrows to pointing upward simply because of their size. Researchers call his a skew.

For example, a steel mill for Nucor in Brandenburg, Kentucky, is valued at $1.7 billion. These mega projects pile up (though for the past year or so there are less of them) and they drive the numbers for that month up. They distort the true picture.

However, like the economy itself knows that smaller businesses comprise the vast majority of payroll, smaller projects dominate the construction landscape. So negative numbers mean less smaller projects (something people don’t like to talk about). Of course the mega ones are important, but because there are less is no reason to pause — is it? We should look elsewhere for a reason to pause.

Contributing to the month-to-month decline in February was seasonality. Harsh winter weather normally takes a toll on starts.

Weather always is a factor. The post office used to have a saying. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” They will tell you that is NOT their official motto, but they like to use it. The Postal Service had a net loss of $4.9 billion for 2021, compared to a net loss of $9.2 billion for 2020.[1] No where in the documentation do they blame the weather as a primary cause. While weather can affect starts, I’ve seen construction going on under the harshest of conditions. “Weathering the storm” is another saying, because after the storm, the “show must go on.” Harsh weather causes a pause – but the pause can be temporary or something else. One of my favorite sayings is, “A day without work is a day without food.” And I like to eat.

Exceptional material and labor cost increases for projects being contemplated, as part of the run-up in inflation generally, are causing some owners to pause before hitting the ‘go-ahead’ button.

This is an interesting observation to explain negative construction numbers. It plays directly to the discussion earlier about pausing. Owners can wait, but can the public? When COVID-19 hit us and buried retail in lockdowns, the public didn’t wait for the stores to open. They went online to buy things and made Amazon richer than it already was. The public will find solutions around limitations, so why can’t construction?

Naturally, part of the answers depends on what the owners are building. Pulling the trigger on a mall project when retail is redefining itself might be cause for a pause. But pausing for a data center, well, that’s a different story. I’ve not read anything that suggests we are going to use less data.

Yet, who can argue with the labor and material shortage or increases[2]? Just ask Mike Krzyzewski, who is in last season for Duke built an unduplicated record in his career. In March, 1992, Alexander Wolff wrote this about Coach K. “’He’s the best in the business right now,’ says Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins. ‘He’s a great coach and a much better recruiter than people give him credit for. I mean, the Final Four four years in a row, plus a national championship? It’s totally ridiculous.’”[3]

In fact, Wolff noted: “Duke’s recruiting is so efficient that those who study such things liken it to a fraternity rush.”

The secret to ANY business are the people in that business. Construction is no different: you need dedicated people who are willing to sacrifice, make clients happy, and get the job done. Otherwise, you won’t have to decide whether to pause or not, you just will.

Design and contracting teams are being asked to take another look at where cost savings might be realized.

“Taking another look” is a pause. This particular point can be very dangerous. Why? Because cost cutting has always been part of the scenario of specifications – and it usually results in a drop in quality.

When you cut costs, you often only do so by cutting quality. As these cuts pile up and quality plunges, eventually we may see a future putting us all on a permanent pause because of structural stresses or poor performance. That, or the result is a complete STOP.

The saying here is, “stealing from Peter to pay Paul.” Designers and architects do their designs for reasons – not only to produce a superior project, but to assure the owner of value. Asking someone to shave costs is asking someone to cut the value of what they do.[4]

Would You Buy This Software?

We were in a business meeting once with a major client who was telling us that in order to proceed and continue working for them, my company would have to invest $26,000 of our own funds into purchasing the software the client was deploying within their own company to interface with the engineering software. In that meeting were two vendors: me and another graphic design firm who did the company’s specification sheets.

Without any hesitation, I said, “No problem. Just give me the name of the software.” I instantly figured out how to deploy the software in my company. That software, I reasoned almost instantly, would also help us with projects for other clients. I was in the room with our largest client whom we had been serving for over 12 years. Why would I hesitate?

The other vendor paused. After a full minute (which is a long time to be pausing in a meeting full of executives), he said, “I’ll have to think about that. There might be better software out there.”

During the next break, the design firm and I were the only two in the room. I asked, “Isn’t this your main client?”

“Yes,” he said. “But, that software is all wrong. I use X and it’s much easier. I would have to redo everything.”

“But it’s what the client wants,” I said. “I’m not telling you how to run your business, but…”

“No you’re not,” he replied sternly. “I’ll have to think about this.”

He didn’t do it but we did. We stayed busy using the software for three years for this client (before the software itself became obsolete as software tends to do sometimes). We took all the business away from the graphic design firm who eventually had to find other clients so he could use his software of choice.  And, we also used this software for our other clients when situations presented itself. the investment paid for itself in eight months.

Knowing when to pause and when not to is the secret.  Let me know what you think and thanks for reading.

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[1] U.S. Postal Service Reports Fiscal Year 2021 Results, November, 2021.

[2] One of the things reports don’t point out are the incredible price increases of manufacturers in the construction sector. Our findings see these increases going on anywhere between 8% to 20%. But, if you also factor in the sometimes triple-price increases of 2021 that some manufacturers delivered, is it any wonder these pauses are being self imposed? I wonder what would happen if a manufacturer lowered his prices?

[3] DUKE COACH MIKE KRZYZEWSKI’S DIVINE SPIRIT AND WORKING-CLASS ETHICS HAVE FORGED AN EXEMPLARY COLLEGE BASKETBALL PROGRAM, by Alexander Wolff, March 16, 1992 on the valt.si.com.

[4] Perhaps finding value instead of cutting costs is the more important thing. In fact, if you Google, “Should I ever lower my price,” you’ll see my blog on page one toward the top (number two in many cases) on this topic. I tried to spell out a possible answer there.

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2 thoughts on “To Pause or Not to Pause Is Probably Not the Right Question

  1. Thank you John. I got an email subsequently that said: “Like it – great points. Disagree on the pausing before changing lanes, though – see people simply moving over and the “pause” is on you.” This was from an attorney, but he also made the point: there’s a time to pause, and a time not to. Just what the blog talks about. He added, “Time to take a “Pause” using the German word meaning taking a short break or during school, it was called “Pause” and is what is called recess here.” Thanks again, John.

  2. Well written. In my experience using construction data, Construction Starts is measured and reported. I don’t recall Construction Pauses in my data. There is always activity. Always. A construction “pause” is simply an opportunity to find business that may have been unnoticed previously. As Vince Flynn stated: “If you’re not busy living, you’re dying.”

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