Why do we resist change in the construction and drilling industry?

I can read your mind: “Brock, technology takes time to become proven.” We often associate change with technology alone, but any growth or progress we make in business or life requires change (regardless of any technology involved). So, I ask you, what stops you from progressing?

Whoa, I heard that one: “Brock, I can progress without changing.” or “Brock, I don’t need to invest in new to progress my business.” Yes, I get it. Drillers work to discover the unknown, and our success relies on establishing the best processes with the slightest possibility of failure. We continue to hone those processes year after year to improve success and mitigate loss. Honing best practices is a form of progress. But what prevents our industry from progressing in all aspects beyond field experience?


As a tribal industry deeply rooted in field experience, our culture requires us to pit anything new against the industry standard. This psychology makes perfect sense. If the “new” cannot stand up to the proven standard, why change? But, what if we create expectations for the “new” that the established standard also could not achieve? When we drill deeper into our tribal psychology of change, we find that our subconscious desires progress; therefore, we impose greater expectations out of a need to solve issues that impact our business and performance.

Drilling has conditioned us to solve problems in unknown downhole situations. A great driller makes microsecond decisions that can change an outcome from failure to success. We build custom tools to fish, rehab, develop and install product hundreds to thousands of feet in the ground. Drill teams collaborate to create plans for all sorts of abnormal operating conditions: extreme weather, high altitudes, densely populated areas and environmentally sensitive locations to name a few. We react to and overcome many unknown parameters, proving not only that we can accept change, but that we also seek it out to get the job done.

Maybe right now you are saying, “I don’t accept crazy jobs with abnormal operating conditions.” You may believe that, but the truth is if you are in the drilling industry, you have accepted the concept of reacting to the unknown. You accept change and every time you create a tool or build a plan, you implement change to progress.

Implementing Change to Create Progress

You and your company get to choose to resist change or embrace progress in the industry. Yet, being in the drilling industry proves that we can react to change every day in the field and, therefore, we can do it in all aspects that matter. Consider that just 40 years ago the safety standard for water well drilling was steel toe boots and a good pair of gloves. Yes, some big companies had their teams wearing hard hats, but safety glasses and hearing protection were taboo.

Heck, how often do we see social media posts today of a crew working without proper safety gear? Minutes after the post, we watch comments roll in from advocates for safety versus the “roughneck up” and stop being a baby crew. Advocates for safety want to share what they have experienced through unsafe acts and why it is essential to wear proper safety gear. Positive changes like improved safety standards involve taking our field experience and applying it to create progress. However, the roughneck crew resists change — maybe they have never experienced an event that required them to change unsafe conditions. But, in the 21st century, we should not have to learn from a personal catastrophic event when so many advocates share what happened to them — and why they had to change.

Changes to the industry often result from mandates in state or federal regulation. Think of OSHA rules designed to prevent unsafe work conditions, regulations developed out of a need to progress our industry (and protect the people working in it). Years ago, when many states started requiring GPS coordinates for wells, many drillers resisted. I remember more than one heated discussion at the local groundwater shows. However, companies that accepted state well abandonment work in subsequent years immediately understood the importance. Anyone who spent hours on a site searching and digging for an old well using an old plot book were thankful for GPS. That resistance to a better system quickly seemed trivial.

When the industry faces mandate changes like these, we can fight them or accept them. I can remember few situations where resistance overturned a new state or federal regulation. The better plan is to focus energy on adopting the change and helping to promote progress. As a young father, I often consider how to explain rules to my three-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. When my son asks, “Why do I have to ride in a car seat?” I have two options for answering him. I can say, “Because it’s the law, and I don’t want to get a ticket.” Or I can teach him the actual value of the regulation by saying, “If we were to get in an accident, this seatbelt is the best option for keeping you safe.” The police did not develop the rule to hand out tickets. The law was created to save his life. When we implement change within our company or the industry, the right message — one that emphasizes the actual value of the change — can aid adoption. Everyone has to be invested in the progress the change will create.

Fear of Change in Technology

I believe the drilling industry’s most outstanding resistance to change is in electronic technology. My first memories of working in the industry were weekend service calls with my father. What I remember most was the carbon copy, handwritten estimates, and final bill my father would create on the seat of the pump hoist. I always had black fingers from playing with the carbon paper. When we got our first computer I remember thinking, “This is a game-changer.” But I was wrong; that large desktop computer was not as convenient or instant as the analog pen and paper.

Today technology launches to market faster than ever. That computer operating on DOS 25 years ago cannot compare to my laptop today. Consider changes like how we submit digital well logs, invoice customers, pay individuals and manage our companies.

I remember sitting at the table during a Michigan Ground Water Association show and a gentleman talking about how he lost three years of business records when his computer crashed. The men at the table shook their heads in agreement that paper was better than digital. That single comment halted progress for many.

I heard similar comments, while aiding in rig designs, about electric over hydraulic controls: “Electric is too unpredictable” or “Water and electrics don’t mix, Brock.” Last year on a large water project, I fielded questions over the reliability of a new, fully calibrated transducer capable of capturing any data required. “What if it just turns off, or it doesn’t record the information?” the individual asked. In an industry where we deal in unknowns from Mother Nature every day, why create new hypothetical unknowns? Because the root cause of technology failure lies not in the system but in the human factor. In this case, all four potential situations required research to flush out the significant possibilities that a loss could occur. But reliability requires adopting the change and being part of the progress.

Today technology launches to market faster than ever. That computer operating on DOS 25 years ago cannot compare to my laptop today. Consider changes like how we submit digital well logs, invoice customers, pay individuals and manage our companies. While traveling this winter, I paid the neighbor kid via Apple Pay to shovel my walk for my family. Electric over hydraulic controls from 2001 are not in the same league as what we see on rigs today. The hydraulics communicating with those controls are entirely different. It is easy to see the manufacturers that adopted and refined, versus those trying to catch up. Finally, humans still have an edge on computers in many tasks, like reacting to downhole conditions on the rig platform. I find it silly to believe a human repeatedly doing hand measurements will result in the same plot points as a transducer operating nonstop for 72 hours. Technology has improved in some aspects of drilling because we accepted change and, with it, progress.

In drilling, we accept change every time success requires it. We have progress within our grasp regardless of whether we work in the field discovering the unknown or sit in our office evaluating last quarter. There are two types of people in the construction and drilling industry: those who understand progress requires change, and those just a few years from leaving the industry. That exit could mean retirement or, often, just when resistance to progress finally makes their business unsustainable. There is no middle ground. We either become part of progress, embrace change and help drive the industry into the 21st century, or we wake up one day parked in the fence row with box elder trees grown up through our chassis.