Dispelling Innovation Risks for Utility Companies

Posted to Utility 2030 Collaborative in the Digital Utility Group
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Vanessa Edmonds's picture
Executive Director & Advisor Utility 2030 Collaborative & Appos Advisors

Transformation strategist, speaker, and writer who pursues solutions to help utility leaders reinvent the customer experience. Honored to be leading people-centered utility transformation...

  • Member since 2014
  • 53 items added with 49,362 views
  • Mar 18, 2021

If utility companies are going to reach their objectives and goals over the next ten years and beyond, they need to embrace innovation. By definition, innovation is a new idea, method, or device : NOVELTY (Merriam-Webster).

When it comes to innovating at utility companies, there are two commonly held misconceptions:

  1. Inadequate technologies are usually the reason that innovations fail; and
  2. Innovation puts the table stakes of safety and reliability at risk.

Instead, innovations most often fail or become risky because people don’t have what they need. Examples include a lack of:

  • Essential skills;
  • Commitment to the project; and
  • Technology training.

People are only human after all. That’s why many employees, especially those who have been with a company for several years, remain fully absorbed in the tried-and-tested way of doing things--it’s safe!

5 Strategies for Getting Support from Leaders & Teams

Energy Central and Utility 2030 Collaborative recently co-hosted the PowerSession, “Innovating in a Regulated Environment, Part 1”. It’s now available on-demand. Panelists included:

  • Alexander Tsetsenekos, Chief Insurance Officer, CyberFortress and Former Tesla Insurance Executive
  • Jody Allison, Vice President of Transformation, Algonquin Power & Utilities
  • Josh Gould, Director of Innovation, Duquesne Light
  • Robert Conrad, Brand Reputation Communications and C-Suite Publicity Consultant, RKC Consulting, and Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University

During the discussion, moderated by James Riley (Appos Advisors), panelists provided 5 implementable, best practices for overcoming people challenges:

  1. Create a safe space for innovation. A growing number of companies are hiring individuals, forming teams, or building whole departments to lead innovation projects. It’s wise to have people at the helm.
  2. Adopt an innovation methodology. If you’re in charge of systematically creating change at your organization, you need to develop workflows that allow you to repeatedly produce, organize, and nurture new ideas. The top four most common innovation processes are Six Sigma, Agile, Design Thinking, and the Global Innovation Management Methodology.
  3. Translate the value of the innovation and communicate it effectively. All innovation projects should help deliver stated company objectives and goals. Make sure your project aligns with what matters most to the company, and communicate your business case through this lens.
  4. Listen to the voice of your customers and employees. Avoid getting distracted by vanity projects or other initiatives that won’t deliver the biggest bang for your buck. This starts with listening to what your customers and employees really need and want.
  5. Approach innovation as a cross-departmental team sport. Go beyond listening to your direct employees, to establishing and working with stakeholders from all departments who will be impacted by the project. You need them to be on your side.
  6. Ensure organizational alignment and change management. Organizational alignment starts with treating it like a team sport, but it also requires a heavy dose of leader and team change management. Don’t underestimate this effort.

“Yes, innovation can seem scary, but it is not in conflict with the important table stakes of safety and reliability,” said Mr. Riley. “Aggressively innovating to meet increasing customer experience expectations does not impact the safe and reliable delivery of power.”

Access this PowerSession—on-demand—to hear implementable strategies for innovating in regulated environments, including getting your people in the right mindset to embrace change.  Then, register for Part 2, Playing Nice with Regulators. Scheduled for April 2 at 2:00 PM EST, it will provide insights into how to leverage regulators as key innovation resources.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 19, 2021

Create a safe space for innovation. A growing number of companies are hiring individuals, forming teams, or building whole departments to lead innovation projects. It’s wise to have people at the helm.

Agreed on this-- you're definitely starting to see more utility professionals with 'innovation' directly in the title. It might be harder for smaller utilities or those with tighter budgets, as the tangible outcomes from paying for a whole innovation department may not be clear. What different or unique approaches might smaller utilities need to take compared with the large ones that have greater resources to see positive results from the innovation teams over longer times? 

Robert Brook's picture
Robert Brook on Mar 24, 2021

Hi Vanessa...thanks for the post! I have a questions for you. Do you think the innovation project's goals impacts the success rate? This is partly addressed by Best Practice 2 (innovation methodology) but in my experience many initiatives appear to be focused on the technology/process itself, not a measurable business outcome. 

Mark  Damm's picture
Mark Damm on Mar 26, 2021

Nice post Vanessa. When it comes to technology professionals, I think we have a tendency to get excited about the potential of innovative new tech, that we can lost sight of some of these other points. Sharing this one with my team.

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