Touchy-Feely, Sure. Essential, For Sure!
Steve Mitnick is Editor-in-Chief of Public Utilities Fortnightly and author of the book “Lines Down: How We Pay, Use, Value Grid Electricity Amid the Storm.”
The idea — the Fortnightly Top Forty Innovators — was inspired by this summer's humongous Exelon Innovation Expo. To this forty-year industry veteran, the gathering of nearly three thousand seemed like a clean break from electricity's hundred and thirty-five-year past.
A clean break, in several ways. I want to talk with you now about one.
Let's talk about how organizations are investing in recognizing and celebrating innovation and innovators. The degree of commitment is remarkable. And understandable, if you'll allow me to explain.
Contests. Prizes. Balloons. Games. Skits. Silicon Valley-style offices. Seriously, at electric utilities? At stodgy utilities?
What's going on? No, I mean, what's really going on here?
Utilities have evidently concluded that stodgy - in their corporate culture and image - won't work anymore. Societal trends are screaming for sleeker and cooler electric companies.
Younger people particularly find the industry's traditional "measure twice and cut once" culture a turnoff. They're attracted instead to Silicon Valley startup culture with its urgency, fluidity and aim to disrupt. When the two cultures compete, they invariably choose companies driven by new ideas and new tech.
Those utilities slow to move are destined to underperform, it's now broadly accepted. The sluggish utility will underperform with everyone, from the best and brightest job applicants, to the most demanding customers, to the most promising partners.
So, company leaderships are asking themselves, how can we transform? And how can we make transforming produce for all our constituencies?
It's not that easy, it turns out. Leaders must persuade many thousands of people - internally and
externally — that the transformation
is for real. They must also create an environment that stimulates, nurtures and rewards innovation.
It has to be convincing. The skeptics can outnumber the believers. The dynamic utility? Yea, right, they say. All this innovation talk is just that -
a shiny veneer on a stale surface.
That's where recognizing and celebrating innovation, and innovators, comes into play. When leaders demonstrate their commitment to the transformation with their time and enthusiasm, they walk the walk. When leaders shine a bright light on innovation, and honor innovators' passion and inventiveness, they encourage the creative culture they so want for their organizations.
Hence, prizes, balloons and the rest. One CEO told me that while monetary rewards were an important part of the equation, the key was that sincere pat on the back of a pioneering employee before her or his peers.
A utility I visited is building an "innovation zone." Another has a garage for tinkering, like where Steve Jobs and the Woz started. A couple others hold competitions à la "Shark Tank." One has outfitted a whole floor with the feel of an app startup for its top thinkers and doers.
Seems kinda touchy-feely, I know. But it's evidently working. This industry is changing and fast. I can hardly remember what utilities were like during my first thirty-nine years.