Five ways to create a culture of innovation in the energy industry

 |  7 January 2021

Culture innovation
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Energy has always been viewed as relatively stable and unchanging - power gets generated and sold to individuals and businesses who use what they need and pay for the privilege. End of story. But the growth of distributed energy retailers, the use of data and the increasing reach of technology means the industry is being disrupted on a daily basis. The depth, breadth and speed of change can be scary for businesses built on stability; now they can either watch it happen from a distance or get in there and shake things up on their own terms. But how do you create a culture of innovation and adaptation if you’ve always done things the same way? And where do you start?

Digby Scott headshotLeadership and culture expert Digby Scott, who focuses on helping businesses build environments that are highly adaptable to change, says it’s all about working out how to tweak what you’ve always done.

“It makes me laugh when people say ‘we’re going through a change process’, because life is always a change process,” he says.

“We don’t want to have a fixed mindset, but you don’t need to try too hard to dial up a ‘change mindset’.  The natural human mindset is to grow and innovate and evolve, so it’s more about how we create the conditions for that, rather than stay stuck and fixed. You need to get deliberate and harness the natural desire for change.”

Evaluate your current state

Part of the challenge for traditional businesses is identifying (and accepting) that they might have become stagnant. How can energy business leaders begin to recognise cultural behaviours that might be holding innovation back? Digby says it’s all in the language.

A workplace where people use language that’s stifled (‘we tried that before and it didn’t work’, ‘that’s a bit risky’, ‘the exec won’t like it’) is limiting and risks inertia or disconnection, he says.  

“Culture lives in language and behaviours. If you’re using the language of playing it safe because there’s too much to lose - you’re playing not to lose rather than playing to win.

“That kind of language comes with behaviour attached to it; we don’t voice our ideas because it feels too dangerous, we might experiment but we don’t share because we fear being ridiculed or told off for wasting company time.

“There’s also a more subtle thing that has to do with a loss of sense of higher purpose, of what we are actually here for as a company. That has to go beyond making money. It’s got to be about helping people have a good life, if you’re a power company. If you’ve lost sight of what it’s all about and no one’s talking about purpose, that’s a sign of stagnation.

“We often don’t see the culture we’re in, we just accept it. To be skilled at listening for language (or the lack of language) that’s possibility-focused and observing behaviour that represents innovation, that definitely makes a difference. When we don’t have awareness, we don’t have choice.”

Create the right conditions for growth 

Leaders have a massive role to play in creating the right situation to help people reach their potential, Digby says.

“For people to do the best work of their lives they need three conditions: belonging, bringing and becoming.

“Belonging is all about someone feeling that ‘I matter’ - that I’m seen as a human being, not a cog in a machine.

“Bringing is about someone feeling that the work matters - that it’s important, that it matters for our customers. I can bring my skills to that work, I can see how using my skills makes a difference. Leaders have to be able to say, ‘here’s why we exist, here’s what we’re trying to make happen, and here’s how your work contributes to that.

“Becoming is about someone recognising that ‘I’m growing’ - that I’m becoming better every day, learning new skills and managing to do something that makes a difference. That sense of growth is something we all want and that we all naturally aspire to. You have to have belonging and bringing first - I matter and it matters - first for that becoming piece to happen.”

Hire the right people - and support them

Every job description worth its salt mentions buzzwords like ‘curiosity’ and ‘innovation’. Digby says the challenge for business leaders is to work out how to keep those qualities alive, with new hires and long-standing staff alike.

“Everyone wants to hire people who are curious and who have initiative, but often the culture of a company can suck that out of them. Leadership has a massive role to play in creating the conditions to help people reach their potential. Leaders are the gardeners; they need to pay attention to the natural human condition to want to grow.

“If the people are the seeds and the garden is the conditions for them to grow, how do you create the right environment for them so they can reach their potential? Leadership makes a massive difference. It’s not about forcing them to grow, it’s about paying attention.”

Embrace play

Talk about having ‘fun’ at work and many people imagine toe-curlingly awkward team building events that appear to have little to do with innovation and can be detrimental to team culture. However, Digby says there’s a definite place for adopting a playful mindset.

He recommends working out what the difference is between the immutable and the invented rules of the workplace - what are the stories about what can and can’t be done? Why do these exist?

“There’s something about storytelling - you can keep it light. At a company I used to work at we’d sit around on a Friday night and we’d talk about highlights of the week - things that we’d tried, how people had helped us, what we learned. It was relaxed, it was a great way to highlight innovation and how we’re doing things differently. It was a celebration. 

“Culture isn’t on an org chart or in a policy document - it’s in everyday conversations. Culture grows from lots of little things done frequently. The more you can set the conditions for it to happen, like a gardener would, the more it will grow.”

Digby Scott is a leadership expert and ‘corporate rebel’. Learn more about his work here.

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