Innovation Tips for the Energy Industry

April 10, 2017

The energy industry today faces major challenges. How will we develop clean sources of power that don’t pollute our planet, that provide energy access to the millions who don’t have it, and that maintain the reliability and stability of our electric systems? To tackle these complex challenges, we need more innovative solutions from all players in the industry, both new and old. GE is one example of a large, established company that is investing heavily in clean technologies and new digital strategies. Last month, we went to GE’s first ever Women’s Leadership Summit to learn how the company is driving innovation across its operations, including the energy space. We left the day-long conference armed with new tools to use in our commitment to advance a clean energy future.Whether you are a part of creating “the new” or reinventing “the old”, we believe the following tips that we learned at the GE Women’s Leadership Summit will help fellow students and colleagues find innovative solutions to the complex problems that face a clean energy economy.

On a personal level, here are a few ways we can actively pursue innovation in our daily lives:

  • Reimagine the daily checklist. Instead of aiming to cross off the next task on a long “to do” list, upgrade your checklist to focus on the major objectives for your day. Being more mission-oriented may help you to strategically and creatively accomplish our most important priorities without getting lost in the details.
  • Adopt a growth mindset. Individuals who believe talents and skills can be developed through hard work, strategic decisions and input from others will achieve more than those with a fixed mindset about their innate abilities and intelligence. Beth Comstock, Vice Chair at GE, encouraged “committing to change in three ways, whatever that means to you.”
  • Gather feedback openly. No matter your experience level or position in a company, don’t shy away from asking your team or coworkers the hard questions about yourself. Proactively solicit feedback on a regular basis, listen openly to what others share with you, create an action plan, and set specific, measurable indicators to hold yourself accountable.

At the corporate level, the following are a few strategies to encourage innovation within your organization:

  • Promote open innovation.  Organizations should should engage a wide range of stakeholders, both internal and external, to participate in improving processes and products instead of relying solely on an an R&D or product team. For example, GE’s FirstBuild program sought ideas about new home appliances from the local community, opened them up to public vote, and then incorporated the winners into its new products. This principle of leveraging third party ideas and collaboration will be especially useful for utilities as they seek to reinvent the century-old business model upon which many are founded.GE Women's Leadership Summit 2017
  • Foster diversity of people and thought. Speakers from Square, Box, and Uber urged companies to foster racial, gender, socioeconomic, personality type, and age diversity among employees. Combining these perspectives can create “productive friction” that leads to innovation. For example, an organization should make an effort to hire talent from the market it seeks to address. This could help energy efficiency companies deploy their products to new customer segments beyond early adopters.
  • Incentivize employees to take risks. Organizations that are too averse to failure will never see the fruits of trying new things. To innovate, employees must know that they have room to take novel approaches within a degree of acceptable risk. Traditionally, organizations reward employees for either creative thinking (e.g., in design and strategy roles) or operational rigor (e.g., in finance and engineering roles). However, it’s important that individual employees have the space for both creative thinking and operational rigor, and are compensated accordingly. For example, product managers in energy companies should be incentivized to generate radically new product ideas, not just incrementally improve existing products.
  • Implement design thinking. Taking a human-centered approach means involving people’s direct observations, experiences and perspectives into the process of developing business solutions and new product ideas. For instance, early-stage cleantech startups can use design-thinking strategies to test product-market fit and test minimum viable products.

The personal and organizational approaches we learned at the GE Women’s Leadership Summit are just a few of the tools energy companies should be employing to tackle the many exciting challenges facing the industry. From the largest utility exploring new business models, to the startup fresh out of the lab looking for its first market, innovation will drive progress towards our clean energy future.