You’ve reached your limit!

To continue enjoying Utility Week Innovate, brought to you in association with Utility Week Live or gain unlimited Utility Week site access choose the option that applies to you below:

Register to access Utility Week Innovate

  • Get the latest insight on frontline business challenges
  • Receive specialist sector newsletters to keep you informed
  • Access our Utility Week Innovate content for free
  • Join us in bringing collaborative innovation to life at Utility Week Live

Login Register

Our remit has changed as utilities. From harnessing of the earth’s resources for the good of all, to now being asked to play our part in saving the planet.

And with technology advancing exponentially, our world is changing faster than ever before. We are constantly being challenged to deliver more and better for less. It is testing us all, but when we overlay the unforeseen demands of a once in a generation pandemic, then few outside the sector will know that our operational teams are essential key workers. Individuals who sometimes put themselves at risk to keep electricity, gas and water flowing. Individuals who help customers in distress.

We are being challenged to lower prices to customers, reduce shareholder returns and operating costs, to improve support for vulnerable consumers and help achieve net zero. To constantly achieve more, and better for less under greater public and regulatory scrutiny and protect the wellbeing of all. Generating a feeling that we need to act or be acted upon.

We are being asked to be managers of critical infrastructure assets and experts in human behaviour, especially a deeper understanding of customers and those we lead. All as the energy system alone moves from 400 key players to over 50 million actions and assets (according to Recosting Energy Conclusion Paper – Challenging Ideas). We are becoming players in a competitive global market that still generates equitable returns for our shareholders. We should celebrate being investable. You can save the planet and provide decent returns – it is called ethical capitalism.

It is a big ask and rising to those challenges will require technological, and behavioural and cultural innovation, and at pace.

We must embrace diversity, embrace the human 

As a sector we tend to fare well on process and structure, we must be, as we are world leading at keeping the electricity, gas and water flowing in UK. It is the human behavioural and cultural side that we all seem to agree that we are not so strong on.

Take diversity. Evidence and common-sense show that equality, diversity and inclusion accelerate innovation and therefore productivity, but by our own admission through The Energy and Utilities Skills Partnership we fall well short in that regard.  83 per cent of the sector’s workforce is male, compared to 53 per cent nationally. Women represent 17 per cent of the sector’s employee population compared to 47 per cent nationally, and people with disabilities, the BAME community and under 24s are under-represented.

The raw truth is that, although within our own organisations we are accelerating technological innovation, we are lagging in the cultural transformation required to meet the challenges we face.

It is going to take a different approach. One that requires cultural transition to ensure that we are fit for future purpose. A dynamic culture that finally shrugs off our public sector heritage and the remaining pockets of privileged and entitled behaviour that can be fuelled by defined pension benefit schemes and the security that comes with being a regulated monopoly with guaranteed revenue.

If we are to create a sustainable culture of constant innovation it will need to come from within our organisations. As successful leaders only we truly know the operational day to day reality of our organisations and have the intense connection with that reality.

What can we learn from those already on the journey?

Understanding the human condition is at the forefront of progressive cultural and organisational transformation. Culture is not the fine words in a mission statement or on the wall, it is what we as leaders say think and do, day in and day out. Change the leadership behaviour and you change the culture.

For the last five years a group of individuals have painstakingly researched, designed, field tested and refined a nine-step cultural transition programme, in real time. Northern Gas Networks (a partner of the EIC) had the foresight, and provided the environment and resources, to conduct the experiment. They are also willing to share the knowledge gained in the hope that it may benefit others.

The programme showed that you can increase productivity and wellbeing and the same time as reducing costs and improving safety and customer satisfaction scores. Even during a devastating global pandemic, you can achieve more, and better, for less.

One of the operational leaders who supported his team through the programme explained to me, “I have seen teams perform remarkable successes, improving productivity by over 25 per cent, saving millions of pounds per year. I have been privileged to see individuals grow and do amazing things and be happy.”

Was it easy? Far from it. There were many wrong turns and bumps along the way, and it tested the resolve of some remarkable people. We encountered the full range of the human condition including success and failure, love, marriage, birth, illness, and death.  Every challenge was met in the spirit of camaraderie and with compassion and empathy. This quote, from one of the course participants sums up the impact from all angles, “I can safely say that the investment in my development has had a profound effect on my thinking and behaviour which in turn has led to improvements in many areas including efficiency, productivity, the quality of my interactions with others and also my general happiness and wellbeing.”

There’s no doubt that Northern Gas Networks uncovered that people ‘feel’ better when they perform better and that helping people to do this had benefits for everyone. There is a proven link between heightened wellbeing and increased productivity.

Cultural innovation is not for the faint hearted, it takes investment, courage, tenacity and resilience, but the rewards can be great.