Successful Innovation is a Multi-Disciplinary Team Sport

Excellent customer service and utility companies are not often used in the same sentence. At best, utility companies have a net-neutral customer sentiment and more often than not the sentiment is negative based on standard customer interactions of paying a bill or reporting a power issue. It took a team of industry outsiders with a new perspective to collaborate with a Michigan-based utility powerhouse with industry knowledge to innovate and transform the customer experience for good.

Utility companies have been around for more than a century, supplying gas, electricity, and other forms of energy to homeowners and businesses alike. Though their services play a visible and vital role in everyday life—heating homes, lighting businesses, powering appliances—utility companies traditionally supplied these services with very little customer interaction. When interaction did occur, it was overwhelmingly negative and typically involved paying a bill or reporting an issue or power outage. However, the launch of “smart meters” opened an opportunity to change the dynamic.

While smart meter technology has been around since the 1970’s, wide-spread use and adoption did not take off until simplification and standardization of communication protocols with the rise of Internet of Things (IoT) technology in the early 2000’s. Smart meters, unlike traditional electric and gas meters that were only capable of measuring total consumption, could measure energy consumption at each site in intervals of one hour or less and communicate that information back to the utility company. This visibility into real-time customer usage offered significant benefits: utility companies could more predictably match energy consumption with energy generation, enabling them to offer services that would be more efficient, better for the environment, and less costly for their customers. DTE Energy was one of the early adopters of the smart meter and began planning a rollout across its home state of Michigan. The deployment would involve a simple retrofit of the traditional meters on the outside of customers’ properties; no appointment was needed, and the customer didn’t even have to be home. DTE believed the change would have only positive impacts on the customer, providing more reliable energy service based on actual, up-to-date consumption. It seemed like an obvious win-win.

When DTE announced its planned rollout of the smart meter, however, the company faced customer backlash and negative press. Homeowners raised privacy and security fears about the utility company being able to access their real-time usage data. Questions cropped up about the health and safety impact of an electronic device connected to homes, transmitting data 24/7/365. People started asking if they could opt out of the service before installation even began. And there was skepticism about the smart meters actually saving customers money; after all, they didn’t have access to the new data, and no one really knew what the utility company would be doing with their data behind closed doors.

Across town, Vectorform was watching the smart meter rollout unfold (and unravel). As a digital invention company, we had deep expertise in the user experience and understood the customer mindset. We knew that if DTE customers could gain access to their own data and use it to make better energy choices that saved them money, the smart meter rollout could be cause for excitement. But it would take a fresh mindset and a cross-discipline approach to turn this ship around. Vectorform assembled a team of inventors, designers, and developers, each with their own unique skill set but all tasked with the common mission of empowering the customer. The team proposed a new device: an “Energy Bridge” that would give customers access to their real-time energy data by leveraging the information being collected by the smart meter. Access to this data would empower customers to make smarter energy choices, like not running the A/C until someone is home, which in turn would make a positive impact on their monthly bill. By giving consumers the ability to “know your own power,” the Energy Bridge technology had the potential to transform the customer mindset and put the smart meter rollout back on track

Despite having a strong, multi-talented team within Vectorform, we knew we couldn’t succeed without DTE’s unique industry expertise and access to the customer market. It took a forward-thinking and dedicated leadership team at DTE to embrace the challenge and the opportunity to change their customer relationship. It took the courage and willingness from that same leadership to embark on a high-risk journey to seize the opportunity. And it took the support of an organization with a culture of customer dedication and a passion for what they do to come together and successfully operationalize a groundbreaking program. Vectorform pitched the Energy Bridge prototype and enlisted help from DTE to refine and improve it, ensuring the new device could pass all required security and FCC testing to be able to connect into the smart meter and ultimately the nuclear infrastructure.

By tapping into a diverse knowledge base and complementary skill sets through all stages of the innovation lifecycle—from idea to prototype to execution to program rollout—Vectorform and DTE created a product that led to rapid adoption and customer retention. Customers used their data to significantly reduce their energy costs, leading to the most successful energy optimization program in history. Fueled by this success, Vectorform and DTE invested in the creation of a new company, Powerley, that focuses on deploying the Energy Bridge technology to other companies implementing smart meters and offers customers smart home solutions based on real-time energy management.

Like most innovation success stories, the Vectorform/DTE partnership illustrates how critical it is to engage cross-functional specialists throughout the entire process. While an individual inventor can spark a creative idea, it takes a full team to turn it into a marketable reality. Powerley would not have been possible without the diverse skill sets within both Vectorform and DTE throughout the entire three-year innovation journey. Using our internal cross-functional team of inventors, technologists, designers, and user experience specialists, Vectorform was able to find an innovative solution to a customer problem that DTE didn’t envision. However, without the DTE cross-functional team—including industry experts, specialists in energy management and regulations, and executives with long-standing experience in the energy sector—the Energy Bridge would never have been able to connect into the smart meter or access DTE’s customer base.

That’s how innovation works: it builds on the collective genius of people with diverse skills. Innovation doesn’t require everyone to be walking in perfect alignment from the first mention of an idea; in fact, it prefers a little push and pull from different perspectives to ensure success. An innovative team isn’t simply a collection of parts, each performing their own role and then getting out of each other’s way. It doesn’t benefit from diversity and cross-functional expertise if members don’t bump into each other a bit, and challenge each other to change their perspective. Innovation happens in the space between disciplines—when visionaries and tacticians work together, when distant parts of an organization (or multiple organizations) close the gap between them, when people who think and operate differently see all angles and build a solution that fills the white space.

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