Using Design Thinking to Meet Corporate Growth Objectives for Energy Efficiency

Photo by Bree Groff

In my nearly two years at Peer Insight, I’ve developed a keen interest in the dynamics of corporate innovation teams. Let’s get real: it’s a challenge to build a culture of innovation! There’s not enough dedicated resources– a staff spread thin (a team member from IT, R&D, marketing…)– or a fundamental understanding of the process, the pressures of corporate performance targets that don’t embrace an innovation project timeline or deliverables. I’ve learned a lot about the hurdles inside of a corporation. Every project I work on helps me to create an empathetic understanding of the barriers in corporate innovation.

But those barriers don’t mean innovation is not possible. What I love about our action-learning program (Design Thinking U), and innovation consulting projects is the opportunity to work with corporate intrapreneurs and empower them to become self-sufficient. It’s rewarding work and I love to see team members immediately adapt the new innovation tools and processes required

Kate Ten Brink is one of these intrepreneurs. I met Kate while working on project with DTE Energy to develop services around a critical energy efficiency initiative. She was kind enough to talk with me over FaceTime to share some of her insight into design thinking, working on an innovation team, and bringing a new process to DTE Energy.

Thanks for talking with me today. To start off, can you tell me about your role at DTE as it relates to working on innovation projects?

I started off with these types of innovation projects when I was still an IT employee. I’ve always been a technical employee my whole career but had always worked with users on what they want. I listened to what they want and did apply logic but usually just took down what they said. When we started doing these kind of [human-centered] interviews with [IDEO] this summer, I really got excited about this work.

When the opportunity came up to do this work in marketing, I took it. So, my job is to work in Energy Efficiency Pilots group. So we create and run new pilot programs to test different ways to help our customers save energy. Things from different technologies to marketing methods to different behaviors and tools.

My role on the team now is to make sure that we’re including customer voice in the innovation process every step along the way. If we’re doing a traditional software development life cycle, we want to make sure we’re not leaving the customer out along the way.

That’s a great summary.  It sounds like the work from this summer was the seed to where you are now. How has your understanding of design thinking and these tools changed since then?

Peer Insight has a great illustration of what happened to me in the beginning part of the [Designing for Growth] book.

You say design thinking is this mystery that creative people do and it’s just this jumble. That’s what it was. I’ve sat with creative people and worked with them a little but they went off and did things. It’s funny, because some people think that I’m a creative person, but I’m not a creative at all. I’m a logical person. The other company we worked with brought us in [for customer interviews] but then they went back to Chicago and worked behind a wall. We’d get a call from them but it was mostly to help them work through their process. When we started working with Peer Insight you really demystified what was happening behind the curtain. You showed us that yes, creative had a lot of juices flowing, but you showed us how to work through these problems. But going through training with you guys, we started to learn that we can participate in this process instead of hiring other people to do it.

Now it’s more a of a partnering activity where DTE has more stake in it and more skin in the game. For our team, that’s helped for the buy-in for our app… and for long-term employee engagement, I’m not sure keeping people out of the process is good. For the project we’re on now, we had our IBM consultants trained [in design thinking], we had our vendor trained and our whole team here is trained, and its really creating a sense of ownership. Now we’re saying, “how do we apply these same techniques at even smaller parts of the process?” So we’re getting ready to kick off a new set of work with [the vendor] to start designing new screens and new views of data. We’re going to go back out and do theWhat Wows? stage of the process again to make sure it makes sense to our customers and that what we’re building is what they want.

Design thinking shows us that we need to listen to what the customer is saying in total—not just what’s coming out of their mouth. We’re leaning how to go and listen to what they are saying. We heard customers say “comfort” wasn’t important, but we saw it was and we could feel it was. And it is important. I finally heard one customer say flat out that it was.

One of the things I heard you say that was key was this feeling of ownership that was created when people were part of the process. Are there any tools in The Designing for Growth Field Book that you think were particularly helpful?

I think when you put things up on the wall, like the scoping template, for example, it helps create something where you can leave it up on the wall all of the time. You can keep adding to it and it’s flexible. Because its up on a wall in the room, everyone can be involved in the defining of the scope…and it makes the discussion a lot easier when we say “oh, that’s in that’s out, or that’s a good direction.” Because things come up, and to be able to say “does this fit into the model we have on the wall” is really helpful.

Because everybody participates in that, they are all involved. We have some groups with some different underlying motivations and interests so to be able to have something like this to participate in all together, really really helps. There was a time when one of our vendors went back and their leadership was resistant, but because we did it together, the way they handled the resistance from leadership was much more friendly for the team as a whole than the way they’d been behaving previously. But for this one, they had a lot more ownership for this because it was the team’s ideas.

It helps more than a brainstorming session, [with the templates] you had the lines drawn. When you just brainstorm ideas that get thrown up on the wall and you walk out of the room and leave, but when you have the templates to do the scope or the design brief, you’re doing a brainstorm exercise, everyone becomes excited and motivated, but it becomes concrete when you leave the room. That’s been really different for me than normal corporate brainstorming. Because I think corporations think they do that already and you know, we write a bunch of ideas down and leave.

That’s interesting. It sounds like this has changed the way you work inside of a large corporation. Can you say more about that?

We do a lot of after-action reviews, for example. We do have a template. We put it in a document and it sits on a server somewhere. Sometimes there are action items, but the follow up is different. With this whole process, the templates somehow create a better discussion; I think because they are designed to help you stretch your limits while you are brainstorming. They already generate more creativity in the room. I think in itself that gets people more excited about what we’re doing. And I think because they are designed to stay up in the war room they become something that we look at every day

As opposed to tucked away in a server.

Yeah, That’s what normally happens with the work we do…it gets put into a document that sits somewhere. With this, because its part of the process and we use it for the next step and the next step it really gets engrained in how we’re doing our work. They are all still sitting on my desk ready to pull out. I haven’t thrown away any of the paper!

Is there any advice you would give someone looking to use these tools?

This is perhaps a random analogy, but I knit, and sometimes I make things where the advice that other people have said is to just trust the patterns. The advice says that it will make no sense until you just start doing it.

I think that this book [Designing for Growth] makes a little more sense than a knitting pattern—I’m such an old lady!— but it does make sense mostly when you put it into practice. Reading the book was really helpful, but partnering with you guys for the first time to put it into practice was incredibly helpful. I watched some other teams try to do it just from book learning and they are still struggling with it, so we’re gonna kind of step up and help them get through that process again. I do think that if you follow what it says to do in the book then you’re going to come out with something different than your company would do before. And that can be very powerful and can get a team through something they don’t think is possible.

Organizational transformation doesn’t happen overnight, but with intrapreneurs like Kate, I have high hopes for change. Thanks, Kate!

Follow me: @alissa_joelle

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