Thursday, July 13, 2017

Six months of innovation in one week

Under starters orders for blue sky thinking
My first day (and a night) at Northumbrian Water Group's Innovation Festival has been both inspiring and informative. Critically, it is turning creative inspiration into tangible plans.

On arrival last night I was treated to traditional northern hospitality. Pie & Peas no less. And a series of bands, primarily made up of NWG employees, showcasing creativity of their own.

In the light of day today the range and scope of activity became apparent. From a full-on hackathon ,where available data is being interrogated to try to solve the problem of water leakage, to VR demonstrations, through the teenagers' bedroom of the future, everywhere there is a spirit of collaboration and creative building.
Where stickies go ideas must follow

This is the first NWG Innovation Festival. It's been sponsored to the tune of £250,000. NWG's commitment has been in bringing the event and the people together and committing as many as 180 of their own people to the full five days of the event (400 plus partners, academics, schools and customers are attending in total each day).

CIO and Innovation lead Nigel Watson is sure it's worth it and is already commited to delivering NWG Innovation Festival II next year.
Design Thinking is being applied to six sprints:

  1. How do we reduce flooding?
  2. How do we know about leakage from water pipes and how can we fix it?
  3. How do we upgrade our infrastructure effectively and affordably?
  4. What will living and working look like in 2030?
  5. What can businesses do to improve the environment of the North East of England
  6. How do we optimise a mobile workforce for a complex network business

Defining solutions
Design Thinking is far from brand new at NWG. It has been in practice for 18 months. Each month a new sprint is embarked on - always off site and always with a suitable and or eccentric mix of people and skills engaged. In one sprint on billing a baker and a gamer were involved, Nigel says.

NWG uses the Double Diamond approach, taking their inspiration for the initial problem from business KPIs - which in their case are focused on delivering improved customer service.

Where they see evidence they are under-performing, that's where they focus the Design Thinking approach, to deliver a step change. This means innovation always delivers against business need.

The first job is to unpack the initial problem and really work to understand what are the true causes of the problem. Using these, they define the area to focus on and reach what Alastair Tawn (who leads Design Thinking at NWG) calls the 'Critical Problem'.

With the critical problem defined, the team can then work up a range of solutions before focusing back in on the solutions that will work.

For Nigel, the Festival delivers six months of innovation in a week.
Each of the problems the sprints are tackling are ones the water industry as whole need solving. Which explains Nigel's other ambitions for the event

  1. To improve the industry 
  2. To give small businesses in the NE exposure
  3. To enhance NWG's own reputation

"And if just one idea come that makes a significant difference to our business we’ll judge this a success," he said.

With programs for dark fibre to monitor for leakage, movement in pipes and changes in temperature;  universal mobile sensors moving above and below ground and new approaches to getting utilities to share both infrastructure and data among those in development on Day 4 of the event, Nigel should be confident.

We'll get a clearer idea tomorrow when the final ideas are presented.
I'm also planning to share a bit more about the culture of innovation at NWG.
Watch this space, as we used to say when space was limited...

The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?