Strategic energy management: The power of real-world stories

Aiming high with your energy management goals? Peter Garforth says show where others are succeeding.

By Peter Garforth

It’s increasingly common for today’s corporate and institutional energy management plans to set goals that can be described only as transformational. It’s no longer unusual to hear of targets that aim for energy productivity gains of 50% or more in less than a decade. The list of major corporations committing to 100% renewable power grows by the month. Companies, institutions, and communities setting climate goals of “near-net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions are proliferating. Equally challenging goals are being set for energy reliability; these are aimed at maintaining near-full operation through catastrophic weather events. 

All of these initiatives call for breakthroughs on economic, environmental, and technical levels at the same time. In addition, normal day-to-day operations must be maintained. For any entity, effective storytelling will play a key role in successfully launching these plans.

Achieving such high-aiming goals is no mere feat, and it involves deep changes to multiple policies and practices that by any standard are disruptive and uncomfortable. This is as challenging for senior leadership as it is for the teams responsible for implementing changes and maintaining day-to-day operations. All too often, the goals are interpreted as desirable but somewhat unrealistic visionary statements. This results in changes that lack the intensity and continuity needed to make them endure.

Often, the real underlying challenge is not an unwillingness to embrace the need for changes and investments but rather the disbelief that breakthroughs are even achievable. In many projects, we are seeing the power of stories in building a bridge to catalyze early action.

The nature of transformational plans is that they aim for a future that is so different from the current norms and experience that they can easily be viewed as unachievable. The pathways to achieve them may be less than clear. The leadership, experience, and technical skills needed will probably be beyond the organization’s current capacity. The perception of immediate disruption and risks may loom larger than the perceived ultimate benefits.

There is a real danger that any doubts voiced may be dismissed. If the boss is pushing for breakthrough goals, it’s not always easy to vocalize skepticism. But without an airing of concerns, there exists the risk that plans may be nominally accepted but fail to gain traction as they’re rolled out. This is where stories can play a key role. 

The first kind of story presents a real-life look at a company that has accrued benefits and avoided risks in and after meeting its goals. This brings into focus a clear view of desirability of the end game without the negative noise from short-term challenges. If other companies have already committed to or achieved outcomes similar to what your organization seeks, telling their stories can be a powerful tool in helping to move a plan forward.

Another kind of story can address questions about whether the goals are achievable. In a recent college energy plan, we were able to make credible comparisons that showed campuses in other parts of the world operating today at energy intensities well under half that of the client. The stories of these real-world benchmarks helped reduce the natural skepticism around setting 60% efficiency goals for the college.

Transformational results are typically delivered by companies that initially focus on upgrading skills, organizational capacity, and policies in parallel with prioritizing specific subprojects. This often flies in the face of an approach that tries to make small changes to “test the water” before making a broader commitment. Describing the experiences of comparable organizations that took the transformational road rather than the incremental one can be enlightening and reassuring.

The storytelling that best supports a transformational plan will paint a clear view of the future state, validate the achievability of breakthrough goals, and clarify the immediate priorities in moving the plan into action.

As energy and climate plans aim more often now to affect deep change for organizations, the energy manager’s skills will increasingly include being a well-informed and effective energy storyteller.

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