Every time an energy productivity project comes up for approval, the requestor is confronted with the task of preparing the story that supports the resource requests. This near final step is arguably among the most important, and one that is all too frequently neglected. Approval will only be given when the basic understanding of the energy proposition is high, the benefits are clear, the risks are seen as acceptable, and the business’ other priorities are not jeopardized. How well do we prepare the stories for this critical step?
By its very nature, energy, like safety, touches all parts of the business and its operations. The more integrated the energy productivity request, the wider and deeper will be the impact. It will also be more likely to set the company on the path to breakthrough energy performance and significant competitive advantage. As a result, approval to proceed will be decided by multiple leaders, irrespective of the formal management chain.
Some of these managers will have a technical background, some not. Some will believe that energy is a relatively unimportant, purely operational aspect of business. Some will have deeply held views about the importance of energy opportunities and risks to the business. Others will see powerful environmental imperatives, and others will be climate skeptics. One interesting dynamic is that almost everyone seems to have strongly held options about energy, irrespective of their knowledge levels.
Most corporate energy managers arrive at their positions via a technical route of some kind. This background obviously serves well as long as the energy projects being considered are essentially upgrades of the existing structures, require relatively modest resources, have low technical risks, and have high returns at today’s energy costs. Motor retrofits, boiler and compressor upgrades, and similar projects are typical in this category. The final decision makers for projects like these are also likely to be technically oriented, and, as long as the story is well prepared in its technical and cost details, approvals will be forthcoming.
In a similar way, focused retrofit projects that anyone can appreciate with a minimal understanding of energy can speed through even a non-technical approval process. Retrofitting efficient lighting is the classic in this category. The benefits are easy to understand. In many ways, it is what people are doing in their own homes, just written a little larger.
While important, implementing a stream of projects like these will rarely create energy performance clearly superior to the company’s competitors, unless it’s part of a much bigger story.
This bigger story has to explain convincingly the changing global energy picture and how this affects the company’s business in fundamental ways. It has to explain how sustained investment of money and time in energy performance benefits all areas of the company’s operations in ways that go far beyond the cost of the utility bill and include production reliability, cost risks, the environment, and customer relationships. The effective energy story also has to be able to bring these themes together and relate them in a very real way to the resource request in hand.
A further challenge is to recognize that the leadership that will ultimately sway decisions will have a broad mix of views and knowledge around energy. There must be enough general background for the neophytes but not too much for the more informed. The multiple dimensions of risk and benefits must be presented in a balanced way so there is something for the financier, the climate skeptic, the environmentalist, sales and marketing, manufacturing, and others to appreciate and value.
The last and arguably the hardest challenge is to tell these important strategic stories succinctly to avoid losing the audience, while retaining the necessary rigor to support sizable commitments of resources. In many ways, these are more the skills of the good documentary writer and producer than those of the typical energy manager. At their best, first-class documentaries capture and explain complex ideas and relate them to daily reality in entertaining and effective ways.
All too often we ask our managers to make major decisions about energy without truly respecting their needs for background understanding and what it is we are really asking for. The technical and immediate financial conversation drowns out the real story. The result is predictable. Decisions are deferred, diluted, or abandoned.
My team was recently reminded of this on two major energy-productivity projects, both of which require high-level approval of multiple stakeholders. In both cases the background is complex, the commitments are large and will affect energy services and infrastructure for decades, and the benefits are enormous. It is tempting to write the complex story that explains everything. What is needed is the concise story that explains just enough.
Maybe it’s time to add the documentary team’s skills to the effective energy manager’s tool kit. An effective story has to simultaneously educate, inform, and clearly position multiple benefits.