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Follow the Same Playbook

We have been Through an Ugly Period in Our Industry that Fomented Unheralded Competition, pitting utilities against regulators, pitting one utility against another, pitting one department against another and even pitting one employee against another. But today our utilities are facing pressures that can best be addressed through collaboration.


Dave Sparby, acting president and CEO of Northern States Power Co.-Minnesota (NSPM), an Xcel Energy company, invited me to provide an industry overview for his company's 2008 Leadership Kickoff meeting. Sparby had gathered members of his staff to make sure they were all on the same playbook.

This might seem odd, but of everything I heard and saw, I was most impressed with Sparby's communication style. An understated guy, Sparby is not one to pontificate. And in the two days I was there, he never once telegraphed his thoughts. Instead, he would probe by asking laser-sharp questions.

We are all human and we all want to be heard, and Sparby was listening hard. His probing style would also quiet the inevitable “parrot” who sits in the back paraphrasing what others have already said. But most importantly, this style encourages others to add their thoughts and suggestions.

By building a culture where independent thought is encouraged, utilities have the opportunity to craft collaborative strategies that should yield results that trump those obtained through fiat. NSPM is creating a true team with a shared vision of how to build, operate and maintain the company's facilities to maximize customer value.

Somehow Sparby kept everyone engaged. I liked how he opened the event asking everyone in the room to share what they expected to learn over the next two days. Then, when wrapping up the event, Sparby came back and had each person comment on what was most valuable, what could be trimmed and what might be added to the event in the future. Again, it was individuals holding one another accountable, but in an encouraging way.

At the NSPM event, Larry Crosby, vice president of construction, operations and maintenance, handed out a detailed playbook (operating plan) complete with a 2008 scorecard that sets customer, reliability, operational effectiveness, safety and financial targets, and shows monthly progress toward those targets. Crosby caught my attention when he acknowledged that Xcel Energy had put in several IT systems, stating, “This is the year we work together to put all these systems into play.”

Teresa Mogensen, director of transmission asset management and business relations, shared Xcel's progress toward planning, policy, relationships and operational excellence targets with results that were easy to track through strategic scorecards. Did you notice I mentioned the company tracks relationships? NSPM recognizes that maintaining relationships is key if the transmission team is to hit its strategic goals.

The U.S. Republican National Convention will be held in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, this year, and will provide yet another opportunity for the entire NSPM team to pull together to deliver power reliably.

What are Sparby and company building? A culture that holds individuals accountable but, at the same time, a culture that encourages and even nourishes a sharing environment.


So, is your utility one of a collaborative culture like NSPM's? The table shows the way we communicate internally within different cultures as put forward by Prof. Ron Westrum of Eastern Michigan University in an article titled “A Typology of Organizational Cultures.”

I'd like to be able to say that most utilities fit in the generative category, but sadly that is not the case. A few utilities, particularly those in crisis, exhibit pathological behaviors. And quite a few of us work in a culture that could only be described as bureaucratic. But with talent in short supply, I expect we will see utilities move to a generative culture that will reward those willing to work from the same playbook.

Internal communication within three types of company cultures
Don't want to know information May not find out information Actively seek information
Messengers are shot Messengers are listened to, if they arrive Messengers are trained
Responsibility is shirked Responsibility is compartmentalized Responsibility is shared
Bridging is discouraged Bridging is allowed but neglected Bridging is rewarded
Failure is punished or covered up Organization is just and merciful Inquiry and redirection is made after failure
New ideas are actively crushed New ideas present problems New ideas are welcomed
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