By Mike Wajsgras
Director, Innovation and Growth Initiatives
Constellation

 

Working with some of the great minds in the energy business and IoT industry, Constellation recently launched the pilot of a new “smart home” system that effectively combines energy management, home automation, and home security, in an easy-to-use platform that integrates all of these applications in a single app. It’s an innovative and incredibly useful tool – I know; I helped create it – but it could have just as easily never made it from the white board to our customers’ online shopping carts.

In the world of innovation and product development, creativity is key. But no matter the company or the creative minds driving these initiatives, certain conditions have to be in place to ensure a successful rollout and consumer adoption of any product, big or small.

Problem-finding
Conventional wisdom would suggest that my job as Director of Innovation and Growth Initiatives for Constellation is to be a problem-solver. But in fact, successful innovation and good product development begins with people who are problem-finders.

We spend considerable time identifying and understanding customers’ frustrations, time-wasters, confusion and pain points. Once we fully grasp the concerns from a customer perspective, we’re then able to brainstorm and ideate about potential solutions.

Experimentation
Potential solutions have to be evaluated through multiple steps and lenses as they advance from initial investigation to lab and field research. But even before that, the problem-finders have to be given the space, time and freedom to experiment with ideas that may never see the light of day. Companies that want to lead the pack in innovation and product development have to ask themselves, “How do we organizationally provide an environment that is insulated from the core business, so that the innovators are not encumbered by, nor do they distract from, normal business operations?”

I’ve worked in places where such a lab-on-site kind of environment wasn’t as appreciated as it is here at Constellation – and our innovation and product development efforts were not as effective as a result.

In the right kind of environment, ideas are tried, tested – and fail. Innovators learn as much, or more, from the concepts that flop as they do from the concepts that flourish.

Being provided with the supportive space to nimbly experiment is critical to that education.

Evaluation
While many ideas are afforded initial research, they have to meet a variety of evaluation criteria to continue advancing before being introduced to market. The process I have come to rely on in my work here at Constellation is designed to enable quick, scalable learnings and comparisons of potential solutions.

Some examples of the types of evaluation criteria we might consider include:

• Can the solution scale and is it cost effective for the problem it solves?
• Is there a viable business model?
• Does a solution require data that is difficult to obtain, and is a solution partner willing to share data with us for further analysis to develop additional use cases?
• How does the device and/or service perform in our on-site testing lab? Does our lab experience validate the solution’s promise/value proposition?
• What’s the experience for a customer in home as reported by in-home employee testers? If hardware based, does it meet customer expectations?

After going through the evaluation process, initial research, lab/field evaluation, and customer piloting, and before taking the ultimate leap, our team comes back full circle to the initial question: “Does this solve the customer’s problem?”

And, if the answer is a resounding “yes”, we push to ask ourselves if it fits into our core business model.

Only then do we begin graduating the product or service into the business.

Using this very process, for example, we were able to test and vet Constellation Home, a geographic expansion of our successful home services division – which utilized an innovative model to scale an existing business; and Constellation Connect, the newest – and smartest – smart home system on the market.

With Constellation Connect, frankly, we’re still learning. Some of our assumptions, for example, about what would move customers to buy our product are proving to be true in some cases, but not in others.

We’re okay with that kind of learning-as-we-go because we know our innovation and product development process is sound, and that dashed assumptions don’t mean failure. In fact, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over my years in this field, it’s never to get too enamored with any one idea, to the point where you are unable to be objective about when it’s time to pivot or even punt.

Innovative internal entrepreneurship – or “intrapreneurship”, as I’ve heard it called – is, in my experience, about the most rewarding kind of work creative product developers can do. When done right, you are able to develop new channels, products or services to augment or expand your core business, develop new businesses, and, most importantly, add value for your customers.

Mike Wajsgras is Director of Innovation and Growth Initiatives for Constellation, a leading competitive retail supplier of power, natural gas and energy products and services for homes and businesses across the continental United States. In this role, Mike is responsible for the development of new products and channels that provide meaningful differentiation opportunities across customer segments, driving strategy development and implementation for the integration of IoT technology, solar, storage, and other energy management solutions through alliances with industry leaders within these and other categories.