Emerging tech

How to get innovators to “fail fast” in the utility industry

Kim Getgen founded InnovationForce as a safe place for engineers to develop ideas in the energy startup space.

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Photo credit: Artur Widak / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Photo credit: Artur Widak / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Innovation isn’t just about good ideas. It’s about workflow.

For Kim Getgen, when new technologies are tested and deployed (or rejected) using vetted workflows, companies can try new things with great success — even in the risk-averse utility industry. 

That’s why Getgen founded InnovationForce in 2021. This software-as-a-service company is designed to support new ideas — and the “intrapreneurs” who champion them — and prevent them from falling into what Getgen calls pilot purgatory. That’s where “new and truly transformative ideas inside a utility go to die,” she said.

The urgency of decarbonization, which requires utilities to deploy new technologies quickly and safely, motivated her to start the company, Getgen said on a recent episode of With Great Power. She also wanted to make idea generation within organizations more democratic. 

After trying and failing to advance new ideas while working in large organizations, Getgen started to burn out — a problem her dad faced as a pipefitter in the 80s and 90s. 

“He would come up with really great ideas,” she said, and because he worked so closely with customers, he had insights that his bosses lacked. “He was very service oriented and he would come back with ideas or ways that would make his colleagues' jobs better or safer or the customers' experience better, and he was ignored because he was wearing a blue shirt.”

Getgen believes the infrastructure for advancing ideas inside companies is often broken. “It’s a process problem, not a me problem,” she said.

The InnovationForce platform was built using decades worth of data that behavioral scientist and Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill gathered from more than 100 clients from her consulting firm Paradox Strategies. Hill co-founded InnovationForce with Getgen.

InnovationForce uses AI to measure and predict the success of any given innovation, which are vetted by a subject matter expert and workplace peers. The InnovationForce software guides this process using a leadership model called creative abrasion, which brings together different points of view in order to manage conflicts on any given idea or solution.

Getgen said this creates “a safe place for engineers in particular to feel safe to push back on each other's ideas and have really good constructive debate.”

The hope is that creative abrasion fosters feedback from each member of a team and by weighing input equally. Getgen says the frustration of having ideas rejected without understanding the reason creates a psychologically difficult workplace.

Does it work?

But does all of this translate into a faster, more effective piloting process for new innovations? Portland General Electric, the Portland, Oregon-based utility and InnovationForce’s first customer, is bullish. Allegra Hodges, the utility’s head of strategic innovation, claims the platform “accelerated the time to innovate” by 65% over the course of 18 months and was used to vet over 150 pilot candidates. Ideas moved ahead or were nixed quickly, rather than languishing.

Getgen says outside of those findings, it’s hard to quantify the platform’s wider potential impact; across the entire energy sector, pilots launch and fall into purgatory all the time.

But seven common mistakes often bog pilots down, according to InnovationForce:

1: Piloting under the radar with the wrong resources or approvals.

2: Piloting in silos when cross-department collaboration is needed.

3: Never landing or completing a pilot.

4: Not capturing and sharing learnings broadly.

5: No test plan.

6: No clear challenge statement.

7: No clear understanding of the urgency.

In mid-May, the Centre for Energy Advancement Through Innovation, a network of more than 150 organizations in the utility sector, made InnovationForce available to its members. Getgen hopes that as more utilities use the platform, it will build a much larger dataset to measure impact, and tweak its approach.

Portland General Electric’s Hodges said teams using the platform have become more confident to pursue new ideas, and that six of the new technologies have been recommended to proceed beyond the pilot stage.

If everyone across the organization — from lineworkers to customer service representatives — starts to feel more empowered to voice their ideas, it’s a win for Getgen. 

“It is intended to reach everyone: not just the C suite, but all the way down to the front line,” she said.

For the full conversation with Kim Getgen, listen to her interview on season 3 of With Great Power.

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With Great Power is a show about the people building the future grid, today. It's a co-production of GridX and Latitude Studios. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or anywhere you get your shows.


Brad Langley: When Kim Getgen moved to California in 2000, the dot-com industry was booming. She had been working a government job in her hometown of Washington DC at the time, but once she heard about the frenzy out west, she wanted in.

Kim Getgen: It was a cool time to be in San Francisco. We saw all these startups coming out of nowhere, and here is this small town girl from Washington DC out in Silicon Valley feeling very safe with bureaucratic, large government, job security sort of roles thinking, oh my gosh, what have I just gotten myself into?

Brad Langley: News outlets covered the frenzy of the early internet with dramatic flair.

Speaker 3: This is not a fad, this is a revolution underway that's affecting the way we do business and live our lives, and that's why it's so profitable.

Brad Langley: But in the end, of course, the bubble burst.

Speaker 4: It's described as nothing short of breathtaking, a points drop never before seen on the US market.

Brad Langley: For Kim, though, there was no going back at that point. She stayed in San Francisco and launched her own cybersecurity company in 2003, the first of many startups in her future. Along the way, she watched friends cycle through successes and failures in the startup world and struggled with her own ups and downs.

Kim Getgen: I had myself, jobs when I was at an early stage in the Silicon Valley, where you would show up for work and people met you outside with a box.

Brad Langley: Kim couldn't stop thinking about innovation, she was obsessed with new ideas that could change entire industries.

Kim Getgen: It's just really now, I think, part of my DNA to want to go out and start companies, start businesses, start new things.

Brad Langley: Then in 2011, Kim transitioned from cybersecurity to the energy sector, with roles at both startups and major players like Echelon and Fairbanks Morse Engine. In those larger organizations, she gravitated towards intrapreneurship, but then around 2020, she started to burn out.

Kim Getgen: When you are a change agent inside of a large organization, trying to push this big rock up a mountain is very exhausting, and I think, traumatic.

Brad Langley: Kim started talking to peers in other industries to see if they were also feeling equally discouraged.

Kim Getgen: What I started to hear back from a lot of my colleagues was just some of the trauma of being ridiculed for bringing a new idea into an organization, sometimes getting a target on your back as a result of trying to bring a new idea, and some, honestly, after having a pretty negative experience, they would give up or just kind of keep their head down.

Brad Langley: Kim connected this to something she knew her dad, a blue collar pipe fitter in DC, had experience back in the '80s and '90s.

Kim Getgen: He felt disconnected from corporate, because he would be in the field, and he would come back with ideas or ways that would make his colleagues' jobs better or safer, or the customer's experience better, and he was ignored because he was wearing a blue shirt. And then I started to see it not as a me problem, but as a process problem, and I thought, yeah, let me attack this process. And if I can attack the process, and then I could help it make sense to an organization, they could see now, how to better engage and support their innovators.

Brad Langley: So in 2021, Kim went all in to found InnovationForce, a company aimed at helping energy companies automate the process of testing and implementing technology advances.

Kim Getgen: It's been 20 years since that original startup, so now I look at it a little bit differently, it's my legacy. And at this time, I'm doing it pretty much on my own. As a woman founder and CEO, I've bootstrapped the company myself with my own personal money. It's a passion project of mine, it's very purpose-driven, and I'm really trying to leverage what I learned throughout my career as a early stage startup person to get this off the ground. But this time, instead of a garage in the Silicon Valley, I'm doing it from my mother's craft room in my retired parents' house.

Brad Langley: This is With Great Power, a show about the people building the future grid today. I'm Brad Langley. Some people say utilities are slow to change, they don't innovate fast enough, and while it might not always seem like the most cutting edge industry, there are lots of really smart people working really hard to make the grid cleaner, more reliable, and customer-centric. This week, I'm speaking with Kim Getgen, CEO and founder of InnovationForce. We talk about how energy companies can foster innovation to mitigate climate change, all while maintaining their core mandates for delivering safe, reliable power. InnovationForce is a software as a service platform designed to support innovators in the energy industry. Kim was inspired to start the company when she was working with Portland General Electric up in Oregon, so I asked her what she learned from that time.

Kim Getgen: When you start to think about a siloed utility that's working on 150 plus ideas that we had identified in their 5G lab, and to know that these technologies were not single source ideas, like, there was a AI component, sometimes there's a digital component, there's a cloud component, a hardware component, a cellular component, and all this stuff has to work together. So by the time you start rounding up everybody that these types of new ideas touch, you're talking about hundreds of people and hundreds of people times hundreds of ideas. How do you scale it? So I really got a chance to empathize with how painful it is, how complicated it can be, despite the urgent need, everybody wanting to do the right thing, but realizing, if we don't scale this innovation, we'll never be able to solve the big global problem we needed to solve.

Brad Langley: And it certainly is hard to scale hundreds of ideas, so how did you whittle those down to maybe the top ones that were going to lead to the most success for scalability?

Kim Getgen: Yeah, and this is some of the great work that I feel Portland's been doing in the last 12 months. So they have, with us, been going through a process, we call it the hangar process. We have based our entire innovation workflow on an airport traffic control analogy, and so, all ideas come into the hangar where they get, basically, their flight planning around the test ideas, and the ideas get vetted by airport owners. That subject matter expert vets the idea, determines, have we tried this? Is there any experience doing this? Is this idea worth it to move forward? If it moves forward, innovators get a chance to pitch their ideas, make convincing arguments to the subject matter experts and their peers on why they think an idea should actually become a test flight and move to runway. At the end of that session, those ideas get scored, and then they are all ranked based on their scoring, that lives forever in their use case library. So at any one time, they can know what ideas are getting a higher rank than others based on subject matter experts really scoring those ideas.

Brad Langley: Your co-founder at InnovationForce is Dr. Linda Hill, a professor at Harvard Business School, whose work focuses on leadership and innovation. You've called her Brene Brown for innovation. Love Brene Brown, by the way. What influence has she had on your work life and how you've approached launching InnovationForce?

Kim Getgen: She's a big believer in ecosystems to innovate together, and there's not a lot of work on that, and so, when I did pick up the phone and I called her, she really inspired me, because when I told her what was going on on the utilities and how we were trying to build ecosystems of utilities collaborating together to drive big industry transformation and change together to hit the decarbonization mandates and targets, she said, Kim, I truly believe this is the future, and I haven't been able to find enough case studies of these frontline innovators that are working in ecosystem models. So that was, I think, the moment where I saw in her that she saw that, the ecosystem and collaboration piece, and she saw in me, what I was trying to do at InnovationForce was using innovation as a way to mitigate climate change, and that attracted her.

Brad Langley: Having been in this space for about 10 years, the energy and utility space, this next topic is kind of near and dear to me. The concept of pilot purgatory is actually the topic of a perspective piece you penned for Latitude Media earlier this year, which is basically a guide to preventing pilot programs from dying before they even get a chance. I will include a link to that article in the show notes. But I want to talk about the barriers that hurt pilot projects. You talked about something called the cyber risk legal procurement IT sandwich, which sounds like a very tasty lunch. What is that?

Kim Getgen: So that is usually where all good innovation goes to die, especially in a utility. And you take a step back, and you ask why, and it's very logical. When innovators have new ideas, these ideas are full of potential to an innovator. All we can think of is the positive, the positive outcome that we're going to drive for our business. We're one innovator full of potential against the other 100% of our coworkers that are incented to slow us down. And that's where this sandwich comes into play, cyber risk, legal, they're incented to slow innovation down to make sure that the business is staying safe.

All they can see is the risk, and this is a natural friction point in the organic innovation process, and the friction is there for a reason. And so, if utilities in particular can recognize this natural friction point and work within their normal modes of operating, such as, in a cyber process, we might ask any new vendor to fill out a security questionnaire, we would only need to incorporate that piece of the process into our innovation flow. And by taking those processes, forms, the paperwork, what utilities need today to be able to bring in a new vendor, for example, in through procurement, if you can marry that up with your innovation process, now, you're cooking, because the worst thing you can do as an innovation manager and utility is try to ask the business to change for you. You have to work within their bounds, and if you can work within their bounds, the sandwich is not that bad.

Brad Langley: Love that. I know one theme that comes up a lot in your work is the importance of psychological safety in the workplace, especially for entrepreneurs inside utilities. Can you talk about that and how it comes up in the work you do with clients today?

Kim Getgen: Absolutely, and I think this is really important for engineering-driven cultures. So in engineering-driven cultures, we are perfectionists, right? It's all about the data, it's about being right, and what we're trying to do with innovation is not going to feel natural, we're encouraging engineers to fail fast or learn fast. The failure word is really not an option, I think, for a lot of engineers in the utility space, and so, we've changed our language to say, learn fast. And if you're creating a learning environment, it's more safe for everyone, because now, we can really focus on the learning as part of a prototype instead of trying to get the results out of that prototype and make it fit somebody's agenda. That is the opposite of innovation, the value is all in the learning, and if it happens that that idea is going to move to production, even better.

But that wasn't the purpose of innovation, the purpose of innovation was to find the challenge, take the test flight, and land the test flight. The worst thing that could happen is for it never to land, and that's when pilot purgatory sets in. You've got a bunch of ghost flights up in the air, you don't know where they went, and we can't retrieve those black boxes to capture the learnings. So for me, psychological safety means creative abrasion and creative agility, the ability to have safe places to debate with your peers and ask really tough questions, but also, the ability to fail fast and focus on the learnings, not what the prototype decision was, it's just about what we learned from going through that experiment quickly.

Brad Langley: I'm curious to get your thoughts, having been in this sector for a while, what are the key areas of technology development in the utility industry that you think have the greatest potential, or are maybe in the greatest danger of failing, and why?

Kim Getgen: Ooh, that's a good one. When you start thinking about all of this data in the clouds, and then, the hybridness now of telecommunications, that's a lot of people that have to get around now and discuss the impact of a technology, not to mention, the seasonality that utilities live in when they go to put a widget into the field. How fast can we test it, and does it need to go through all seasons for your service territories?

Brad Langley: Now let's maybe apply that line of thinking to maybe some specific topics. So of the biggest ones right now, the topic du jour in the utility space and just in general, is AI. What are your clients doing in terms of AI development? Where do you see some of those opportunities and maybe some of those risks, as well?

Kim Getgen: There's a ton of opportunities, one thing we've done at InnovationForce is, we've created an open ecosystem called the hangar. Inside that hangar ... It's free, anyone in the industry can join, but you could look for use cases that are using or leveraging AI in the utility space. And there's a lot, we have over 500 challenges and solutions in there, and I would say at least 50, if not more, have some sort of AI component to them. I'm particularly excited when you can use AI to improve safety. I know that I have seen use cases come through our innovation workflows where wildfires were able to be predicted using data models up to a year in advance. So there's a lot of really great value that you can get out of data before you even hang a widget on a line. There's a lot of data out there, and I would love to talk about for a second, AI in the field of innovation.

So while not influencing the grid, we do use AI in the innovation process. I call it, the jobs to be done by AI. And in our innovation workflow, we have things like challenge statement creation or solution framing. Those pieces of the workflow can be completed with an AI tool. So we are actually using AI in our own sausage making to help innovators get through the process faster. There's a lot of pragmatic jobs to be done today, and I think AI can be a big help, save us a ton of OPEX, save us a ton of time, because we're all resource-constrained. It's kind of a year of austerity in the utility industry, so any ways that AI can pragmatically help us do more with less, I say is, bring it.

Brad Langley: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I mean, even in marketing, we're doing similar things, where we're using AI to generate some posts. Obviously, those have to then go through the human element, I never just post something the AI bot spits out, because then I will make my job obsolete eventually, and it's just not very good yet. But I totally agree. Kind of along the same thread in terms of opportunities and maybe what you're seeing with clients, we know that integrating clean energy resources is critical to a decarbonized future. Any trends or things you're excited about that you're working with your clients on around the integration of clean energy?

Kim Getgen: Absolutely, I think the buzzword of the year is virtual power plant. It's finally here, generation sources closer to the user, users becoming not just consumers, but prosumers. I think these are really what's going to drive the clean energy transition. If you think about the trends, I hear on the utility side, there's a really big need to turn on the power of virtual power plants, which is great, but then, if you take that all the way down to the grid edge, this is where I predict a lot of disruptions going to happen. And who's going to own the customer? What side of the meter are you on? Are you already inside the consumer's home, and therefore, can you make a land grab for some of that data that might be essential for a utility to be able to offer better services? Or, are we going to be able, from a utility perspective, to really harness all of those DERs that are out there, whether they're owned by the consumer or the utility?

And then, of course, all of this is blanketed by regulation and difficulties as part of our business model, which makes it easy, I think, for utilities to be disrupted. And so, maybe, maybe we're getting closer to a year of reckoning, where I think the industry can come together and start thinking about it, like, take two steps back, and let's start thinking about those edges of the grid. How do you really deliver safe, affordable, and reliable? Who do you trust to deliver that? I trust my utility, I trust the engineering resources that are at my utility.

And so, that safety that's inherent, that affordability that's built in inherently, may not be what you get if the edge gets disrupted. And so, this is what I'm really fascinated about, but in particular, this urgent need to create virtual power plants for utilities, you can see why. But then, there's this question mark of the disruption that's happening at the edge, and are we too late? So I think it's a very interesting next couple of years here that we're going to see on the grid, at least the next 10 years. It will not be the same as how we experience energy today.

Brad Langley: No doubt, and I'm sure our VPP friends listening will be very happy to hear that response. Last question for you, we call this show With Great Power, which is a nod to the energy industry. It's also a famous Spider-Man quote, "With great power comes great responsibility." So I'm curious, what superpower do you bring to the energy transition?

Kim Getgen: The ability to hold a space for the innovation that needs to happen, to happen. My job is to be the spark, my job is to help hold the space and create the framework. I am just the conduit. I hope what I am doing to help the energy transition, and it's really just part of the legacy that I want to lead, is, I'm not the engineer that's going to be able to tell you how to build a virtual power plant, but I can help that engineer sell the virtual power plant concept back into their utility. And that's what I hope I can be, an enabling force for good here, to help the clean energy transition happen faster. And it doesn't have to be so painful.

Brad Langley: Awesome, Kim. Thank you so much, I really enjoyed our conversation.

Kim Getgen: Me, too.

Brad Langley: Kim Getgen is CEO and founder of InnovationForce. With Great Power is produced by GridX in partnership with Latitude Studios. Delivering on our clean energy future is complex, GridX exists to simplify the journey. GridX is the enterprise rate platform that modern utilities rely on to usher in our clean energy future. We design and implement emerging rate structures and we increase consumer investment in clean energy, all while managing the complex billing needs of a distributed grid. Our production team includes Aaron Hardick and Mary Catherine] O'Connor, Anne Bailey is our senior editor. Stephen Lacey is our executive editor. The original theme song is from Sean Marquand, Roy Campanella mixed the show]. The GridX production team includes Jenni Barber, Samantha McCabe, and me, Brad Langley. If this show is providing value for you, and we really hope it is, we'd love if you can help us spread the word. You can rate or review us with Apple and Spotify, and you can share a link with a friend, colleague, or the energy nerd in your life. As always, thanks for listening, I'm Brad Langley.

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