Ignite Spotlight: An Interview with Southern Company's Julie Pigott

By Jeremy Brown | Spigit
April 24, 2018

As one of the top 10 utility companies in the world, Southern Company is a shining example of how to leverage an employee-base to transform the way a business operates.

The question is, how did they do it and what can you learn that can be applied in your organization?

To dig deeper into the how, we’re excited to have Julie Pigott, Southern Company’s Director Innovation Support, join us at Spigit’s upcoming Ignite conference to talk about the company’s approach to innovation and how they’ve leveraged ideation over the past four years.

Although Ignite is right around the corner, we couldn’t help ourselves. We recently caught up with Julie to hear more about Southern Company’s – as well as her own – innovation journey.

Check out the conversation below.

Spigit: When thinking about trends in innovation and technology, is there anything you’re excited about exploring more in 2018?

Julie: Some of the things that we as a company are taking a closer look at and determine potential impacts on our business model are: Blockchain, artificial intelligence, and the distributed web.

Spigit: How does Southern Company’s ideation effort feed into the company’s business model, and how are you getting employees involved in the development of the model?

The way ideation feeds into the business model is really trying to help promote a culture of innovation. Our industry is over 100 years old and the business model hasn’t changed a whole lot in those 100 years. But we know with the advancement of technology that things will need to change in order to carry us forward.

One of the things that we’ve been focused on, going into the fifth year of our innovation program, is taking active measures to promote this culture of innovation and help people understand why innovation is important.

We’re not looking for innovation for innovation sake, but really to help evolve our business model, and modernize our business to meet our customer’s needs far into the future.

Spigit: In terms of promoting a culture of innovation, how are you doing that?

Julie: Getting people involved. Asking them to participate, posing questions, sharing problems the business is facing, and having employees weigh in on that.

Ideation both online and offline has been instrumental in really promoting the culture of innovation. Having employees be part of the solution versus the solution being handed to them to execute is an important part of cultural transformation.

Spigit: What is one thing that you think all enterprise innovation leaders need to know or keep in mind as they embark on their own ideation journey?

Julie: It’s really important for innovation leaders to explain why innovation is important to their employees and their business.

What we found is that as we started talking about innovation and its importance, employees didn’t really understand what we meant. They would think: Do they want us to come up with the next greatest product to offer customers? That’s not necessarily the case for most employees, but we have some employees that focus on that.

I had one employee that I was talking to say, “Innovative accountants go to jail.” I helped him understand that I’m not asking him to work outside of generally accepted accounting principles, but instead think about how he can look at problems that he’s facing in his job every day differently, or bring other people in to help him look at how he can solve those problems.

Explaining what innovation is, what it means, and why it’s important to your company is very important. Otherwise, it goes over employee’s heads and it becomes just a buzzword.

Spigit: In terms of helping employees understand what innovation is and why you’re doing it, how did you go about that?

Julie: This whole thing for us started with a company wide competition, which we called So Prize. What we did is paint a vision of the future that looks different than the business does today. We asked people to weigh in on that future. Did they have different possibilities that they envisioned?

When I talk about the future, I’m talking about 20 plus years out. It was an opportunity to educate and to communicate to employees that our industry is going to change, here are some ways that it could change, but at the same time help us think through other ways that it might shift. Then what do we need to do in order to move this business into a different environment? A lot of messaging was associated with that before we even asked the employees to weigh in. That’s really important.

What we’re doing now with the launch of an internal innovation website is promoting that innovation is more than just an idea. It’s an idea that’s executed and adds value to the business.

Julie Pigott Ignite Spotlight

Spigit: What are some lessons you’ve learned running Southern Company’s innovation program?

Julie: One of the big lessons that we’ve learned is that communicating outcomes is very important.

If employees feel like their ideas are going into a black hole, they won’t be incentivized to offer ideas in the future.

Outcomes can be communicated in a variety of ways. Transparency of the idea, for example. If the idea didn’t get voted and commented on, the outcome was that maybe the individual didn’t put enough weight behind the idea.

Right now we’re working on a series of articles about the winning ideas and where they are now because many of our employees may not see the progress in their day-to-day jobs. We want to help them understand how the ideas that made it to the development stage meet the needs of the business or not, and if they didn’t, why?

Spigit: This isn’t your first Ignite conference. What you’re looking forward to this year?

Julie: What I really enjoy about going to Ignite is: hearing from other companies. I look forward to learning about their innovation programs, what’s driving innovation at their companies, and how they’re engaging employees…really just hearing others’ stories about innovation and why it’s important to their business and how it’s changing their business.

Spigit: Can you share a little bit about what you plan on talking about on the Ignite stage through your presentation?

Julie: I plan on sharing the evolution of Southern Company’s innovation program, and explain the importance of having an execution plan that enables employee innovation and delivers measurable business value – from the incremental to the transformative.

I’ll also cover how we engage employees across a dozen of Southern Company’s subsidiaries – each with its own priorities and strong brand identity – located in 18 states.

Spigit: In terms of the evolution of your program, can you share how it has evolved –where it started at to where it is right now?

Sure. It started out as really what our friends at Spigit refer to as a CEO challenge. Our CEO wanted to engage employees on looking at the future of our industry and what we needed to do to prepare for that future. He put a lot of emphasis and weight behind a company-wide challenge.

We then followed up with another company-wide challenge a little bit more narrowly focused on safety because we have a very strong safety culture.

Since those initial company-wide ideation challenges, Southern Company has acquired a gas company consisting of 19 gas distributors under that, a distributed energy company, and we have a wholesale power division along with a telecommunications company. So, we have a lot of pretty distinct brands under Southern Company.

Each of those brands has their own unique culture in some ways. While we started out using ideation as a company-wide initiative, even though a lot of the goals for those subsidiaries might roll up to something that’s consistent, what each brand is focused on may differ slightly. So rather than doing everything company-wide, we’re using Spigit to support the priorities of those individual brands.

My team is working as a support organization to help subsidiaries achieve their goals in the way that best meets their needs. It might be an entire operating company challenge, or it might be a challenge in a functional area of the business.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t plan on ever doing another company-wide challenge, but right now working with individual brands seems to be working best.

Don’t Miss Julie at Ignite 2018!

Ignite is right around the corner – May 1-2 to be exact.

Don’t miss this two-day experience, and the chance to connect with some of the brightest innovation practitioners in the world – such as Julie – from some of the most innovative companies on the planet.

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