Crickets: The new polite way of expressing ambivalence!

I grew up with the admonition to “eat your spinach!”  Popeye cartoons even tried to convince me it would make me strong.  You probably also may remember when President Bush was asked about broccoli, and he said he hated it.  Lawsuits erupted from the broccoli industry!

I thought it was my choice whether I ate certain vegetables.  One of our friends says “we didn’t evolve to the top of the food chain to eat grass” … meaning he hated salad.

If I asked people in a meeting what they want for lunch, I would expect responses.  Some might like a salad; others might want pizza or a nice sandwich. Anyone who doesn’t speak up will get what the rest of the vocal people wanted.

The last few years has produced a new style of response in corporate meetings: no response at all.  People seem prone to blend into the background and not indicate preference.  Perhaps they don’t want to be criticized for their position.  Maybe they hope nothing is decided so they can go back to business as usual. Perhaps they listened to Abraham Lincoln’s advice, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.”

This is so common now that it has been given a name… it is now called crickets.

I wish we at least heard a chirp here or there to measure the temperature of the conversation in the room.  As the graph here indicates, there is a very strong correlation between the chirps per minute and the outside air temperature. Similarly, people talking, contributing their ideas, working together to shape the best answer is a strong indication of the energy going into shaping any decision.

In too many meetings these days, you hear crickets.  Silence.  Deafening silence.  Not a peep out of anyone.  Not even a gratuitous response like: “Thanks for giving us something to think about.” And that silence announces to everyone in the room, “You confuse us with someone who cares; we don’t give a damn about what you are saying.”

Anyone who has studied sales or how to influence people will acknowledge that on the emotional spectrum, where love and hate are at opposite ends with ambivalence in the middle, ambivalence is the worst condition to face.  It is much better to have someone engaged, even in disagreement … that gives you something to work with to hear their perspective and seek better understanding.

Yet, with all of today’s polarization and people seeking shelter in their favorite corners of life, we get crickets in all too many meetings.  No seeking to better understand, no considering alternatives, and no attempt at seeking higher callings.  The lesson I share from this observation is that each of us should take responsibility for why we are called to be in any meeting.  Someone believed you brought something of value to the table or you wouldn’t be there.

Keep it up and you may not be invited back. Maybe today, the better variation on Lincoln’s quote is, “Better speak up and demonstrate you bring value to the discussion.”

Did IQs Drop Sharply While I Was Away?

Most of you probably will not remember this key phrase by Sigourney Weaver in Aliens when she is being questioned about destroying a spaceship in her first encounter with an alien creature.  She had lost her entire crew to just one of these critters.

For context, here is a link to the scene in the movie.

I have used the entirety of this movie for years when teaching strategy to energy utilities and even wrote a book using this movie to illustrate how utilities needed to rethink their marketing and sales approaches.

The reason I bring all this up is over the recent hype about hydrogen.  I understand the interest in this topic for consultants because they thrive on things the average person simply does not understand.  However, the simple, obvious questions never seem to stay in focus.

As everyone will admit, hydrogen does not occur naturally … it has to be manufactured, either from the refining process of crude oil, coal, or some other hydrocarbon processing.  If it is a side product from other refining steps as it is in most refineries, it can be captured and stored in tanks for use specifically as a single molecule.  Unfortunately, since it is such a light gas (molecular weight of 2 as opposed to air at 18) it is very expensive to store and transport.  What makes matters worse, it is such a small molecule that it goes right through the steel containers used to store the more common commercial gases.

I understand the love affair with hydrogen, and if we had sources that were realistically available there are a host of engines that could use it as a fuel, starting with fuel cells for the techy folks, but let me remind you that you could use it in our standard internal combustion engines quite inexpensively and achieve the same end result: no tailpipe carbon dioxide or NOx.

Taking electricity which is a highly refined energy source and using it to split water molecules has to be the silliest idea I have heard in my energy career.  There is no source energy expert who would agree.  You never take the most highly refined energy source … electricity … and then degrade it deliberately at scale to do anything.  You store the electricity in batteries if you have to, or use other compression/recovery methods similar to pumped hydro.

I guess the good news is that everyone is beginning to wake up to a simple fact.  We are measuring carbon dioxide levels and new legislation around full life cycle carbon accounting is emerging.  That should fix this.  But, perhaps not.  Just take a look at the stupidity of burning wood waste and trees under the fictitious math of lifecycle methane release logic.  Burn a tree in seconds because somehow you are avoiding the rotting tree emitting methane over decades?  No … I am not making this up!

Perhaps IQs have dropped while I was here among you.

Pay to Play Perspectives

I entered the energy industry almost 40 years ago.  Back then, presenters at conferences were chosen based upon the content and relevance.  Sponsorships at the meetings were common but they were generally part of the exhibit hall perspective … you got a bigger booth area, better trafficked locations, and of course mention and signage.

The idea that the “message” or the product offerings were somehow more newsworthy was absent.  There were of course testimonial presentations by customers and consultants that might feature vendor products, but once again the conference was still mostly about content and relevance … not about who had the biggest check book.

Over the past decades that has changed and so much so that content is now merely vendor talking points.  Oh, sure it may be hidden in some general market platitudes so that it doesn’t reek of commercialism … but it is getting pretty hard to see these meetings as truly educational.

The worst offenders are what we used to call the research firm meetings.  You know who they are.  You get emails from them almost daily.  They all have their hands out … begging for funding … while advertising that they are providing “cutting edge insights” into this or that.

If I told you that a firm was funded by the tobacco industry to research this or that, would you consider the reports relevant to your health?

Pay to play … follow the money … and beware of the findings they claim.

Perfect has Become the Enemy of the Good

Managing in the real world is not easy since it means compromise and tradeoffs.  There is only so much money, time to execute, and impact to be made.  Phrases like the tyranny of the urgent conjure up how tempting it is to do what is easy or let panic rule the day.  Few managers can truly execute a strategic vision without being distracted by daily skirmishes.

Where disciplined critical-thinking minds prevail and all the facts seem to be present and confirming, you observe rightful decisions and progress.  However, the real world is seldom so transparent and consistent, so you tend to observe “paralysis by analysis” where studies seem to only raise more doubts and the need for more studies.  This is what one of our energy colleagues coined as the apropos acronym WASTE to describe the current scientific situation: It was the Welfare Act for Scientists, Technologists, and Engineers … after all, if you ask them what to study, they will invent ideas!

My father, who was president of a division of Panasonic, chastised me when I finished my master’s in management and offered to help his business using the disciplined methods I had learned.  He said, “Those techniques are useless in the real world. By the time you have gathered all the information needed to use your models, the competition would have already claimed the prize!”

Managing by what my father called gutfeel or instinct could not be further from today’s business styles.  Management-by-committee-and-consensus has replaced common sense and any form of sophisticated intellectual ideas.  Worse yet, our cancel culture seems to care much more about mediocrity and some sense of societal equity, rather than striving for excellence in every position and people empowered to make a difference.

This perfect world idealized in our youth might be good for society if it were blended into a realistic framework of cost-effectiveness and some retrospective wisdom. Unfortunately, each generation must learn that lesson on their own and many, sadly, follow the German philosopher’s line that, “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”  They would do well to listen to the wisdom of leaders who have been there and done that and can make decisions instinctively vs. seeking consensus leading to mediocrity.

Instead, we have ideologues dominating the discussion and consensus mechanisms that have an insatiable appetite for more information … more studies … and endlessly more bickering…more WASTE.

The Secret Sauce for 2022 and Beyond

It seems everyone is trying to figure out what the future is for the energy industry even though certain “foundation” elements are now clear.  What to do about beneficial electrification beyond the obvious opportunities with EVs?  What staff skills will I need to promote this or that?  How can I outsource?

Well, please remember the foundation to all influence: customer trust.  Building that trust means you are in an active relationship.  Or, as the ex-CEO of Duke Power Jim Rogers would say: If you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu!”

So … what does it mean to be at the table?  First of all, you have to be invited and welcome.  Therefore, the foundation for this is that your customer satisfaction is excellent but more importantly there is a reason for you to be there.  Fortunately, we in the energy industry bring a wealth of knowledge and insights into all energy customer relationships.  But if all we are seen by customers is “promoting” our interests we are viewed suspiciously.  Drop your agendas … learn theirs … and see how you can be of help.  Forget about those corporate goals.  You goal is customer trust.

Years ago, I used to lecture on this using the movie Miracle on 34th Street and emphasizing that recommending whatever was in the best interest of the customer was the best strategy.  The sales model most used back then is what I called the car salesman model: you pushed whatever you had.  That model was not relational … it was totally self-serving.  I caught flak for my advice until my clients who used it proved it was far superior.

Customer trust today is complex and wide ranging.  Customers interested in rooftop solar can be challenging since they are often not motivated by economics (so our attempts to prove the payback periods are longer than their thoughts fail to stop them).  An astute marketer today will move the conversation toward other innovative technologies that will position these customers as community leaders and innovators.

Everyone gets excited about EVs, but EVs are not for everyone.  Wise utilities therefore should focus on EVs for others who can then let all community members travel with this benefit.  This portfolio includes natural gas vehicles in the short run.  What?  Yes, and any electric utility should be excited about natural gas vehicles since they improve the local air quality, save money, and about 25% of the energy in that fuel tank is electricity for the compression of the gas.

We at Apogee believe the foundation to the relationship in the residential market is explaining their bill and what they can do about it.  Energy efficiency, comfort, and today’s advanced controls all matter.  But most customers are overwhelmed with these questions and choices.

Whoever gets the customers trust wins … once again.