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3 utility industry lessons we can all learn from remembering the Alamo

At DistribuTECH 2018 in San Diego, there was one recurring question all around the floor that wasn't about low voltage or meter-to-cash or grid management, nor about distribution issues or DER or the juggling of old assets.

That question: Have you been to the Alamo?

In mythology, it’s a San Antonio staple, a monument to against-the-odds heroics, with a wild cast of characters from former politician and self-made folk hero (even before Twitter-posted selfies) Davy Crockett to pioneer and legendary knife-wielder Jim Bowie.

In reality, the Alamo monument itself is small and unassuming, sandwiched between a Ripley’s wild and weird museum and a small park with a gazebo that seems perfect for a nice family picnic when the weather is pleasant.

But the story of the Alamo and it’s complicated political, technical and cultural layers speaks volumes.

And you can’t escape those volumes on the streets of San Antonio. So, to wrap up a week of industry knowledge in a spot overshadowed by a battle that happened nearly 200 years ago, what lessons can we cross apply to us in the utilities industry?

Let’s mull it over.

1. Small is still powerful.  

With odds similar to the Greek/Persian battle of Thermopylae (which is actually referenced at the Alamo), this fight involved about 100 fort defenders hunkered down against around 1500 soldiers. Granted, Crockett and company didn’t win this fight, but they held out for about two weeks, an amazing feat when someone’s lobbing cannonballs at you.

What can we learn from this? You can move the needle on your next massive project with a tiny but mighty team. Not everyone needs to be involved. Instead, you need to get the right people involved. Whether you’re contemplating a smart meter rollout or the replacement of a legacy CIS system, pick a handful of the brightest people from all sides and have a sit down. Then use that tiny but mighty group to drive change.

2. Legacies are made from moments.

The multiple skirmishes that we tend to lump together as the battle of the Alamo happened between Feb. 23 and March 6, 1836—just a few days. Today, you can go right down the street from the Henry B Gonzalez Convention Center after the show closes, walk those few blocks to the Alamo, and I guarantee you there will be a line. 200 years after the fact, there’s a line. There are people waiting to see the remains of a battle that, in all honesty, had little actual impact on either Texas or American history. But, those stories, that tale, those calls to remember—well, they worked. Songs have been written about that moment. Movies have been made. And it all centers around the mythology and the emotion of what was happening in those few days.

In this industry, we tend to think we’ll be remembered for our cumulative averages: great SAIFI, SAIDI and CAIDI numbers; average call center times below a minute; capacity capabilities to meet any peak. The truth? Your reputation will not be made from research, averages and a wide viewpoint. Your reputation will be built—is right now being built—on moments, specifically customer ones. How long am I going to be sitting in the dark? Why can’t I text you there’s an outage? Why did it take so long for you to respond when my pole-top transformer in the alley caught fire?

So, get ahead of this issue by crafting positive community and customer moments to balance out—maybe even drown out—those moments when, inevitably, you’re going to fail.

3. It’s all about timing. 

The battle of the Alamo was lost from a series of timing problems. First, Bowie was sent to actually shut the place down and roll out the artillery. Instead, he was persuaded to stay and bring in reinforcements. Expected reinforcements didn’t make it, though, so, in the end, timing doubly did them in. In a parallel universe where Bowie did as told, the Alamo story wouldn’t be ingrained in our cultural mythology.

Even in this industry, it’s not about your strategy or your tech or your workforce. Those things are important. They lay foundations. But, it’s really all about timing. And, we’re talking two-fold, here. First, getting ahead of a changing utility business landscape, yes. That’s the obvious one. Second, however, is literally figuring out the tech to make real-time data, feedback and response possible across your system because the future grid will be right now and on-demand, as everything else in this world is becoming. And, in the very near world of that very near future, even 15-second meter ping delays will seem archaic and ancient and quaint and, well, feel about 200 years old.

 

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