Alliander

How we helped Alliander to boost innovation with Design Thinking

For a large organization like the network company Alliander, delivering an on-time and within budget IT project is a continuous challenge.  To help address this challenge and give innovation free rein, Alliander adopted Design Thinking. The end result? Well, to say the least, all of the stakeholders were greatly satisfied!

Anja Raijmakers is the Manager of ‘Service & Staven Generiek’ at Alliander. She is responsible for the IT that allows the corporate departments of the company to operate and its generic deployment. Anja explains that, ‘’The large systems are managed through project-based work, and for other IT parts, Scrum is often being used. My biggest challenge is to have those two worlds complement each other.” Another challenge Raijmakers is facing, is the fact that people in IT often proceed with project implementation too quickly. “After a while we noticed that whatever we produced was falling short or did not meet the needs of the business. Even long processes, when we spent months on requirements, led to the same effect 1-2 years after implementation.”  This is a challenge that many companies are familiar with.  

 

‘Design Thinking always works, whether you are working with Scrum or project-based.’

Scaling up the user centered approach

Alliander already made a first start with Design Thinking on a small scale in the IT department. Anja got introduced to the Design Thinking Center in early 2016 when she was looking for a partner that could train their employees and also help them to scale the impact of user centred design in all of their projects and beyond the IT department. Now we are using the center to train people in the field and to do special workshops where we need a fresh out-of-the-box view.

Anja: “I immediately saw potential of using Design Thinking as a way to understand the request of the customer better and look for possible solutions, instead of starting directly the building process. It works for project teams, as well as for Scrum teams. Design Thinking uses a different way of looking at the things you are doing and strongly adheres to shared responsibility. Especially the latter is very important to me. Teams need to work together as much as possible instead of doing their own small parts and throwing it over someone else’s wall. We are facing a joint problem in IT and business. How can we solve that problem? To me, that is where Design Thinking comes in.”

Creating Space for Innovation

Design Thinking can lead to innovative products, however, it has to be facilitated the right way. Organizations that want to innovate should create the right conditions for Design Thinking to work. Information managers are asked to play an exemplary role. They have to create space that triggers the team to be motivated and find unconventional solutions. Creating a culture that leaves room for mistakes is also essential. People need to dare to make mistakes, as that is the best way of learning. The Design Thinking Center can help organizations with that, it is a unique combination of an innovation lab and an experience center. It is designed for innovation, change, and flexibility.

Highly experienced trainers from the Creative Companion team will lead participants through the Design Thinking process by using service design thinking tools combined with experience from the field. Design Thinking is more than just a method or workshop, it’s a mindset to transition from ‘comfort zone’ to ‘learning zone’, while keeping the client or end user in mind.

Embedding in the organization

Anja was looking for a way to embed Design Thinking into the organization. “Design Thinking is not a trick, we found it important to take the time to effectively implement the Design Thinking methods,” she continues. The vast majority of information managers, who form a bridge between IT and business, have been trained in the Design Thinking Center. “It has to be adopted by the whole organization, that does not work if only management believes in it,” Anja explains. “This means that it takes time. To this point, we have been able to train more than 150 people that are in the start-up phase of IT projects.” All of them did a 2 day Design Thinking Fundamentals training and got trained in the most relevant tools like stakeholder mapping, value network mapping, persona, customer journey, ideation techniques, service scenario and prototyping.

This is the second year that Alliander has been working with Design Thinking, now the challenge is to find out how the organization can pass on this knowledge. Anja hopes to do that by enabling those working for Alliander to learn more, “Employees can sign up for new courses that start every quarter.” That’s why we developed a special Design Thinking Facilitation training to help the Alliander Design Thinkers to take the next step and lead workshops and train their colleagues in Design Thinking.

‘I was particularly charmed by the customer journey I learned about, which maps the client’s needs.’

Logical Development Process

About two and a half years ago, Jelle, who was a trainee at the time, set up a pilot for an app that was meant for a group of exporters who needed various administrative systems on location. This turned out to be a beautiful case for the training at the Design Thinking Center. “I was particularly charmed by the customer journey I learned about, which maps the client’s needs and how the app needs to be used,” Jelle recalled.

[Picture customer journey]

It quickly became clear from the pilot that it’s best for exporters to work with a tablet. Alliander wanted to make the systems that they need available on those tablets. “Usually, the existing systems are just being installed on mobile devices,” Jelle explains. After the training, he changed the order. “Actually, it was quite logical to have a couple exporters there. This allowed the team to learn about what an exporter does while they are at work, which applications are needed and how to use them, as well as how we can support that using digital assets.

The Benefits of Design Thinking

This case relates closely to the program Product and Process Simplification at Alliander, in which they strive for operational excellence. “We have gained so many new insights during that session by looking at our development process in a different, innovative way,” Jelle continued. “We have set up a backlog to help us produce applications in sprints for the coming year.” According to Jelle, the great advantage of Design Thinking was that it gave him the tools he needed to keep the work manageable and comprehensive, “It gives me the opportunity to get the complete picture, on the one hand, and on the other, still split up the work in small parts. I used to have trouble making that connection.”

Know what’s coming, when it’s coming and what it’s going to cost

The responses of the exporters and the team of Jelle were incredibly positive. “Of course there were a few people sceptical of the benefits of Design Thinking but it was nice to see their enthusiasm grow throughout the process,” Jelle mentioned. “Now it’s up to us to keep that fire burning and show them that we are really going to use everything we learned.” Anja’s expectations have also been realized, “I really wanted people to learn how to develop in a different way in a creative environment, where they are being encouraged to do something they normally wouldn’t do.” According to her, the great advantage is that once a project has started, it immediately becomes clear what needs to be produced. “The time-to-market and budgeting is clear from the start. The client knows exactly what he is getting and that it’s really going to solve the problem. We know what’s coming, when it’s coming, and what it’s going to cost.” There are also indirect advantages, such as more insight in business processes. “You know who you’re producing it for and you have sympathy for what the user really needs. And, quite importantly, it’s much more fun working together than it used to be!”

Design Thinking Always Works

The advice Anja wants to give other organizations looking use Design Thinking is to just do it, “You often hear people say it doesn’t work for them because they work with Scrum or even project-based, but it actually always works because it’s not about the method of implementing. It’s about the start-up phase of a project and you can make it small or big, but if you don’t do it or you’re doing it wrong, it’s always detrimental. The start-up phase is essential and Design Thinking can play an innovative role in that.

Scaling up

What started in the IT department changed step-by-step and workshop-by-workshop into a movement through the whole organisation. Employees across departments are using the same language and working efficiently together.

This is Alliander

Alliander is a network company that manages reliable energy supply in most of the Netherlands. The company is made up of a group of organizations, among those are Liander, Liandoen, Kenter, and Allego. The network provides for almost six million customers, consisting of over 35,000 kilometres of gas pipelines and an electricity grid that stretches over 86,000 kilometres. Over 7,000 people work at Alliander and the company has an annual net turnover of 1.7 million Euros.