April 29, 2021 The Power of The Half Baked Idea with Nigel Watson

Each week, Topcoder VP Clinton Bonner discusses technology and the Future of Work on the Uprisor Podcast. This week, he’s talking with Nigel Watson, CIO of the Northumbrian Water Group (NWG). “What does a corporate executive at a water utility have to do with innovation?” you might be wondering. While utility companies aren’t typically known for their transformative nature, Nigel’s company is doing uncommon things, even putting on a yearly innovation festival.

Clinton and Nigel talk about how he’s bringing digital ambition and disruption to a traditionally static industry, and the creative ways NWG is using technology to interact with its customers and build user engagement. Enjoy the conversation and episode highlights below.

No Industry Can Fully Avoid Marketplace Disruption

Nigel shares how water utilities are facing increasing pressure and a push to innovate in the face of changing client expectations. Utility companies are, in many cases, a monopoly in their geographic region. Despite that, more and more customers are expecting customer service and communication channels that mimic the conveniences and experiences in other areas of their lives. Additionally, climate change is causing dramatic shifts in water supply (including increasingly sharp, prolonged dry spells), paired with increasing water demand as populations grow. This is putting intense pressure on utility companies and their systems.

“Our customers are served by Amazon, and they compare us to the experience they get with them.”

—Nigel Watson

Test, Test, and Test again

If you want to innovate, you need a big pipeline. “Three or four ideas out of 10 will deliver some value,” says Nigel. “You’ll get the odd one that will be spectacular. Most of them will be in the middle. You’ll get the odd one that will wash its own face. Then you’re going to get six that fail.”

Because most of their ideas don’t generate the results they want, Nigel says NWG maintains an innovation pipeline of 80-90 ideas and constantly test, test and test again. Juggling nearly a hundred ideas and projects in that pipeline is obviously tricky. If you’re trying to manage that many ideas and iterations, Nigel recommends that you focus on:

  • Encouraging your team to constantly generate new solutions to existing problems
  • Translating ideas into value: Once his team has some key ideas to try, they run it through a series of stages (choosing an idea in the pipeline, giving that idea seed money to build it out, then running it through sprints)

The power of the half-baked idea

The two end by discussing the power of the half-baked idea – how amazing things can come from putting out the kernel of an idea and co-creating from there. Nigel says that he spent much of his early life trying to make things perfect before releasing them: “Maybe because I was a programmer, I was trying to come up with something that was really complete and robust and unbreakable, and then I took that into the world of ideas and it’s wrong.” There’s huge power in talking about what can be, not what has to be, and co-creating with others along the way.

Thanks to Nigel Watson for sharing his insights with the Uprisor audience!

“You need to put something out there and be humble and brave enough to say, “Its not the whole thing. Please, come in. Add to this and let’s create something between us.” —Nigel Watson

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Annika Nagy



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