Navigating the Future: Product Management for DSO-Centric Solutions

The evolution of Distribution System Operators (DSOs) and their transition from Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) presents unique challenges.

Where we stand

The evolution of Distribution System Operators (DSOs) and their transition from Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) presents unique challenges that render previous product management approaches ineffective. As DSOs evolve, so must the methodologies used to manage and deliver solutions within this complex ecosystem. As DSOs incorporate more renewables than ever, trying to digitalise their networks and focus on supplying the ever-increasing demand, enhancing grid resilience becomes critical. DSOs will now prioritise the development of grids that are not only robust but also adaptable to changing conditions. This involves adopting smart digital products and solutions that react autonomously to system disturbances and other signals. Furthermore, the emergence of prosumer models—where customers consume and produce energy—adds another layer of complexity and opportunity for DSOs. DSOs can optimise the energy system's efficiency and sustainability by empowering consumers to participate in grid management.

Why traditional product management fails

The unique demands of managing DSOs necessitate a specialised approach to product management (PM). Here are key reasons why traditional methods fall short:

  1. Complex Regulatory Environments: DSOs operate under strict regulatory oversight, making the rapid iteration (common in traditional PM) difficult due to the time required for compliance checks and approvals.
  2. High Stakes Reliability Needs: Energy systems demand 24/7 reliability and resilience. Products must meet high durability and performance standards and be capable of seamless integration without disrupting ongoing operations.
  3. Long Lifecycle and Scalability Requirements: Unlike consumer applications where products may be rapidly designed, tested, and discarded, DSO tools must be scalable, robust, and engineered for decades.
  4. Integration with Legacy Systems: New solutions must often interface with existing infrastructure, which can be heterogeneous and outdated, complicating straightforward product development.
  5. Multi-Stakeholder Management: Product development for DSOs involves navigating the needs and expectations of various stakeholders, including regulatory bodies, consumers, DSO managers, and other utilities, each with their specific demands.

The future of PM in our sector is predicated on a deep understanding of the complex interplay between technological innovation, regulatory frameworks, and consumer expectations. Unlike traditional PM, whose focus might be on delivering a product within set functionality and market appeal parameters, PM in the grid management sector demands a visionary approach that anticipates the future landscape of energy distribution and consumption.

Collaboration becomes key

Product Management for DSO clients must begin with a collaborative exploration of problems rather than presumptive solutions. This process involves:

  • Identifying Real Needs: Engaging directly with DSOs to understand their unique challenges and operational nuances.
  • Iterative Solution Development: Developing solutions through iterative cycles that allow continuous feedback and refinement, accommodating the slow tendering and procurement cycles typical in DSO environments.
  • Bridging Technology Assumptions: Shifting from tech-centric to problem-centric development, ensuring that the solutions developed are not just technologically advanced but are also practical and directly address the needs of DSOs.

This approach enhances the relevance and utility of the products and aligns technological innovations with DSOs' actual operational needs.

Lessons learned from other industries

The shift from traditional, outdated product management approaches to more dynamic and collaborative methods is evident across various industries, especially where rapid technological change and complex regulatory environments are present. Here are a few examples where similar patterns have been identified, demonstrating the need for adaptive product management approaches:

1. Healthcare Industry [1]

In the healthcare sector, product management faces challenges like those in the DSO ecosystem due to stringent regulatory requirements, the need for high reliability, and the integration of legacy systems. Innovative product management in healthcare often involves:

  • Collaborative Development: Involving clinicians, patients, and regulatory bodies early in the product development cycle ensures that the end product meets clinical needs and complies with health regulations.
  • Iterative Testing and Feedback: We use iterative prototypes and clinical trials to refine medical devices and software applications and ensure they effectively address real-world healthcare challenges.

2. Aerospace Industry [2]

The aerospace industry, known for its complex products and long development cycles, has also seen a shift toward more integrated and iterative product management approaches:

  • Extended Stakeholder Engagement: Collaborating with airlines, pilots, engineers, and regulatory agencies throughout the product lifecycle to align product development with operational needs and safety standards.
  • Incremental Development: Adopting agile methodologies to manage projects where software increasingly plays a critical role in aircraft systems, allowing for ongoing testing and adaptation even after initial deployment.

3. Automotive Industry [3]

The automotive industry, particularly with the advent of electric vehicles (EVs) and autonomous driving technology, presents another parallel:

  • Cross-Disciplinary Teams: Combining expertise from software developers, mechanical engineers, and user experience designers to develop products that meet the multifaceted demands of modern vehicles.
  • Consumer-Centric Innovation: Engaging directly with consumers to gather feedback on vehicle performance and usability, influencing iterative design and functionality enhancements.

4. Software Industry [4]

Historically, the software industry has pioneered agile and iterative approaches that are now influencing other sectors:

  • Continuous Deployment and Integration: Frequent updates and integrations are driven by real-time user feedback and usage data.
  • Adaptive Planning: Flexible product roadmaps allow quick pivots based on user feedback and emerging technology trends.

Each industry moves from traditional, linear product management to more adaptive, cooperative, and iterative approaches. These methods enable companies to better manage complexity, regulatory challenges, and rapid technological changes, much like what is required in the modern DSO landscape.

Embracing iterations

The iterative development cycle is particularly beneficial in the DSO ecosystem. This approach allows for:

  • Customisation and Flexibility: Iterative cycles accommodate the customisation required to meet specific DSO needs, unlike traditional PM, which often results in a 'one size fits all' approach.
  • Iterative Development and Rigorous Testing: A development process that includes iterative testing allows us to refine our products continually. Each product version undergoes extensive testing and benchmarking, with detailed feedback from DSO operators. This approach ensures that every product released meets stringent quality standards and is fully optimised for performance.
  • Reduced Time to Market: By continuously iterating based on DSO feedback, products can be refined and delivered faster than traditional long-cycle development processes.

Embracing the future

Integrating virtualisation, digitalisation, machine learning and AI, digital twins, and advanced analytics is evolving traditional grid management. These technologies are tools and the foundation for tomorrow’s energy systems, enabling more efficient, reliable, and sustainable operations.

As product managers, we orchestrate these technologies into integrated solutions tailored to DSO needs. Our vision is to lead innovation, ensuring each technological advancement aligns with strategic objectives and enhances grid resilience. By embracing these tools, we commit to leading a transformation toward a smarter, autonomous, and sustainable energy future.

What’s next?

The necessity for a targeted and specialised approach to product management within the DSO ecosystem cannot be overstated. As the energy sector continues to evolve, embracing a method as dynamic as the environment it serves is crucial. Stakeholders are urged to adopt these innovative PM approaches to ensure that the solutions developed pave the way for future advancements.

Innovative products designed for DSOs, such as SMPnet's Omega suite of products, highlight the success of targeted product management strategies. These case studies demonstrate the tangible benefits of solutions like Aware, Clone, Optisys and Control, underscoring the importance of developing products that meet the specific needs of DSOs. Through these innovations, DSOs can achieve operational efficiencies, integrate a higher penetration of renewable energy sources, ensure grid stability, and enable new management strategies (e.g., islanded operation), showcasing the pivotal role of targeted product management in advancing the capabilities of DSOs. It's time for stakeholders in the energy sector to move beyond traditional product management methodologies and embrace approaches that align more closely with the realities of the DSO ecosystem. By doing so, they will ensure that DSOs are equipped with the tools and solutions needed to effectively manage the complexities of modern energy distribution.

[1] Mathews, S.C., McShea, M.J., Hanley, C.L. et al. Digital health: a path to validation. npj Digit. Med. 2, 38 (2019).


[3] Paker, F. (2021) Lean Product Development Process with Design Verification Stages in the Value Stream of Automotive Industry. Journal of Transportation Technologies, 11, 37-60. doi: 10.4236/jtts.2021.111003.