Foundations for Internal Innovation

Over the past five years I’ve been in a role that includes the word ”Innovation” in its title. This is one of the handier buzzwords in a title, because nobody has any idea what it actually means. Am I planning on innovating something right there on the spot? Can regular routine work be done by an ”innovator?” Is there some sort of list of activities that must be followed in order to innovate within a big (regulated, and often slow-moving) organization?

Clearly innovation isn’t some sort of line-level activity like most of the other activities within a resort — front desk agents, table dealers, financial accounting are pretty clearly titles that mean their function. But how does an ”innovator” innovate, within a large company?

I think innovation works best when the boundaries are tighter rather than boundless. Constraints breed creativity and context. If someone claims to be a generic innovator you often end up with a swiss army knife approach to everything. A bunch of gizmos but hardly the best tool for any job. Sometimes that’s actually desirable! A mix of mediocre or adequate improvements or radical step-changes in an approach work better when they’re done with imprecision than when they’re done with power drills and band saws.

My role has been contextualized by being part of the casino division, and specifically within the relationship marketing department. That provides a set of instructive constraints that I can scaffold new ideas against. It requires sufficient breadth & depth, but not so much that I am spending most of my time learning new business challenges rather than riffing on solutions to known challenges within the domain. Loyalty & relationship marketing (CRM and customer data being a key part of that space) are easily defined and there’s lots of material to learn about, but it also has a finite limit.

So in building an innovation role, boundaries are valuable. Creating goals – both qualitative and quantitative can be important as well.

Qualitative goals can be solved through innovation oftentimes where there’s a human component that needs to be investigated and researched. A process that is cumbersome, or a department that cannot figure out how to retain team members are great environments for a deep qualitative evaluation. What’s enjoyable? What’s miserable? ”We’ve always done it that way,” is a common refrain to know that qualitative steps may be valuable in deciphering the business processes that are failing (or coming up with less than spectacular reviews).

Meanwhile, of course quantitative improvements are desirable. Everyone wants to grow productivity or units shipped or revenue per available room (RevPAR), etc. Understanding how to read the data, quantify the opportunity for improvement, and then apply “Innovation” to the problem is going to make most leaders & managers happy (well, until the bill comes or the transformation actually starts).

Setting a foundation of:

  • Meaningful constraints
  • Sufficiently broad market opportunity, but with deep enough wells of interesting problems
  • Qualitative pressures and pain-points
  • Quantitative values that are quickly evaluated for efficacy

… All of these things can start down the path of building an internal innovation role within your organization. More to come!

Four Thoughts on Next

Predicting the future of what comes next is always a foolish endeavor, but it’s a fun one. The beauty of laying out a thesis for the possible is that the future really is just that – possible. Being in Vegas has certainly honed my mindset around probabilities and thinking in bets – but when it comes to understanding the future it’s all the things that aren’t in the game that can come into play.

With that all in mind though, let’s play the game anyways!

Thought Number One: The World Needs Safer & Reliable Food. I’ve been an investor for a little while in a company called App Harvest and in general I love the thesis of indoor agriculture. The pro’s seem obvious in a climate-change impacted planet. You can grow large volumes of food in large-scale facilities with a higher degree of predictability and with less water, far less pesticides, and with specific conditions tailored to whatever food you want to grow.

As we’ve seen in the first half of 2022, inflation of food can be shocking to everyone involved, and there aren’t easy ways to fix the problem. If more food could be grown closer to where it’s consumed you’d have the benefit of reducing transportation costs, increasing local preference and variety, and even possibly building new community food sources that could be sustainable for all price levels. I think safer & more reliable food is a good thing and I think companies working on Ag-tech especially indoor farming and the related technology and infrastructure to support it will do well.

Thought Number Two: People Feel the Need to Slow Down. It feels like we’re reaching a bit of a peak in terms of instant gratification and dopamine hits through technology. Again – the hypocrisy is real here given that I work in a very successful casino – but the point being that I watch more and more people start to really reconsider and turn off various kinds of social media. I am the step-dad to two young adults and the dad to a seven year old, and I am often in awe of how many signals and messages try to permeate into their vision at any given moment. Fortunately, I think there’s a good chance that people are responding to their mental health needs and starting to unplug from many of these social networks – even for short bursts. It’s healthy, and I think the next wave of computing (not Web 3 — that’s a discussion for a different day) should think about how to create lasting and meaningful relationships through computing without requiring constant hits of attention spans. I’ve been impressed with the integration between the Apple Watch and Fitness+ and the various messages that come through those systems. It’s very flexible to adapt to a user’s bandwidth and though provoking, doesn’t seem to be overwhelming with feelings of FOMO.

Thought Number Three: The Workplace of the Future is a Place. I know there’s lots of effort to create hybrid work models at various companies, and I think for certain kinds of work, remote can be a good addition. But as the working world evolves I think there’s still an obvious need to craft working spaces that allow for meaningful work at any level – whether it be collaboration with others or independent personal work with little interactivity. Those work spaces however may be some kind of blended office space, meaning there’s probably a market or opportunity for building customizable work environments that allow workers to acclimate to a space quicker than the typical weeks, months, or years it takes to fill an office or a cubicle with stuff. I haven’t really seen any companies building solutions for being able to choose a desk and make it feel welcoming like a personal space. I think that’s also part of the reason car-sharing struggles to take off too – people like having their stuff in their vehicle where they know it is. I’d look for something like “We” to do well (now that they’re coming off the totally crazy nonsense) but I think there’s also perhaps room for hybrid 3rd spaces to evolve we haven’t seen yet. Gyms, cafes, bookstores, etc. merging into some sort of new coworking environment (possibly with passes / subscriptions) and the ability to ”bring yourself” to the space quickly so you feel comfortable to start doing your best work.

Thought Number Four: The Metaverse won’t be VR. The latest Facebook VR headset was described – in a positive upbeat way – as a laptop for your face. There’s a hundred million things I’d rather experience than a laptop for my face.

However, I’m starting to see bits and pieces how a metaverse-view of the world can start to materialize, but we’ve got a long way to go. I think the real challenge is to rethink the protocols of these technologies. Right now, I’m writing on an open source piece of software (WordPress) sitting on a ton of HTTP and various other web-based open source protocols that all make “The Internet” work. I don’t think this approach to Metaverse will work when it’s just virtual lands vying for entry into their walled gardens. Somewhere along the way I think there’s going to need to be a breakthrough in the way MySpace was a breakthrough for social networking – bridging the gap and the experience between the glorious mess that was Geocities to something that anyone could use quickly and easily. Once those virtual spaces can be transported and stitch together a variety of different media – I think we’ll start to see a true ”next generation“ Internet constructed. But it’s not going to be a face-laptop – it seems much more likely to be an augmented experience that allows users to interact with all sorts of different devices and mediums. We’ll see.

There’s a long way to go to get to the future, so these are just some of my thoughts on a Thursday evening. Looking forward to be proven wrong on them, if only to make room for a few more ideas of how the world might look down the road. Let’s go build what’s next.