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!

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