“Innovation is definitely a team sport,“ says Jodie Brinkerhoff, Vice President of Innovation at Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) International Airport (DFW). “But too many organizations take that to mean that innovation should be treated like having a varsity sports team, and reserved for a select few who receive special treatment. Instead, we see innovation like having our own intramural sport league — everyone can, and should, participate.”
It is this line of thinking that led DFW to launch their “Everyday Innovators” organizational-wide initiative in the summer of 2020. Starting an ambitious program is challenging during the best of times, but doing so during the COVID-19 pandemic, which particularly battered the travel and airport industry, might seem downright quixotic. Moreover, this time coincided with the Great Resignation emerging in full force, as record numbers of Americans quit their jobs in search of more fulfilling opportunities.
“The environment certainly appeared grim, but that is exactly when organizations need to welcome more collaboration and bottom-up creativity,” says Brinkerhoff. “The hardest question we faced was how to engage a diverse workforce, spread across a massive city-like area, in innovation.” Indeed, stretching over 27 square miles, DFW airport is larger than Manhattan — it even has its very own zip code and police force. To keep the fourth busiest airport in the world operating, DFW’s 2,000 personnel perform a dramatically wide range of roles, ranging from front-line firefighters and sanitation workers, to backoffice marketing staffers and IT developers.
One unit delved into how to design and conduct simple experiments to solicit customer feedback.
The answer lay in creating a 30-minute self-directed e-learning course that equipped anyone in DFW with core innovation skills and mindsets. Most importantly, this Innovation Mindsets course focused less on explaining what innovation is, in favor of how you actually do it. For example, since innovation relies on taking a “test-and-learn” approach to ideas, one unit delved into how to design and conduct simple experiments to solicit customer feedback. In fact, to develop the course, Brinkerhoff and her team actually used one of the recommended activities, a “paper test,” in which an idea is quickly sketched out on paper and shared with customers, who respond with their criticisms and suggestions. “We drank the Kool-aid,” she laughs. “And it worked!”
Such “microlearning” approaches break down topics into more digestible and spaced out pieces, which has been shown to help learners better retain information. Equally important was avoiding the painfully boring, death-by-PowerPoint experience that is typical of most online training. “This course is special by engaging learners using targeted case studies, punchy animated videos, and something that is often sorely lacking in corporate training — humor,” says Suzanne Zarycki, a DFW Senior Manager for Talent and Organizational Development. To put this “everyone, everyday” philosophy into action, DFW adopted a corporate KPI that 100% of airport employees — from the newest, entry-level worker to the top executive — had to complete this course.
The online course provided the inspiration to lead users into more intensive training activities, such as multi-session workshops to develop “innovation champions” who spearhead and cheerlead change in different departments.
The impact of the Everyday Innovators initiative has been felt across DFW, even in so-called “traditional” departments. “Forgive the pun, but the police department is not the ‘usual suspects’ when it comes to innovation,” says DFW’s Chief of Police, Jon “JT” Taylor. “But this training opened our eyes to the importance of collaboration and customer feedback. So when working on a new program, rather than going it alone from cradle to grave as we would have done in the past, we pulled in everyone from customer service to parking” says Chief Taylor. “What really won the team over was not only did we get a better outcome, but it also actually helped us make quicker progress.”
By increasing the number of people who can participate, while dispelling the notion that innovators need to look a certain way or belong to a certain group of people, this initiative improves the chances that successful ideas will emerge.
The success of Everyday Innovators is not surprising when you consider the academic research on innovation. While popular culture might still glorify the “lone genius” figure, a la Elon Musk, the truth is innovation always requires collaboration, sharing, and diversity. By increasing the number of people who can participate, while dispelling the notion that innovators need to look a certain way or belong to a certain group of people, this initiative improves the chances that successful ideas will emerge. To return to the sports analogy, more players plus more games played will add up to more innovation.
Outside groups are also taking notice. Carter Morris, the executive vice president at the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE), explained, “Successful airports are not just about planes and facilities, but having engaged people working at their full capabilities. We hope that others consider how they might take a similar approach to unlock the innovative potential of their people.”
For those attempting to replicate this program, here are a few “ABCs” of innovation training to follow:
(A)ccess: Training needs to meet people where they are, both mentally and physically. For example, many DFW employees rarely work at desks, so the on-demand course is mobile responsive and works equally well on a cell phone or tablet.
(B)roadcast: Innovation is one of those areas where everybody seems to favor it in general, but then find a reason to oppose it in particular cases, as human brains often see change as threatening and discomforting. So it is especially critical that an organization consistently “over communicates” to its people the intentions, vision, and rationale behind its innovation activities.
(C)ommit: Innovation must not be perceived by employees as the latest “initiative of the week,” but as a core capability for both organizations and individuals. DFW is showing its continuing dedication to innovation by providing multiple on-ramps for all employees to engage in innovation activities both large and small, such as launching in 2022 an organizational-wide “Innovation Week” that will showcase all the work to date.
The COVID pandemic and its ripple effects, like the Great Resignation, has put many organizations under strain. Yet DFW’s concurrent effort to transform innovation into a true team sport, even in the badly impacted travel industry, demonstrates how to craft a “new normal” workplace around renewed purpose, creativity, and optimism.