Building an Innovation Culture in Gaming

Building an Innovation Culture in GamingIntroduction

I had the opportunity to attend the Brightidea Innovation Leaders “Birds of a Feather” Conference. The event was a peer-to-peer discussion on innovation management among innovation executives and managers at top global corporations. The conference provided a forum to exchange ideas and best practices on implementing innovation in large organizations, and there were presentations by WMS and Mentor Graphics. This is the first of a series of two articles highlighting the key takeaways from the two presentations, based on the notes I took at the event.

The WMS presentation was given by Shridhar Joshi, VP, Global Product Strategy, and Al Thomas, Executive Director, Advanced Game R&D.

WMS has sprung forth from the loins of Williams Bally Midway combination and its heritage of pinball machines to become the dominant player in the video slot machine business.

WMS leadership set innovation as a core principal in an attempt to establish a culture of innovation. They set out with two key questions:

  • How do we make every employee feel that innovation is part of their job?
  • How do we maximize our innovation potential?

To achieve their innovation culture goals, WMS had to establish certain focus areas, had to establish certain structures that allowed somewhat for spontaneous formation of cross-fuctional teams, and had to form an advisory panel of experts to lead, guide, and evaluate innovations. In addition to creating on-boarding training on innovation for all employees, WMS also had to put training in place to replace panel experts over time.

Other foundational pieces include:

  • A process for what to do with ideas that people submit (internal and external ideas)
  • Training on the idea submission system along with training on how to innovate
  • A reward and recognition program
  • Quarterly innovation awards luncheon
  • An annual innovation awards dinner
  • Marketing team publishes a quarterly innovation newsletter

Seven keys to success:

  1. Building a program formally before launching it
  2. Launching it with the full support of top management and a communications plan to support the launch
  3. Participation – People want to participate (75% so far) – we’re tapping the brain of the entire company
  4. Consistency – We have been able to maintain involvement over time
  5. Fearless Leaders at the top
  6. Light-hearted approach makes innovation accessible
  7. Having a tool at the backbone has been key (shows that we have a process to manage the ideas that come in)

As a result of the foundational pieces and keys to success coming together, WMS has been able to create a “Culture of Systemic Innovation” because of the following:

  • They didn’t create artificial financial metrics
  • Employees are free to do (submit) what they feel is important
  • Panel of experts are responsible for evaluating the financials
  • We find the organic innovators in the company and make them the spokespeople

WMS has built an innovation portal, of which Bright Idea’s idea management system is but just one part:

  • “I have an idea” (submission)
  • “I’m in need of a solution” (search and innovation challenge creation)
  • “I’m new to this site” (tool training)
  • “Be a better innovator” (innovation training)

And a few final takeaways:

  • The promise of financial rewards are not key, in fact they might hamper participation
  • It is important to also provide the ability to start a specific innovation challenge for problems people are seeking a solution to
  • The BrightIdea solution does not replace any existing departmental solution (i.e. new game idea submission from game designers)
  • The BrightIdea system helps to make the IP group more efficient in some ways by helping to shape ideas before they get to the IP group (curtails hallway conversations, etc.)
  • A lot of the ideas are about things like improving manufacturing, hr benefits, etc.
  • Rather than setting aside a certain amount of time every day for innovation, it is more important for managers to be flexible and help promising projects succeed
  • It is important to allow ideas to gather strength on their merits, to allow people to comment and vote on ideas, and to provide mentors to help shape promising ideas
  • Breaking the surface tension is one of the keys to sparking innovation
  • Getting participation is a function of how committed you are to giving people proof points that you are listening (moving the cafeteria soda machine example) vs. The suggestion box is a paper shredder
  • Inviting the third person to the idea session often creates a third idea that the first two would have never imagined


All of this comes together to reinforce the difference between innovation theory and practice. Innovation and working with clients are, of course, my passions. After listening to WMS I came away with the feeling that they “get it” and that they are making a lot of the right moves to set themselves up for success, but I also noted that there are numerous other parallel “innovation” tools and processes that may be an area of great opportunity for increasing their chances of achieving continuous innovation.

I would entreat all of you out there in formal or informal innovation management roles, to not only give yourself a broad base of knowledge in innovation theory, but to also seek out other companies ahead of you on the path and learn from their successes and mistakes. Innovation is a dirty business, an emerging discipline, and the reality is actually far more interesting than the theory. For another inside peek into practical attempts to create innovation, I encourage you to check out a book with an unusual (or possibly innovative) organization scheme I am currently reviewing – “Inside Project Red Stripe: Incubating Innovation and Teamwork at the Economist”.

So, if the people at WMS keep it up, chances are that every time you go to a casino and play the video slot machines, you (or the casino) will have a better experience than the time before.

What do you think?


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