This is a viewpoint from Sean Arena, Executive Director, New Business Ventures & Tech Partnerships for Sabre.

Over the past 17 years I’ve held a number of roles and led a number of teams within Sabre. As a global travel technology leader over the past several decades we’ve learned a lot about how to drive innovation. For me, being a part of these experiences have been profoundly rewarding. Roles in product marketing, corporate strategy, and business development have all commanded different skill sets, yet they all required a similar mindset to deliver transformation and results.

I recently had the honor of attending a thought-provoking session with the Innovation in Large Organizations Institute at AT&T’s Foundry. The session inspired me to reflect upon the most salient lessons that I’ve learned over the years, lessons that other large organizations such as airlines, sahotels and travel agencies could use to power innovative thinking.

Understand “the dots” before you attempt to connect them

It all starts here. I often say that hindsight is 20/20, foresight is 50/50. Many people talk about a need to “connect the dots,” but this can’t happen unless there is an understanding of what the dots are and why they exist. Dots can be anything from an emerging technology or business model, a new channel or segment, a new product or service, to even a new process or approach.

A true understanding of such elements requires a deep, obsessive curiosity around activities underway in your industry and similar industries. Take the time to distinguish what’s hype and what’s worthy of attention. Ask questions like, “Who is gaining ground, and why?”, “Where are cross-player or industry objectives beginning to overlap or collide?”, and “What’s the buzz index from the end consumer?”

“Seismic shifts don’t come without tremors.”


Trend-spotting sounds cliché, but it is often an unappreciated discipline. It can easily result in blind spots for a large enterprise. Seismic shifts don’t come without tremors.

Ignore conventional boundaries

A former CTO once told his development team, “If you had unlimited bandwidth, and storage was free, what would you build?” Free yourself of conventional shackles. Current constraints may not exist down the road. Too much upfront focus on current barriers during the ideation phase will cloud bold ideas.

I once worked on a project to develop a vision for an open developer platform. There were many system and process inhibitors that challenged our end goal. Had we dedicated too much time deliberating on how to tackle these hurdles, the project would have been doomed from the start. Instead, we outsourced a critical part of the platform to bypass cost and delivery hurdles. This freed the team to focus on the user experience itself – and thus realize our vision.

Push the envelope — but don’t tear it

Unless you’re in a company that embraces complete disruption (which is fairly rare) there must be a realistic sense of its risk tolerance. It’s one thing to be a corporate maverick that operates on the fringe; it’s another to run counter to the company’s core mission.

“If you orient yourself around the problem, you have a myriad of potential solutions at your disposal. If you orient yourself around a solution, you are limited to a singular approach to solving the problem.”

The surest way to crater an idea is to veer from the general course of the company. Even disruption requires compliance with a company’s strategic vision. Therefore, it’s imperative to pitch new ideas that are not a distraction, but rather a logical extension of a company’s goals or accelerator of them.

Don’t force a business model

Rich Barton, former CEO of Expedia and founder of Zillow once said (I’m paraphrasing) – “Get the product right, and the business model will follow.” Test and triangulate between the value derived by customers, what is profitable and sustainable, and what can you actually support with your existing infrastructure. Don’t fall into the trap of building premature business cases full of assumptions in order to justify your project.

In one new venture we launched as part of Sabre Dev Studio, approximately 10 potential business models were identified. After several prospect discussions and early business agreement, the team narrowed the model count down to 3. It ultimately gelled with our direction and we hit the mark.

A picture says a thousand words

And a prototype can say a million. Take the top 2 or 3 most impactful benefits to your business and put them into a working concept. It need not be limited to product. A visual representation facilitates discussion, demonstrates tangibility, provides opportunities for feedback, and hones in on the essence of the value. Most of all, it allows your internal stakeholders to really see your ingenuity in action. Words on paper can be interpreted a myriad of ways which can cause confusion and slow down the process.

In addition to being more effective, this approach beats a bullet-laden PowerPoint of proposed features, functions, and value statements. Anyone who has sat through such a presentation can attest to this. Interactivity goes a long way to cognition.

Remember the past

It will inevitably repeat itself. Archive lessons that were learned, including the reasons for failure. Reread your early plans and reports. What were the conditions that led to prior successes or failures and what has since changed? Sabre has enabled personalization and merchandising for suppliers as far back as the late 90’s, but at the time there was a general lack of traction.


The infrastructure of the broader ecosystem wasn’t there yet. Over time, with changing consumer expectations and advancements in technology, the environment has become ripe to deliver such innovative capabilities. Understanding the past has positioned us to capitalize on the opportunities of today.

Encourage and establish

To be forward thinking, certain conditions must be in place to propagate such a mindset. Take measured risks and allow time to explore and test. Encourage an openness to challenge conventional wisdom. Cross-pollinate teams and regions. Establish an acceptable tolerance for fast failures and reward speed and ingenuity. Cultivate data-driven decisions and learn from other industries. These are the keys fostering an innovative culture. So the natural question is – how does your company stack up?