Harnessing Innovation to 'Grow the Game of Golf'

Steven McElwee, VP-Technology, Golf Channel
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Steven McElwee, VP-Technology, Golf Channel

Golf Channel defined innovation when it launched in 1995 as television’s first network devoted to one sport. Golf Channel’s technology group has seen incredible growth over the past two decades, especially when the network diversified its business in 2008 and entered into the e-commerce space with the acquisition of GolfNow, a technology company specializing in golf-related products and services with the largest tee-time online marketplace in the world. These strategic changes have contributed to one of our company’s key goals– Grow the Game of Golf. Touching golfers in so many ways gives our company valuable feedback and insight into ways to add value across the golf industry.

“Guiding the team’s culture of ownership is key to being able to successfully adapt to the speed and diversity of today’s technology”

Once solely a media company, Golf Channel now has transformed into a technology company innovating in new media, e-commerce and business platforms. Within the last year, viewers and customers of Golf Channel’s various businesses consumed billions of pieces of digital content from our many content sites, purchased millions of tee times from our e-commerce sites and frequented the 9,000 golf courses around the world leveraging our technology.

This growth came with many challenges and opportunities. Three years ago, we relocated the GolfNow technology team from Los Angeles to Orlando. We rebooted our organization with a handful of team members and proceeded to grow organically and through acquisition. Today, we are team of 90 technology specialists and growing, but we have kept the same culture and start-up feel as when we were just five people strong. Our success comes from instilling ownership at every level. This start-up mentality helps keep our organization from becoming unnecessarily bureaucratic, with a focus on staying efficient and agile.

 We work by a few mantras that provide guidance for the entire technology group-

1. Just Deliver

The team’s value to the business is our ability to deliver. The deepest desire of a technology team is to drive innovation. However, the first step is to be trusted to deliver for the business. Nothing kills innovation more than an overabundance of meetings related to return on investment and theoretical debates about value. We constantly work toward getting new ideas into the hands of our users and providing immediate, verifiable measurements of success. Iterative and evolutionary ideas have a higher chance of success and can be implemented faster than a theoretical ROI study.

2. 99 Solutions

One of the biggest vacuums of productivity in a technology group is the fight for the single, perfect solution. There are probably 99 solutions out of 100 that will solve any problem with varying degrees of success. And there is only one in 100 that is completely wrong or downright dangerous. The focus, then, should be to verify that the solution chosen is not the one that is completely wrong, and then quickly move on. In today’s agile world, solutions typically have lifespan of months before they are touched or improved upon. Perfection is more cost effective to find via iteration and measurement.

3. Be Visible

Running counter to most management beliefs, we push all technology team members to become more visible to the business. The first thought of management is to protect technology team members from being distracted or led astray onto side projects. However, this need for protection should be the exception versus the rule. Visibility boosts morale, adds accountability and encourages sharing throughout the organization. In 2015, we adopted two ideas that generated an additional $2 million in revenue. These ideas were born from hallway chats between mid-level employees from our business and technology groups.

4. Seek Diversity

We focus on seeking diversity in our culture, business and technology. This diversity brings fresh thinking to solving old challenges. Even though we look for people who have a passion for golf and have worked in commerce or new media, we also appreciate people with backgrounds in the gaming, simulation, retail, logistics, electronics and tourism industries. Our teams not only attend conferences related to our industry but also study technology trends in other industries. As we grow into new markets and evolve business models, this diverse thinking gives us the ability to adapt faster and more options at our disposal when approaching new challenges.

5. Technology is a Team Sport

Even though GolfNow has a relatively large technology staff, we have no technical project managers. We work in small groups where the entire team assumes ownership. Every member of a technology team is involved from idea inception to its delivery into a site, app or product. Everyone has a hand in every delivery and we expect everyone to be an owner. For instance, although someone may transfer a task to another team member, that person is still the owner and should have an interest in following the task to completion. If a process runs through four different people, there will be four overlapping owners watching out for everyone’s success.

There is much more to running an effective technology organization than a few bullet points can explain. However, guiding the team’s culture of ownership is key to being able to successfully adapt to the speed and diversity of today’s technology.

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