The Keys to Innovation, According to This Global Travel Tech Company

In 1997, the Telegraaf, a major European news outlet, rejected a small Dutch company’s first attempted advertisement because the ad did not provide a phone number for potential customers to contact. The company that produced the ad, Booking.com, instead opted to feature a website url—an unprecedented move at the time.

While the story of Booking.com’s 1997 ad rejection is an early example of the company’s support for creative risk-taking, it is also indicative of the company’s culture of innovation at large.

For the past two decades, Booking.com leaders have fostered an environment that buoys innovation—and hired people who thrive in it. According to Laine Hoggan, a recruiter at Booking.com, the company hires employees who are humble, creative thinkers, and aren’t afraid to act boldly. The hiring strategy, it seems, has worked.

Booking.com is now one of the most successful e-commerce travel businesses in the world, employing more than 15,000 employees across the globe and generating over 1.5 million room reservations through the platform each day. The company’s trick to bolstering an innovative company culture—and, ultimately, growing business—has revolved around specific hiring and employee development practices.

Below is a look at the strategies that have propelled the online travel company to its prominent position in a competitive industry.

Strategy 1: Provide specialized training (and not just for hard skills)

To find Booking.com’s flexible innovation approach, one need look no further than its specialized training for developers. Leaders at Booking.com understood early on that you can’t innovate without agility, especially when it comes to technology. That’s why, as part of its ongoing strategy to form new product teams, Booking.com employs a team of “agile coaches” who lead its Agility Boot Camp.

The idea behind the Agility Boot Camp is to lay the foundation for software development teams to collaborate and quickly adapt to unforeseen challenges. Training prepares employees to work in short iterations before stopping to reflect on each work cycle. These ideas are then implemented in the next work cycle, allowing teams to innovate as they go.

“With the agile method, we can constantly test for the best outcomes,” Melanie Wessels, an agile coach at Booking.com, explained. “And tiny adjustments can be rolled back along the way if they don’t work as expected.”

And while the Agility Boot Camp ultimately serves to improve the product, colleagues also receive specialized training from the coaches on how to effectively communicate.

“Our employees look at life differently, have different values, and come from different backgrounds and cultures,” Wessels said. “As coaches, we don’t tell them to just accept each other and communicate better. We create an environment [whereby] people can learn from one another, be their best selves and do their best work.”

To achieve this educational environment, agile coaches include workshops throughout boot camp that encourage dev-team members to explore their own and others’ communication styles, and to seek understanding around others’ priorities. From this place of mutual understanding, teams feel more connected and can better collaborate.

According to Wessels, teams come away from boot camp with an agile software development framework and perhaps something even more important from the communication training: humility, honesty, and trust—the groundwork to succeed at Booking.com.

“Our employees look at life differently, have different values, and come from different backgrounds and cultures. We create an environment [whereby] people can learn from one another, be their best selves and do their best work.”

— Melanie Wessels, Booking.com

Strategy 2: Set aspirational goals

Each company has a unique system for measuring performance. At Booking.com, teams develop objectives and key results (OKRs) on a project basis. The key, Booking’s leadership articulates to its employees, is that OKRs must be highly aspirational. When goals are extremely ambitious, employees are empowered to think outside the box to attain them.

If, for instance, a team always increases web conversion by 5 percent, then it would not be aspirational to set their sights on increasing it by another 2 percent. The team would not necessarily need to think outside of the box or act boldly to reach this 7-percent goal. However, if the team aimed to increase it by 10 percent, this would most likely inspire new ways of thinking, innovation, and excitement.

“When goals are stretched beyond comfort zones, teams are forced to think and act boldly,” Wessels explained, in reference to her developer teams. “They must approach projects differently than they have in the past which helps with innovation.”

Strategy 3: Organize (extremely) flat teams

In hierarchical structures, leaders typically implement a top-down vision. At Booking.com, however, teams across the organization are intentionally organized into flat (non)structures. This strategy is particularly relevant for the company’s developer teams, whose managers are encouraged to act as servant leaders, putting others’ needs first.

“We train managers right away to understand that they’re not ‘in charge,’ but are expected to guide and encourage,” Wessels said. Because managers facilitate processes without exerting authority, she explained, employees are free to exercise their own critical thinking skills.

Without a leader laying out exactly what their team needs to achieve (and how they will achieve it), employees are free to think more creatively, to identify their goals and methods to reach them. Since everyone is free to offer ideas, Booking.com harnesses the full brainpower of its workforce. In this way, the company enjoys grassroots innovation.

Strategy 4: Embrace failure

Leadership at Booking.com understands that if employees don’t feel safe failing, they won’t experiment, and innovation will cease. So, how does Booking.com ensure its employees know they can fail without losing respect? It starts with humility and honesty, and ends with celebrating lessons learned from failure.

“In this line of work you must be adaptable and willing to go down roads you’re not sure will lead to success,” Hoggan said. “We learn just as much, if not more, from our failures than our successes.”

One character trait that’s particularly important for the hiring time at Booking.com is humility. “When you don’t have an ego, you’re more comfortable with the idea of learning from failure,” Hoggan emphasized. The company also also rewards honesty, encouraging employees to give candid feedback to their peers.

For Wessels, Hoggan, and the other leaders at Booking.com, feedback and failure are intimately intertwined. “If feedback is the breakfast of champions,” says Wessels, “then failure is the dinner of champions.”

At the travel tech company, to walk away from a failure means you’ve failed twice—missing an opportunity to improve. “We promote failing all the time, in everything,” Wessels assured. “Some teams have failure parties.”

As the travel tech company marches into the future, its leaders expect to see the marriage of failure and innovation, and, perhaps, more rejected ads and features.

“If feedback is the breakfast of champions, then failure is the dinner of champions.”