DFW Airport CIO: Most Important Innovation is Employee Mindset

By Dave Moore, Staff Writer

An airport isn’t a place where most people want to experience risk.


Yet it’s DFW International Airport Executive Vice President of Innovation Paul Puopolo’s job to pursue airport innovations, which, by nature, involve a degree of risk. 


In his recent discussion with the Dallas Regional Chamber’s Innovation Task Force, Puopolo described how the airport is incorporating innovation, while still maintaining daily operations at one of the world’s busiest airports.


Puopolo said the airport applies more focus on an evolutionary approach to innovation, where the organization needs buy-in from leadership and workers, applying solutions for immediate wins, while working to resolve longer-term friction points. (In contrast to startups, which advance in more revolutionary fashion.)


Because technology is changing so fast, and consumer expectations are rising just as quickly, it’s hard to choose which innovations to pursue, he said.


“Everybody loves (the concept of) innovation, but when you actually start to do it, it becomes more of a challenge,” he said to about 30 members of the DRC’s Innovation Task Force. “But we realize that as an organization, we have to change the way we think. The old way of doing things isn’t going to keep up with where the market is going.”


While Puopolo mentioned numerous high-tech solutions implemented at the airport — including robotic cleaning machines, creating a digital twin of Terminal B, self-service bag drops, and becoming the first carbon-neutral airport in the U.S. — he said the most important change has been in worker mindset.


Specifically, encouraging open discussions between management and front-line workers on new ideas will result in constructive, innovative solutions.


Engaging in passionate debates “sounds pretty typical if you’re a tech company,” Puopolo said. “But if you’re a large, regulated organization, healthy debate — that’s different. Having many people around the table is one thing but getting people to challenge each other around the table and not be offended, that’s another thing. To do innovation effectively, you’ve got to have healthy conflict.”


To help facilitate changes in how things are done at the airport, airport employees have undergone basic innovation training.


“That’s a change for us at the airport where you encourage everyone to question, explore and experiment, no matter where they are in the organization and to voice their opinions,” Puopolo said. “That’s a culture change. The institutional risk that we have is just as important as the process.”


The process of engaging airport personnel in ideation and problem identification — where individuals can work out solutions and managers, who are also present, can validate them — is integral to imparting change at the airport.


Change has become “so central to the operation of the airport” that innovation and digital transformation are now two of the four themes in the airport’s strategic plan, Puopolo said.