Not all workdays begin with a convoy of cyclists hailing from India, Saudi Arabia, Europe, and America. And fewer still wind up with creations made of LEGOs, spaghetti, string, and marshmallows.

Yet every workday — no matter how challenging — should have the same spirit of diversity, adventure, and assumption-busting repartee that I experienced at THNK — The Amsterdam School of Creative Leadership.

Once our Cisco Consulting Services colleagues finished winding through the streets of central Amsterdam each morning, we got down to the serious business of “hacking” some key global issues, together with our friends at THNK.


One of those issues has evolved into a Cisco/THNK partnership challenge, inwhich we will share Cisco’s expertise on the Internet of Everything (IoE) to solve some global problems around food safety and food distribution. I will speak more about the Internet of Food initiative in a subsequent blog.

Another key challenge was to foster digital disruption in the Internet of Everything (IoE) age — a time when our enterprise customers, and especially their end users, are demanding rapid transformation.

That level of change stems from the kind of open innovation and inclusive creative processes promoted by THNK in Amsterdam. Those processes are also being embraced by Cisco at our innovation hubs in such places as Rio de Janeiro, Toronto, and Songdo, South Korea. At these centers, IoE cornerstones such as cloud, mobility, Big Data analytics, and social media are already enabling digital disruption — and will continue to accelerate it.

Back at THNK, the concept of design thinking is on full display. THNK radically challenges core beliefs and assumptions; carefully “senses” data; promotes the reframing of questions from potential negatives into opportunities; relies on a deep understanding of and empathy for the end user/customer; encourages tapping other industries, disciplines, or even nature for inspiration; and demands the rapid prototyping of ideas.

In one playful yet revealing exercise, teams competed to design and build a tower constructed of dry spaghetti strands that would be capable of supporting a marshmallow. Many assumed the dry pasta would be rigid and the marshmallows lightweight. But these assumptions literally wilted and collapsed in the rapid prototype stage, often with hilarious results. (Interestingly, when the Marshmallow Challenge is given to other groups, children invariably score much higher than CEOs.)

It was a fun exercise, but with serious implications. Digital disruption — and the digital disruptors who make it happen— is all about challenging assumptions, along with other core elements of design thinking, analytics, and rapid prototyping.

Digital disruptors — who live at the intersection of math, design thinking, and consulting — are not afraid to suggest radical, counterintuitive ideas to impact not just individual organizations but entire industries and society.

One participant to the workshop commented that at THNK, “I wasn’t afraid to feel ridiculous.” The lesson: create an atmosphere of open, diverse thinking, and let the synergy fly.

The way I see it, the goal for every organization should be to facilitate a dynamic partnership ecosystem. I loved the idea of a creative “garage,” whether virtual or physical, in which to incubate ideas and hack problems in an open innovation environment. And some of our team members even built LEGO models of the ideal spaces for open innovation to flourish.

Our days at THNK provided an exciting microcosm of what happens when a creative environment encourages teams of highly diverse yet like-minded people to hack profound challenges and projects. It created an opportunity for innovators and business operators to collaborate, and foreshadowed the level of creative forces that will be unleashed on a larger scale through the upcoming THNK/Cisco challenge.

After all, the LEGOs and spaghetti may be optional, but the overall goal — accelerating digital disruption to transform markets — is critical.



I look forward to future discussions on digital disruption, the great Cisco/THNK partnership, and our Internet of Food initiatives. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Nicola Villa

Managing Director, Global Analytics Practice

Cisco Consulting Services