Cisco Blogs

Your Next Great Idea? It Could Come from the Guy with the Mop

September 26, 2014 - 10 Comments

In the Internet of Everything (IoE) economy, innovation is the name of the game.

IoE demands constant innovation and to keep pace companies must access creativity wherever it may arise. According to The Wall Street Journal, more than 34 percent of today’s workforce comes from outside our organization, and their fresh perspective can support innovation. Indeed, cross-pollination of industries is a key to innovation.

This scenario was illustrated in the below story shared by physicist David Matheson last week at the Frost & Sullivan’s GIL 2014: Silicon Valley conference, which I was honored to attend as a presenter.


Decades ago, a group of engineers were working late in the research lab run by their Silicon Valley employer when they noticed a cleaning man doodling his way through a dinner break. But these weren’t just ordinary doodles. The man had enormous artistic talent. Just the sort of talent the engineers — and the company — needed to depict their technology solutions on the printed page.

Excited at their discovery, the engineers rushed to their bosses the next day and urged them to promote the cleaning man right away.

“Ah, well,” they were told, “this company has structured payroll, and for us to bring in someone like that …”

The engineers were frustrated, but undeterred. So, they formulated a plan: they would stay late each night; but instead of slide rules, they would wield mops, doing the cleaning man’s regular work as he crafted precise technical drawings.

This went on for months, and with great success. But the engineers still chafed against the inflexible policies. Each soon left the company, and each went on to play key roles in developing the PC and the early Internet — for other companies.

David believes that this little story has great relevance for companies today, and I fully agree. Now, more than ever, each organization must be flexible enough to ensure that every voice is heard. After all, ideas come from all corners — and sometimes, creative thinking and new perspectives arise from outside the “normal” parameters. But that kind of synergy is held back within a culture of disparate “stovepipes.”

David, who is today CEO of SmartOrg Inc., brought this to life at GIL. He believes that in most companies, Finance, Strategy, and Innovation are misaligned. In an exercise he led during GIL, he presented a problem and asked each person (myself included) to think within the perspective of each of those areas. I chose Strategy, and then rotated to Finance, before moving to Innovation.

From the vantage point of Finance, I saw how we were holding up Strategy. From Strategy, I saw a negative effect on Innovation. And so forth.

As I like to say: All things may be important, but they are not all equal. In a company, all three of those groups need to align around the common goal — of what is most important in the portfolio of projects.

A key element for driving that alignment — along with ensuring that all creative voices are heard — is to create what I call a Listening Infrastructure. This is the formalized methodology supported by technology (cloud, social, mobile, and analytics) through which we stay attuned and aligned — both as companies and as individuals. After all, we need to know the right touch-points among industry leaders and customers. But also from within the organization — and that can demand looking far beyond one’s inner circle of like-minded team members.

Inclusion and diversity are critical in a marketplace that demands constant innovation. And IoE technologies such as mobile, social, and analytics make it that much easer for everyone to have a voice.

So, if the guy with the mop has an awesome idea, don’t be caught not listening.

In an effort to keep conversations fresh, Cisco Blogs closes comments after 60 days. Please visit the Cisco Blogs hub page for the latest content.


  1. very interesting......and inspiring story.....

  2. Ha ha! Is this post supposed to be sarcastic? Will Cisco listen to guys with mops? Seriously! The ideas by guys/gals on the front lines at Cisco get lost in bureaucracy. Practice what you preach!

  3. "For everyone to have a voice" --- the ultimate goal, both good and good for business! Great article!

  4. Yes, listen to every voice!

  5. Wonderful story! We all need to stay in "learner" mode. You never know where the next great idea will come from.

  6. Interesting story... I can relate. I once worked in an organization where managers always made more money than their subordinates according to the structured payroll plan. In order to keep the best engineering talent, engineers had to be placed in manager slots. However, the engineers were terrible managers which led to dysfunction within the organization.

    • Glad you enjoyed the blog and thank you for your comment. Given your experience, I hope you will continue to watch this space and participate in the conversation around the Internet of Everything and innovation.