ChallengeCisco’s first company-wide innovation challenge, which disrupted all job functions and geographies, attracted widespread interest outside the company. Inquiries from innovation pros, articles in Network World, podcasts with the Human Capital Institute and Innovation Leader, and invitations to share best practices all ask:

How did we do it? What key factors drive an innovation program that improves employee engagement? How can internal innovation boost the value of customer solutions?

Every organization in our digital age craves fast, new ways to ignite internal innovation. Moreover, the goal is always the same: inspire employees to tap into their own passions and create game-changers for customers.  The road map for this disruptive journey often takes different directions.

I would like to share our method. These are the foundational building blocks to launch an innovation disruption of your own that blankets an entire enterprise – big or small, public or private.  One that engages all employees. One that transforms a large company into one that moves faster, with a startup culture of entrepreneurs. One that unleashes the next big thing.

This is the first of a three-part series that focuses on nine building blocks that made our inaugural company-wide innovation program so rewarding.  Nearly 50 per cent of Cisco’s 72,000-person workforce engaged in the challenge. Teams from 50 countries generated 1,100 ideas.  We found that the Innovate Everywhere Challenge for all employees opens up another critical dimension in our portfolio of ongoing innovation programs.

First Building Block:  Tap into your community network
Irrespective of your innovation program, you must first spend time to discover and activate a grassroots network of innovation activists and advocates. From the top down.  You do not have to develop this community from scratch. In fact, this community already exists in any organization, whether it is big or small. Too often, however, planners often overlook or forget them due to shifting company priorities and politics. You just need to ferret them out, connect with them, listen to them and learn from them.

At Cisco, we forged relationships with “co-conspirators” in 16 organizations, many of which had their own innovation programs.

By design, this community should have a diverse mix of polished corporate go-getters and “outliers.” These are people who like to “get their hands dirty” with new, problem-solving ideas. Look for allies in every function, whether HR, marketing, sales, or engineering who question authority, and exude a “startup mentality.” They might be the company’s mavericks, troublemakers, pioneers, and agitators who dream big and do things differently.  Of course, this network of people can be fragmented in disparate functions. They do not always see eye-to-eye, and might compete with each other. Some might have siloed views. It is your job to bring these folks together under a common vision.

And let the outside in. Do not be afraid to invite experts outside your company into the community. You will be surprised how many people are willing to open up and share their experience. They bring in fresh perspectives on everything from Lean Startup methodologies to insights on market trends.  Polished corporate consultants have a lot of wisdom, but entrepreneurs with street credibility are equally important. Look for people who have challenged the norm and risked everything to start something new.

Do not be afraid to bring in people with competing points of views and different methodologies. Innovation is all about welcoming competition in open environments with different points of view. You can learn from each other. Also, think of your community as champions, mentors or coaches. They should reflect a diversity of people from varying grade levels and fields who, at a moment’s notice, teams can tap to overcome challenges around technology, business problems, processes or other roadblocks.

Once launched, make sure you relentlessly continue to grow and strengthen your innovation community. Build platforms where champions, mentors, coaches and teams can inter-connect. Have a beer together. Throw a party. Most importantly – listen and stay in touch. If you do your job right, this growing community helps to co-champion disruptive change, overcome pockets of bureaucracy and resistance and break down siloes created by politics.

Second Building Block:  Align with corporate priorities. Cisco values and encourages innovation as part of our culture. Innovation has been in Cisco’s DNA since it was founded 30 years ago. However, we do not innovate for innovation’s sake. Our goal is to create amazing products, solutions and services that deliver leapfrog value to customers and partners. In essence, to be successful, you need structure and focus – even in innovation.

As a result, we wanted to make sure that our inaugural company-wide innovation program aligned with our corporate priorities. While we gamified the Innovate Everywhere Challenge to make it a fun experience, it was not an exercise in freewheeling imagination.

tableWe incorporated flexibility and discipline into our guidelines. Flexibility that we would evaluate all entries. Discipline that all entries should focus on Cisco’s strategic priorities.  For example, inspired by Mark Randall, Chief Strategist, VP of Creativity, Adobe Systems, we published a Table of Strategic Innovation Elements to guide our employees. The table addressed key markets, technologies, and disruptive business models. Again, bring the outside world in – the world does not always revolve around your company. Highlight industry successes and failures, startups and competitors. We did just that and had plenty of examples of key verticals, technologies, and business models to focus and inspire our employees.

Most importantly, focus your employees on solving customer problems with innovations that disrupt markets – rapidly. Think Uber, Netflix or Tesla. In today’s digital world of accelerated change, organizations no longer have the luxury of years or even months to develop and deliver new products, solutions or services.  Disrupt or be disrupted.

Also, make sure employees prioritize innovations that reduce costs, streamline processes or improve performance. In plain English, this means making a bigger impact on the customer and your own company with outcomes that are faster, leaner, and just better.  No matter your business, there is always room for improvement. By getting your employees to think outside of the box beyond their day jobs, you empower them and create a true culture of innovation. That is what matters the most.

Third Building Block:  Secure Executive Commitment. Executive commitment may be the cornerstone of any company-wide innovation program, because, if you do your job right, the results can be highly disruptive to the culture. So, get your air cover. Without executive champions, especially the CEO and head of HR, such an ambitious cultural transformation will not survive the naysayers. Without their backing, you will not have the credibility or clout to convince employees that the disruption is not just the latest “initiative du jour.” If your top executives will not endorse the idea, it probably is not worth pursuing.

How do you do get buy-in at the top? First, you must already have the passion and confidence to risk putting your reputation on the line—and theirs. You need to know beforehand which executives are willing to risk their reputations on such a big and bold plan, and engage with them first. Fortunately, at Cisco, our “People Deal” manifesto and accompanying “My Innovation” program already commit to helping employees develop their entrepreneurial strengths. This made it relatively easy to engage incoming CEO Chuck Robbins and People Officer Fran Katsoudas around our employee-wide innovation strategy.

To secure executive support, you will need to be fully prepared. You will need industry research, metrics for success, and your community lined up to persuade executives about the full value of an innovation disruption–on the culture, brand, top and bottom lines. Optimally, you need to marshal the support of top executives in each major organization.

All three of these building blocks—Tap into your community network, align with corporate priorities, secure executive commitment—are foundational to an innovation disruption throughout the entire company. Without all three, it just will not happen. You need to prove the community demands it, quantum value will result from it, and willpower from the top is behind it.

So, roll up your sleeves. Do not get discouraged and begin your journey. Remember, there are plenty of amazing people in your company who will help you through this change. You just need to discover them and bring them together.

Stay tuned. My next blog in this series will focus on three more building blocks needed to implement your own innovation disruption.


Alex Goryachev

Senior Director, Innovation Strategy & Programs

Corporate Strategic Innovation Group