To be honest, I worried this year that Cisco’s second innovation revolution across the entire company might not live up to expectations. So many corporate innovation programs fail after their first year or slowly fade away because of weak results or flagging enthusiasm.
There are plenty of reasons for innovation implosions at big companies: fear of failure itself . . . lack of C-Suite commitment . . . firm hierarchical cultures . . . scarce resources, tools or training . . . unclear goals and processes . . . poor follow-through on new ideas . . . internal politics—the list goes on. Perhaps the biggest breakdown is the inability of corporate activists to enlist co-collaborators to drive disruptive thinking across all business units, functions, geographies and grade levels.
Plus, adding to my concern, was the high bar we had set in last year’s inaugural Innovate Everywhere Challenge. That first-year program ignited a lot of excitement, won awards (e.g., Brandon Hall 2016 Excellence Awards), and galvanized participation from nearly 50% of our 72,000 employees in 50 countries who submitted over 1,100 ideas.
The results from the Innovate Everywhere Challenge this year have just rolled in. I no longer have any reason to worry. In fact, it’s just the opposite. I’m utterly overjoyed by results showing our innovation revolution continues to gain force. We can further validate Cisco’s transformation into a culture of startup-like entrepreneurs with hard metrics, game-changing ventures, and amazing progress from last year’s teams.
First, the numbers. In this year’s Challenge, more than 53% of our workforce from 89 countries and all Cisco organizations participated in some way. They either formed venture teams or joined them, submitted venture ideas, commented or voted on innovations, or logged onto and joined our new “Always On” innovation site—The Hub. Nearly 800 ventures were submitted by about 1,600 employees, 62% of whom were on teams. We are doubly encouraged by this team approach and that a surprisingly large number of last year’s entrants returned with new venture ideas.
This year, we also had huge support from executives, mentors and judges—all of whom are absolutely critical for a successful internal innovation program. Over the past eight months, 117 expert judges from across Cisco voluntarily reviewed the ventures. Now, 207 mentors continue to help ventures keep moving toward monetizing their ideas, and 20 executives are sponsoring ventures with seed funds—most of which didn’t even make the Finals!
Since last September, judges and employees casting votes narrowed the 800 entries to 30 Semifinalists and then six Finalists, who recently pitched their ventures before a panel of internal and external industry leaders. In a companywide broadcast, judges peppered the surviving teams with tough questions on the feasibility, viability, and desirability of their venture ideas.
The judges had the tortuous task of selecting two teams and employees had virtual tokens to vote for a “People’s Choice” winner. Maciej Kranz, Cisco’s Vice President of the Corporate Strategic Innovation Group, put the Challenge in proper context before the finalists were introduced on stage, “Everyone who participated in this effort is a winner. Innovation is not a lonely person sitting in a garage coming up with stuff. It is actually a team sport. It is not a single event. Think and act like a startup. Think, ideate, come up with ventures. This is part of our job and what all of us should be doing. Long live innovation!”
Exactly! Nonetheless, judges and employees had to select three. Afterwards, I learned from the judges that the scores for all six Finalists were razor-thin close, attesting to the overall quality of all Finalists. Emerging victorious this year were:
Network Early Warning. This venture uses machine learning to predict problems in the network and then automatically send a series of actions to remedy issues before they even occur. This team drew on a unique combination of young and experienced talent from machine learning, natural language processing, neural networking, visualization, data science, and software. “We love big, impactful challenges. We believe that ‘Who Dares, Wins’ should be the motive for anybody who wants to drive transformation,” the team wrote on its entry form.
Cyber Insurance Risk Analytics (CIRA). CIRA is a sophisticated analytics platform leveraging Cisco’s unique threat intelligence to minimize financial losses due to hacking. Comprising experts in Sales, Digital Transformation, Security and Advanced Services, who collaborated virtually and had never met in person before the Finals, Team CIRA believes, “Players need automated, accurate, and actionable threat intelligence to manage and reduce risk.”
PTO to Give. The People’s Choice winner, this venture strives to allow Cisco employees to donate the monetary value of their unused PTO (Personal Time Off, or, vacation time) to charity, up to one week a year. The innovation could help to dramatically increase charitable donations while enabling Cisco (and other companies) to pay less taxes, and improve the balance sheet. This team included members from HR, Sales, Finance and Business Development, who collectively stated, “If we can make PTO To Give a reality – all of us here will make a difference that will be felt around the world.”
Congratulations to all the IEC2 winners! Each winning team received $50,000, technology and advisory resources as well as the option for time off to bring their ideas to life. Like last year, we are also helping all Semifinalists move their ventures forward by matching funds they can secure from corporate sponsors.
Our three winners embody Cisco’s proud culture of innovative growth and giving. They are now embarking on a journey started a year ago by our 2016 winners—Project LifeChanger, EVAR, and Rainmaker. These employee pioneers paved the way and have shown how our innovation revolution turns ideas into reality.
For example, LifeChanger’s business model enabling the disabled to work remotely is now being implemented throughout Cisco, adapted to the Cisco Networking Academy program and considered for adoption by customers, partners, governments and leading non-profits. Team EVAR’s (Enterprise Virtual and Augmented Reality) idea to combine Cisco TelePresence, WebEx and Spark with AR/VR apps has been incorporated into the Cisco Emerge group, which plans to launch a VRSpark Beta version solution shortly. And Rainmaker, which conceived a new digital media platform to better manage content, has co-innovated a key element of their original idea with a customer, and expects a product rollout soon.
We will further highlight these and other ongoing successes in future commentaries. Our revitalized culture of innovation has been made possible because of bold support from the top, especially CEO Chuck Robbins, Chief People Officer Fran Katsoudas, Chief Strategy Officer Hilton Romanski, along with “co-conspirator” leaders from all functions.
Further, our innovation revolution keeps gaining force because our culture empowers employees to tap into their own personal passions . . . experiment . . . take risks . . . form cross-functional teams . . . learn from failure and move on. We equip them with a wealth of online and in-person resources, including lean startup methodologies inspired by Adobe Kickbox, internal and external mentors, and a People Deal culture that encourages employees to give their “time and knowledge to create innovative technologies and experiences that make the world a better place. We think big and make no excuses.”
Today, the speed of digitization and change means that innovation can never rest. That’s why our next big innovation revolution is just around the corner, and employees can inspire each other with their ideas around the clock on The Hub. I see little reason to worry. Innovation is strongly embedded in Cisco’s DNA.
Meanwhile, if you have questions, get stuck, or need an innovation therapist, don’t hesitate to contact me: