In my previous post, I shared the challenges of innovating within a large enterprise. I also shared some solutions, including our creation of Startup//Cisco—our grassroots effort to accelerate startup up DNA within Cisco.featured image

Since launching this program a year ago, we’ve experienced success (see my previous blog) and have made some mistakes. But we’re okay with that, because we knew the only way to encourage a startup culture was to try to mimic how startups work, as much as that’s possible inside a large corporation.

So far, we’ve identified five steps critical for successful startup-like innovation. They include:

  1. Get the right people on the bus.
  2. Get the mindset right—thinking like a startup.
  3. Build the engine.
  4. Run, fall, get up, learn, and run again.
  5. Scale.

This post covers the first step: Get the right people on the bus.

A little bit over a year ago, I was in charge of the development of the top two percent of talent in the company, focusing on senior managers. At the same time, a clear message from our executives was (and still is) that we needed to move faster and faster in the innovation space.

Putting these two things together—our top talent and a mandate to innovate—became the starting point. We began by exploring our existing internal innovation programs, working to understand our internal state of innovation. We also looked outside of Cisco to see what other companies were doing.

It became clear that making it easier for internal innovators to go from an idea to contributing to the business’ top or bottom line would be a very valuable focus area. With this in mind, we engaged with Eric Ries, one of the most visible figures of the Lean Startup movement, and that led to contacting Steve Liguori, GE’s former head of innovation.

We assembled a cross-functional team with some of Cisco’s top two percent of talent, creating what we call Startup//Cisco. We likened it as much as possible to an internal startup. Together, a team comprised of Andrew Africa, Edgardo Ceballos, and myself co-founded this “startup,” later to be joined by Rick Tywoniak, Sharon Wong, Ananad Jayaraman, Donald Graham, Craig Wirkus, and many others who’ve been instrumental in getting this effort where it is today.

I’d also like to give a nod to Jim Collins’ Good to Great for inspiring the title for this step. How do you identify the right people for such an effort? There’s obviously no formula or checklist, but here are the characteristics that stood out as critical for us:

  • A truly diverse team:
    Many people approach diversity as something we should strive to achieve because it’s the right In our case, it was the only AS53883
    thing that would have made our team work. We had diversity at many levels (perspectives, ethnicity, etc.) but the most interesting to highlight were our professional backgrounds. Among our team we had former startup founders, engineer turned sales person, engineering thought leaders—and even an anthropologist and a former family counselor.
  • Risk takers: When embarking in any project with high levels of uncertainty (like us trying to bring a startup flavor to innovation in a large corporation) you need people that are comfortable with risk.
  • People with strong personalities—and an even stronger EQ: Big change is not going to happen without a big sustained effort. And one of the first barriers is changing prevailing mindsets (more on that in my next post). Hence, you need people with a strong personality, with strong points of view—but who also have an even stronger Emotional Intelligence. This is crucial for everyone to: (a) have an opinion; (b) not be threatened by others’ opinions but, instead, being able to listen, assimilate; and (c) together choose the best path forward.
  • Cross-functional and well connected: Finally, large companies are composed of internal organizations. Sometimes it’s hard for these organizations to find the balance between the efficiency to achieve their results and what’s best for the company as a whole. Having people bringing the perspective from different groups—and who are well connected in them is crucial to moving forward.

In my next post in this series, I’ll share what we’ve learned regarding a very interesting component—the right mindset for such an effort.



Oseas Ramirez Assad

Senior Manager, Business Development and Innovation Enablement

Strategic Innovation Group