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Even Large Companies Can Innovate Like a Startup! Here’s How.


October 24, 2016 - 2 Comments

Innovation is hard work. Even more so at large corporations where we face not only the intrinsic challenges of innovating, but also the pains that come with size. Entrenched silos. The challenge of aligning individual performance incentives and the organization’s overall direction. Focusing on making our quarterly numbers while building for the future. And then there’s branding. It hangs in the balance as an organization ventures into new territories.

Coming from a startup background, these challenges were an adjustment for me. I now embrace them. And in the first of a series of blog posts, I’ll share my experience of how we’re working to avoid these complications, including lessons learned and how to navigate in the future.

Fortunately for us, Cisco has an incredible innovation engine—powered by our build, buy, partner, invest, and co-develop pillars. With that said, this is not a “celebration lap” series of blog posts. We have made mistakes, we still do. We will make a lot more. We’re learning and we’ll always be learning. Accepting this is crucial for anyone who wishes to embark on an innovation journey.

When customers look to Cisco to deliver the most critical parts of their infrastructure and its security, we have to be optimized for predictability and reliability. We also have to focus on a relentless pursuit of innovation to better serve customers.

This balancing act sometimes gets internal innovators caught in the crossfire of these two priorities. Cisco recognizes this and is doing more and more to make it easier for innovators to create value. One example, among our many internal programs, is Startup//Cisco.

We have startup blood flowing through our veins. We were once a startup, and we have one of the most successful track records of acquiring and integrating startups.

Startup//Cisco is a grassroots effort, aspiring to accelerate that startup DNA. The program offers internal teams the startup innovation best practices they need to build the right thing, in less time, with fewer resources.

In one year, Startup//Cisco went from an idea (shared among colleagues from different functions) to the creation of an entire internal methodology. It leverages lean startup, design thinking, service design sprints, and more.

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The program has become an enabler of innovation, including Cisco’s largely successful, award-winning Innovate Everywhere Challenge. As a result, we’re able to support dozens of teams’ ventures. And we’re doing it operating as closely as possible to an internal bootstrapped startup inside a corporation.

The Startup//Cisco program began with some guiding questions:

  • How does a corporation replicate the speed, agility and resourcefulness of a startup?
  • How does a corporation successfully leverage startup innovation best practices?
  • Is a grassroots effort enough, or does it have to come from the top down (or, perhaps, an evolution)?

The only way to know the answer to these and many other unknowns was to practice what we preach and get started. No over-analysis. We rolled up our sleeves to learn how to help our internal innovators be entrepreneurial and innovate like a startup.

Our journey has been exciting and insightful. Throughout the different engagements we’ve run, we’ve had very interesting projects with a very broad range. Here are a few:

  • 3D printing as a way to improve the SLA for replacement parts for key customers
  • A solution for oil and gas company security using predictive analytics
  • A Spark-based bot to support our sales force
  • A way to simplify how startups interact with Cisco.

As we continue our journey, we keep on getting things right, making mistakes, and, above all, learning about innovating at a large company. In my upcoming posts, I’ll share the first five steps we’ve identified to:

  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.

My next post will focus on steps No. 1 and 2.

Comment below about your innovation experience.

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2 Comments

  1. Great article and I totaly aggree with you. Large Companies sometimes have strange difficulties in getting fresh innovations. Mostly that is because of the bureaucrazy they have. I know major brands fortune 500s who scare their partners away by being less reliable. So first in innovation is imho being reliable to your partners (internal and external). Second is building a playground for innovation without having the urge to make money with the project within half a year.

  2. Before joining Cisco I participated in 9 startups, it was very hit or miss. Recently I attended a Startup//Cisco where the process of bringing innovation to light in this organization was revealed. My team came bearing an idea, a prototype, and open minds. We left with a validated need, customer interviews, MVP, and a plan to implement the idea. I can't underscore #1 above- innovation doesn't just come from engineers. It takes a team that combined the different facets into the diamond of an idea. A great idea needs not only a way to build it, but it needs a visionary, a way market, a way to find customers and their needs.