In today’s rapidly changing digital economy, enterprises can no longer afford to be innovation tourists. Innovation fairs, mission statements, internal competitions—they’re all great but not enough anymore. Innovation can’t be a one-time event. Innovation must now be an enduring mindset that’s embedded throughout a company’s culture, inspiring all employees across all functions, grades, and geographies.
Companies still dabbling like innovation tourists of yesteryear will not survive. A century ago, the average life expectancy of a firm in the Fortune 500 was about 75 years. Today, corporate extinctions occur on average in fewer than 15 years and their lifespans continue to decline. Further, many predict that only 30% of digital innovation strategies will be successful in the coming years.
The message is clear and urgent: Accelerate innovation or perish. Today, innovation must be elevated as a core business strategy, where ideas and solutions are co-developed in an openly collaborative environment that includes all employees, customers, and partners. It is no longer just the domain of R&D, Engineering or Product Development.
This wider path to co-innovation can be fraught with obstacles: traditional processes, risk aversion, top-down hierarchies, middle-management resistance, scarce resources and training, and unclear goals, among others. Nonetheless, for co-innovation advocates who are not faint of heart, here is my three-point plan for accelerating innovation—co-innovation–to stay ahead of the pace of digital disruption.
1. Disrupt yourself first from the outside; build an ecosystem of innovation partners
The complexity of digital solutions today makes it critical to work from the outside in to take advantage of diverse perspectives, know-how, and experiences. No single company can do it alone anymore. Digital leaders in any market need to build and increasingly rely on an inter-connected ecosystem of partners to co-develop solutions.
One of the best ways to cultivate this ecosystem is to create fully-equipped working labs at locations strategic to your business. At Cisco, we have nine Innovation Centers worldwide, each bringing together local entrepreneurs, programmers, startups, accelerators, government, academia, partners and customers to co-develop either customized solutions or game-changers that disrupt global markets.
Innovation challenges for the global developer community, participation in industry consortia or standards bodies, hackathons and DevOps competitions at trade shows are other ways to strengthen your ecosystem. Any and all of these programs should be aimed at fostering an environment of co-development with partners and customers.
2. Launch a grassroots innovation revolution across the entire company
Launching a companywide innovation program often means disrupting your entire culture–from top to bottom–encouraging employees across ALL functions, grades and geographies to team up, disrupt, and co-innovate together. I started such a grassroots movement at Cisco after a survey found that employees felt left out because they couldn’t participate in our external innovation challenges.
Remember, innovation can come from anyone, anywhere—not just R&D. The goal is to transform the culture by empowering and encouraging employees everywhere to take risks, and think and act more like entrepreneurs in a startup. Fostering an entrepreneurial and collaborative mindset across all functions will surface new ideas that may create breakthroughs, process improvements or enhancements to existing approaches. Once it’s in your culture’s DNA, co-innovation will become the gift that keeps on giving.
Since launching our Innovate Everywhere Challenge companywide three years ago, more than half of our 74,000 employees have participated, generating several thousand venture ideas. Currently, about a dozen ideas have incubated into Go-to-Market digital solutions in varying stages of adoption, providing us with revenue opportunities and our customers with greater business results.
How can you do this? My nine building blocks for a companywide innovation disruption can apply to most any company of any size in any industry. Each block is carefully constructed to optimize engagement, co-development and a spirit of entrepreneurism. Individually and collectively, they are essential to conceive, plan, and execute a successful co-innovation journey: Mentorship; Incentives, Rewards, Recognition; Executive Support; Resources and Tools; Transparency and Metrics; Community and Collaboration; Engagement and Communication; Alignment to Company Priorities; Gamify it by Making it Fun!
I won’t detail the steps here, but I’d like to emphasize that this should be a grassroots movement with air cover from the C-Suite where employees feel empowered to bring their ideas to life. Further, make sure there are plenty of online and in-person resources and incentives to help venture teams, and work closely with Communications and HR to continuously reinforce an innovation mindset.
3. Cross-pollinate innovation best practices inside and out
Bring the outside in and the inside out by inviting leaders from your ecosystem to help guide venture teams, conduct workshops on lean startup methodologies, and allow employees to work alongside partners at innovation centers or by letting teams validate their ideas directly with customers.
By collaborating more closely, employees across the workforce spectrum, external partners, and customers can share fresh ideas, learn how their unique talents can contribute to better business outcomes, and re-energize themselves. This is how it works in Silicon Valley—co-innovation is not a political game; it is a team sport where each player has a specific role and 360-degree relationships matter.
This is hyper co-innovation at its best. I have always found it ironic that people in large companies sometimes think it would be better to work in a startup, yet people in startups strive to become the next Fortune 100 success story. I have worked in both environments. To me, working in an environment of hyper co-innovative is the best of all worlds for enterprises, employees, their customers and partners.
Meanwhile, if you have questions, get stuck, or need an innovation therapist, don’t hesitate to contact me:
This article first appeared in Frost and Sullivan’s Executive Mind Exchange