In my experience, I’ve found that there are many ways to innovate. In my current role in Cisco’s Customer Partner Experience Chief Technology Office, I generate and collect insights that shape our strategy, interface with our teams around the globe and mentor innovators from ideation to iteration to execution. In my 40 years of experience in networking and related fields, including 22 years at Cisco and 17 years as a Distinguished Engineer, I’ve seen innovation work best through the following general process:

  1. First, you’ve got to Think of an idea.
  2. Then, you need to make that idea real: Create a prototype.
  3. Your idea has to have some Value that others want. Now, this value can either be a standalone invention or something that is innovative but part of a bigger system.
  4. A natural next step after thinking about your idea’s value is whether it will sell in the marketplace. I’ve put value in the 3rd spot, but it could equally be after the thinking step. But you need to be careful not to stifle your creativity by fixating too much on whether your idea will sell, lest you get so distracted you lose your innovation-mojo (Innomojo).
  5. The ultimate aim of innovation is to create better outcomes for people, so once you have your gizmo, hopefully you have created something that people will want/Use.
Figure 1: There’s More To Thinking

In this blog, I’ll go into more detail into the “Think” step (Figure 2). Thinking requires some knowledge of the subject, a bit of know how or practical experience in making similar items — those nuances learnt over time of what and what not to do — and, of course, imagination! (I, for one, think you need a lot of this last ingredient).

Figure 2: There’s More To Thinking

How Diverse Experience Leads to Minimal Bias

Now sometimes you can have too much knowledge or overthink things to the point where your biases and preconceived notions of what to create start to kick in, which may be more of a hindrance. You start to go down the path of pessimism, saying things like, “This is why we shouldn’t,” or “This is why it can’t be done,” or “It’s too hard” and so on. You then need to introduce diverse experiences and opinions into the innovation process to give you a more balanced approach.

Diversity comes in many forms: gender, race, age, skills, experience level (such as novice to expert), location, culture, and so on. By seeking different points of view for an idea, you are more likely to end up with a more solid innovation proposal.

Figure 3 shows an example of what can happen when you have minimal bias and experience. Back in the mid-1980s a young student by the name of Rob Newman at the University of Western Australia came up with a new way of providing high speed connections across an urban city area (referred to as a Metropolitan Area Network). Ethernet in those days was still confined to the local area — i.e., buildings and floors — so there needed to be a way to connect those buildings across a cityscape. His invention, which was called QPSX, went on to become the global Metropolitan Area Network standard called IEEE 802.6.

The interesting part to this story was that Rob had no practical experience in running WAN/LAN networks, only theoretical experience, and had no preconceived ideas!

Figure 3: An Example Of No Bias

A great example (Figure 4) of how innovation can come from viewing at a problem through a different lens is how what3words.com made GPS coordinates easier to use and remember. By statically assigning every 3 sq meters on earth with a unique combination of three words, you can now find, share and navigate to precise locations using three simple words. For example it is possible to enter a phrase like “warns.booed.snoring”  to describe your location instead of making you deal with confusing number co-ordinates like 250 2022.3.

Figure 4: what3words are you?

The Power of Simplicity

Not all innovation needs to be complex. Some of the best ideas might come from complex minds, but they still can be simple in nature. In some cases, to execute a simple idea is usually complex behind the scenes, but from the layman’s point of view, they seem straightforward. Take, for instance, the flush system in a toilet. Simple? Sure, but wait until you have to replace a washer!

An example of a patent that was simple, novel, and at the time, not obvious is one that was thought up by two of the top inventors at Cisco, Pascal Thubert and Eric Levy-Abegnoli, when they were at IBM 20+ years ago. It was called CAPTCHA; Implementing a robot-proof website.

You most certainly have come across the “I am not a robot” box on websites. This is the essence of CAPTCHA. It’s a simple, yet ingenious invention. As simple as it may be, has protected websites from malicious actors for many years now.

Figure 5: CAPTCHA A Robot Proof Website

To Innovate, Embrace Diversity and Simplicity

The process of thinking up the next new big idea can be daunting, but you can help the process along by employing diverse and even seemingly irrelevant perspectives and backgrounds. Part of the art of innovation is being able to view the same problem, mechanism, or process through a different lens — or, thinking outside of the box, if you will. The quote below from Dr. Szent-Györgyi remains relevant for eternity.

“Innovation is seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.”

Combining such cognitive diversity with the drive to make using an invention as simple as possible can result in innovation magic.



Jeff Apcar

Distinguished Engineer

CX Chief Technology Office