While I’m out on maternity leave, I’m excited to highlight the varied viewpoints of some of the amazing people that make up CHILL. I’m proud to work with this diverse and talented team. They hail from around the globe, and bring a rich set of experiences, skills, and passions to bear on everything they do. Today’s guest blogger is Nirali Shah, innovation architect for CHILL. A believer in the transformative power of collaboration, Nirali shares insights she gleaned recently collaborating with other innovation champions.

In Cisco Hyperinnovation Living Labs (CHILL), we learn by doing. But we also learn from what other people do. That’s why I jumped at the chance to attend the Innovation Leader Field Study in New York last month. An invitation-only “unconference,” Innovation Leader takes attendees behind the scenes of some of the most innovative spaces in the world. What makes the field study so engaging is the chance to compare notes with industry peers and explore new approaches to the old problem of sparking innovation in sometimes sluggish corporations.  We each operate within different structures but face similar challenges and themes.

Culture Wars

Perhaps the most common challenge that came up in the course of the day was cultural resistance to innovation. As the supply chain innovation lead for a major consumer packaged goods company cautioned, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast!” Several innovation teams cited bottom-up resistance to innovation. It’s not the CEO, who is often a visionary, that is the roadblock. Rather, it’s middle managers who demonstrate the most reluctance to take risks and collaborate freely across the organization.

Dan Seewald and Cal Austin from Pfizer spoke about how their company has guided its culture into embracing innovation. Pfizer’s “Dare To Try” Innovation Program was created to engage employees and connect the dots between organizational silos and has, so far, brought 72,000 employees into the process!

We all have our own innovation dragons to slay, and I was heartened to realize from others’ anecdotes that cultural resistance is not one of mine.  Cisco has an incredibly supportive culture of innovation, as evidenced by programs such as its “Innovate Everywhere Challenge,” which rewards employee teams for coming up with real solutions that help solve real problems in the business.  Rather, my wrangling happens externally, as I try to align an ecosystem of companies that want to innovate in tandem but don’t always know how to work together.

Capturing Metrics

Capturing meaningful metrics is also a challenge for most innovation programs—probably because failure is a big part of any innovation process and who wants to record failures?  As much as companies might give lip service to “embracing failure,” or “failing fast,” innovation is actually very risky and most people are naturally reluctant to call attention to the times it didn’t work out.  Unfortunately, that also means we tend not to learn from our failures.

Gerry Collins from Johnson & Johnson suggested time as the key metric for innovation—how fast can you move?  As CHILL’s founder, Kate O’Keeffe, has pointed out, “By the time you’ve connected with end user customers, industry players, in-company stakeholders and sponsors, investors, subject matter experts, marketing, engineering… it’s almost time to start the whole damn thing again because no doubt the market will have moved.”

Customer at the Center

The third major theme emerging from the field study was that innovation should be driven by the customer experience.

I had a lot to say on this topic, as CHILL takes a very customer-centric approach to innovation – in fact, we only take on ambitions that include Cisco customers!  In the six months that we spend preparing and researching for each Living Lab, we pay close attention to what customers want to achieve. When we finally bring the right cohort of customers together to work on specific solutions, we test each concept with potential customers from the very beginning.  Finally, as we incubate the solutions created at a Lab, we make sure we have a co-pilot from each participating customer to ensure continued engagement and satisfaction.

Imagine a bunch of like-minded innovation champions throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.

Part of carving out a successful customer co-innovation experience is to be open to lessons—lessons from failure, lessons from experts, and lessons from innovation peers. Perhaps my favorite part of the field study was that, thanks to the frankness of the organizers and attendees, it became a safe place to share war stories and wild dreams.  Imagine a bunch of like-minded innovation champions throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.  The main lesson that will stick with me for a long time is that in the hard, sometimes heartbreaking, always exciting exploration of new ground, it’s not just about return on investment but also return on education.


Kate O'Keeffe

Senior Director

Customer and Partner Innovation