Learning by Doing: The Fast Track to Innovation
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 Alice Pollard, my chief of staff, who manages the CHILL team and leads the delivery and execution of CHILL Living Lab Experiences. She has been with CHILL from the beginning and is the perfect person to reflect on the experimental approach we take to industry-shifting innovation.
Chief of Staff
Cisco Hyperinnovation Living Labs (CHILL)
Innovation doesn’t happen in a straight line. It usually happens in fits and starts—trying something, then tinkering a bit and trying again. In CHILL we call this process “learning by doing,” and we’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot! It may not be a linear process, but it’s the fastest path to creating something new—and it’s a fundamental operating principle for CHILL.
CHILL was born out of the need to help our customers leapfrog traditional innovation processes and spark broad industry change. Essentially, we bring four to six customers together in a “living lab” to innovate shoulder-to-shoulder around a particular topic, and immerse them in repeated cycles of ideation, rapid prototyping, and user testing. At the end of two days, they have several viable prototypes backed by business cases. Each group in a Living Lab may go through 8-12 rounds of rapid prototyping and user feedback to help refine their winning solution.
Unlike a traditional product development cycle, we’ve created a model where it’s faster, easier and cheaper to try something than to spend endless hours debating. In other words, we just “shut up and build it.”
This is a radical approach for many enterprises. After one Living Lab, a major financial institution spent a fortune with a high-profile consulting company to determine whether they should make a $125,000 investment in exploring a startup opportunity with us. Really? Is that the best way to spend your shareholders’ money? It would have been faster and cheaper just to give it a try.
Learning by doing isn’t just the innovation process in our Living Labs. It’s also how we approach designing the labs themselves. We started CHILL two years ago as a revolutionary idea for rapid, multi-party, industry-wide innovation. We began with a pretty good idea of how we wanted to approach it, and we just did it. That first Living Lab yielded some very promising outcomes, including one concept with startup potential. But one of the most important outcomes was what we learned about how to design a dynamic rapid innovation experience. And because we are willing to look at and share what doesn’t work, we learn something new in every Living Lab.
Here are some of our lessons learned:
Get executive sponsors from every participating company. Innovation may bubble up from the bottom, but it won’t go anywhere without support from the top. The day after our first lab, we briefed Cisco’s senior leaders about the outcomes and ideas that we wanted to take forward. But just days later, Cisco transitioned to a new CEO and a new leadership team with bigger things on their minds, leaving many of the ideas orphaned. With a deep bench of executive sponsors from all participants, concepts can move forward, even if circumstances change for one partner.
Find common ground before the Living Lab starts. With only 48 hours to work in, teams need to hit the ground running. That can be a challenge when people on a team are from different companies with different challenges and priorities, and are just meeting each other for the first time. In our first Supply Chain Living Lab, one team spent half of the first day finding a common starting place—a huge loss of productive innovation time. So now we start with a “Day Zero” event, getting the teams together in an informal setting the night before the lab to get to know each other and find their areas of common interest. The next day, they can bypass the introductions and use every moment in productive innovation.
Be ready for the next step. Our first few Living Labs resulted in a number interesting and productive joint initiatives, but nothing that reached full startup status. Then we added “distinguished entrepreneurs” to each team—people who had rich startup experience and who could be potential CEOs if a startup idea began to take shape. Additionally, we realized we needed to help these nascent startups bridge the time between the lab and pre-seed funding. So we launched CHILL-X, a six-to-12 week bridging period to help them validate their concepts, make introductions, join an incubator, and work through initial technical challenges. With this kind of expertise and support on board from the very beginning, our last two labs have yielded two startups now in their pre-seed rounds.
As we plan each Living Lab, we bring these and many other lessons from our previous labs into the process. Does everything always work as planned? Not a chance. But that’s where the learning takes place—the surprises and unexpected outcomes that teach us what to do differently, how to build it better. It’s not a linear process, but it’s the fastest path to innovation.