Thomas Edison once said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Yet even today, when there’s never been a better time to innovate, many still believe that all you need is the next brilliant idea to disrupt markets. Wrong.
In today’s digital world, innovation takes as much perspiration, preparation, and process as ever. Probably more, given the bewildering complexity and speed of new technologies, digitized solutions, and business models.
Inspiration and perspiration—both are required to switch on that new light bulb, illuminate the world and reach your innovation destination.
This is the second of a three-part series on our nine building blocks to ignite innovation and innovation programs in organizations of any size and type. To transform into a startup culture of entrepreneurism across all functions, grades and geographies worldwide. Once fully assembled, these building blocks form a solid foundation to disrupt, engage and motivate employees. To unleash brilliant ideas from anyone anywhere, and turn them into market busters for your company and customers.
In a previous blog, I focused on the first three building blocks: 1) Build your community; 2) Align with company priorities; 3) Gain executive support. The next three building blocks bring you closer to the ultimate destination of unleashing and nurturing the genius of your entire workforce.
Fourth Building Block: Engage the Workforce
At Cisco, we recently completed our first companywide innovation game for all employees across all functions. Called the Innovate Everywhere Challenge, we achieved nearly 50 percent engagement from our 72,000-person workforce. More than 2,000 teams and individuals submitted over 1,100 ideas.
The success of the Innovate Everywhere Challenge validated our long-held belief that any innovation disruption should start as a grassroots movement. It doesn’t matter who activates it–HR, strategy, innovation, marketing, or whoever. You can’t mandate innovation from the top down. First, you need to galvanize the disruptors, rebels, and mavericks–your “co-conspirators” –to excite, empower and change into a culture of innovation. Just like in any political or social revolution, cultural transformation gains more engagement with a bottom-up approach.
Of course, any grassroots movement–especially within a corporation–needs air cover from leaders, starting with the CEO and heads of all key functions, especially HR. At Cisco, we have been fortunate: CEO Chuck Robbins, Chief People Officer Fran Katsoudas, and Chief Strategy Officer Hilton Romanski sponsor our campaigns, plus leaders in most functions support our cause. They can make or break participation. You need to enlist their support at the outset, and ensure that they commit to playing active and visible roles throughout the journey. They should publicly encourage the grassroots movement, and reinforce how it ties in with the company’s top priority of innovation—innovation by and for all.
Leaders and managers must also create an open and safe environment where employees feel empowered to innovate beyond their day jobs. To step out of their comfort zones, discover their passionate motivations, and stretch their imaginations. Encourage employees to take risks, experiment, tap into their inner entrepreneurs, form or join cross-functional teams and pursue their dreams together.
I cannot overstate the vital importance of collaborating closely with employee communications to help make your program successful. In our experience, an exceptional partnership with employee communications not only ramps up buzz but also helps inspire your own team to think outside the box. Join communications at the hip to raise engagement by co-creating impactful experiences and regular updates that spotlight successes and failures, key milestones, and team progress from start to finish.
Also, listen and learn from your employees. The greatest ideas usually don’t come from top management at corporate headquarters. They come from the collective insights and criticisms of all employees. Through trial and error, the best innovation programs by employee suggestions. Too many companies only tout the good stuff, but full transparency on the good, bad and ugly builds credibility. Be transparent and follow up on feedback with clear actions that are widely communicated. If you don’t listen to your employees and take advantage of their passion and suggestions, you will surely have a disengaged workforce that runs your company into the ground.
We also learned to be flexible. Employees may not follow the innovation game plan perfectly, and you may need to adjust the course along the way. It is more important to generate enthusiasm than it is to have a rigid game plan. For example, we initially sought innovations in key markets but received a number of ideas for internal process improvements. We ended up considering these proposals too, and we are following up on many of them.
Finally, make this serious business fun–gamify it. Engagement will soar when employees have creative ways to vote, root for their favorites online, hoist banners at events, search for like-minded team members, or brainstorm in online communities of their own making. (Check my next blog in this series for more details on gamifying it).
Fifth Building Block: Show the way with coaches and mentors—NOT managers
Nearly everyone I know has at least one brilliant idea for an app. Very few, however, know how to take the next steps to bring it to life. In a companywide program, many will not know how to innovate or even want to innovate. You need enthused coaches and mentors to show the way. Even the brightest minds and experts in their fields need guidance to innovate like an entrepreneur.
In this regard, mentors and coaches should replace managers to guide cross-functional teams. Traditional managers are roadblocks to innovation. Managers slow progress by focusing on hierarchy, top-down decision-making, rigid deadlines, and targeted outcomes. Mentors encourage team-based approaches where every voice counts, and they help to clear political or other roadblocks. They don’t direct; they advise how teams can move forward collectively to overcome technology, customer, or market hurdles. And don’t be afraid to involve trusted mentors outside your company—they bring fresh and realistic perspectives. We also know from research and experience that innovators thrive and engage more when working on inclusive and diverse teams.
Failure is an option. Mentors can remind teams that failure often leads to success. Sometimes, failure is even celebrated. Fast failure can eliminate wasteful time on projects, improve efficiency, and pinpoint new options for success. At times, nobody will know how to cross a chasm, but experienced mentors let innovators know that they should take a leap of faith.
It took Thomas Edison more than 10,000 tries to perfect the light bulb, after which he famously stated, “I have not failed. I have just found 9,999 ways that do not work.”
Sixth Building Block: Equip innovators with resources and tools
Many innovation disruptions fizzle because organizers focus on the innovations – NOT the innovators. Talented people create innovations, not lofty vision statements. Urging people to innovate without a clear roadmap is like handing car keys to a teenager without a driver’s education. If the innovator has the roadmap at hand, the innovation will follow.
In addition to your alliance of mentors and coaches, assemble a portfolio of downloadable startup methodologies, technology tools, case studies of successes and failures, competitor innovations, a glossary of terms, markets, technologies, business models, and more. Our semi-finalists also attended three-day boot camps, or workshops, to refine their value propositions, solutions, and venture pitches to judges.
Playbooks are one of the most crucial resources to turn employees into entrepreneurs. We created Adventure Kits that guide first-time innovators through each step of a startup journey: Ideation, Investigation, Seed Funding, and Implementation. Inspired by Adobe Kickbox, an open-source guide to Lean Startup methods, we also drew on our own experiences and other industry best practices to tailor content for Cisco employees.
All these resources should be quick and easy for anyone anywhere to access. At Cisco, all employees have access to online resources, such as inspirational and educational videos, a content-rich website, links, and a collaboration platform.
Connection is paramount. Remember to leverage communications, collaboration platforms, and experiences to connect employees with each other and the outside world. For example, our workshops during the Innovate Everywhere Challenge brought together all semi-finalists, their mentors, and outside coaches for the first time. Open collaboration platforms also enable participants to share ideas and interact, make things transparent, remove politics, and equalize the playing field, which is essential.
You now have two-thirds of the building blocks for your innovation disruption—one that can inspire, engage and unleash the hidden talents of your workforce. We will complete the foundation soon in our next blog in this series.
There is no better time than now to jumpstart innovation within your four walls. The fast pace of change in today’s digital age requires it. Remember, a genius, game-changing idea can emerge from anywhere. You just have to know how to unleash it, nourish it, and bring it to life. That takes inspiration, perspiration, and preparation.
Meanwhile, if you have questions, get stuck, or need an innovation therapist, don’t hesitate to contact me: