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Cisco: Converging Hyper Co-Innovation Inside and Outside a Big Company

Innovation in today's disruptive digital economy can come from anyone and anywhere inside and outside any enterprise. This means companies must fire up and fuel co-innovation like never before across all functions, grade levels, geographies, partners, and customers within, without, and among their four walls.

This 360-degree approach to hyper co-innovation is imperative in our new age of mass digitization. The unimagined speed and complexity of today's digital revolution are disrupting markets in every industry routinely. And I firmly believe companies that don't embrace this accelerated pace of change with a more holistic view of hyper co-innovation will perish or become irrelevant.

A century ago, the average life expectancy of a firm in the Fortune 500 was about 75 years, according to Deloitte. Today, corporate extinctions average fewer than 15 years and their lifespans continue to decline. Further, Gartner predicts that only 30% of digital innovation strategies will be successful in the coming years. The clarion call is loud, clear, and urgent: Widen the aperture of co-innovation and converge best practices inside and out.

Here is my three-point plan for converging disruptive co-innovation inside and outside a big company to stay ahead of the competition:

Build an external ecosystem of innovation partners

First, companies must disrupt themselves from the outside. This may be contrary to conventional innovation wisdom that begins internally, but it's critical to let the outside in order to adapt to digital change. This means organizations must abandon traditions of solely developing solutions in-house, whether it's the R&D, engineering, or product development group. Leading-edge digitization in any market sector requires companies to build and rely more on a strong and interconnected ecosystem of partners to co-develop solutions. No single company today can do it all alone.

One of the best ways to cultivate this ecosystem is to stand up 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 can scale globally.

Each hub focuses on solutions most germane to its region, but each is also connected to all the others, creating a network multiplier effect where problem-solving and best practices are shared. From these incubation centers, we co-develop and monetize myriad leading-edge solutions we could not have done on our own.

Public innovation challenges, whether local or global, also help to stimulate introductions, interactions, and relationships with your partner community. Challenges not only help to identify and nurture novel ideas, but also strengthen critical relationships with innovators who have special expertise in your own markets. To be successful for everyone, challenges must make clear the goals, types of solutions sought, timelines, judging criteria, and winning prizes, which must be worthwhile. Most importantly, follow up and help co-develop winning entries for go-to-market solutions.

There are many other ways, to build a winning co-development community, such as engaging in industry consortia or standards bodies to help shape the direction of products, solutions, or services; holding hackathons or development competitions at trade shows; and, co-developing closely, transparently, and directly with your customers.

Ignite a culture of start-up like innovation companywide

Second, bust up your business unit siloes internally by opening up innovation challenges companywide for EVERY employee. I started Cisco's internal program companywide several years ago because of pressure from turned-on employees who wanted to enter the external challenge but weren't allowed to do so. There's clearly a yearning from employees to want to be part of something bigger that also taps into their own passions.

At many companies, innovation programs have been isolated within the domains of R&D, engineers, product managers, or individual departments. These programs are still critical, of course, but in today's world of constant reinvention, it's imperative to think outside your silo by unleashing the passions and inner entrepreneurs of every single employee. Remember, innovation can come from anywhere and anyone.

Big companies in particular have launched plenty of innovation bombs or implosions for many reasons: one-time events that fizzle out . . . lack of C-Suite commitment . . . firm hierarchical cultures . . . aversion to risk and experimentation . . . scarce resources, tools or training . . . unclear goals and processes . . . poor follow-through on the new ideas-the list goes on. Perhaps the biggest breakdown is the inability of innovation activists to enlist co-collaborators to drive disruptive thinking across all business units.

So, it can be extra daunting to launch an innovation disruption across an entire enterprise, especially if tens of thousands of employees are spread out over countries on every continent with their own micro-cultures. Activating a companywide innovation program is not for the faint of heart. You can count on plenty of resistance, but you must remain inspired, steadfast and optimistic. The end goal is too important: the survival and success of your enterprise in the digital marketplace.

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. The goal is to transform the culture by empowering and encouraging employees everywhere to think and act more like entrepreneurs in a startup. Fostering an entrepreneurial and collaborative mindset companywide will surface new ideas that may produce game-changers, 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.

On Sept. 20, we launched this year's third successive challenge, which builds on the foundational progress and momentum of prior initiatives. In my post last month catching up with last year's results, I noted that more than 53% of our workforce from 89 countries and all Cisco organizations participated in some way. They either formed venture teams or joined them, submitted venture ideas, commented or voted on innovations, or logged onto and joined our new 'Always On' innovation site-The Hub. Nearly 800 ventures were submitted by about 1,600 employees, 62% of whom were on teams.

A dozen winners and non-winners from the first year's program continue to move their venture ideas toward monetization, with the help of more than 200 mentors and 20 executives providing them with seed funding. Most importantly, the program continues to gain momentum companywide with high and inspired engagement levels at the same time we're beginning to reap the rewards of our first disruption two years ago.

How can you do this? My nine building blocks for a companywide innovation disruption can apply to almost any company of any size in any industry. Each block is carefully crafted to optimize engagement, co-development, and a spirit of entrepreneurism. Individually and collectively, they are essential to conceive, plan, and execute a successful innovation journey: Development, Coaching, Mentorship; Incentives, Rewards, Recognition; Executive Support; Resources and Tools; Transparency and Metrics; Community and Collaboration; Engagement and Communication; Alignment to Company Priorities; Make it Fun!

I won't detail the steps here, but I'd like to emphasize a few crucial points:

  • This is a 'grassroots movement' where employees should feel empowered to bring their ideas to life, but make sure you have strong backing and commitment from the C-Suite and other departmental executives, especially Human Resources, which should be your hand-in-hand partner.

  • Provide a wealth of online and in-person resources that make it easy for innovators to learn startup approaches to develop ideas, find like-minded team members and mentors, and connect Founders with Angels. Our around-the-clock Hub has more than 4,000 registered mentors.

  • Leverage employee communications and executives to reinforce key messages that keep innovators inspired and on track and those resisting change at bay.

Converge and synergize 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 contact customers to validate their ideas.

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.

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 and their customers.

Meanwhile, if you have questions, get stuck, or need an innovation therapist, don't hesitate to contact me:

This article originally appeared in Market Screener on October 16, 2017


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