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Cisco unearths its inner startup culture via companywide innovation contest

Bob Brown | June 16, 2016
Nearly half of Cisco gets involved in Innovate Everywhere Challenge

For a giant 30-plus-year-old company, Cisco has a reputation for keeping things fresh via spin-ins, buyouts and venture investments. But late last year, the vendor launched the Innovate Everywhere Challenge just to make sure it wasn’t overlooking any great new ideas among its 74,000 employees.

“We have phenomenal innovation programs for engineers, IT people, marketing people and sales, but what we’ve never really done is mix them up across functions and geographies,” says Cisco Director of Innovation Strategy & Programs Alex Goryachev, who counts Napster, Liquid Audio, IBM and Pfizer among his previous employers. “If you think about a true startup you have to have a great engineer, a great marketing/PR person, a business person, a finance person and a product person.”

alex goryachev cisco 
Cisco Director of Innovation Strategy & Programs Alex Goryachev: "Our employees wanted to team up and create mini-ventures." Credit: Cisco

What’s more, Cisco’s best known competition – the Innovation Grand Challenge held in recent years – targeted outside entrepreneurs. That frustrated some Cisco employees. 

“We started [the Innovate Everywhere Challenge] because there was a demand from our employees who wanted to team up and create mini-ventures,” Goryachev says.

INSPIRED BY ADOBE KICKBOX

Cisco took its lead on the Innovate Everywhere Challenge from Adobe, which in late 2012 introduced Kickbox as a way to spark ideas and later open-sourced its methods so that others could follow suit. Goryachev says other programs Cisco came across tended to be proprietary.

The Adobe Kickbox program – led by VP of Creativity Mark Randall, who you could easily picture hosting an entrepreneurs’ reality show – is epitomized by an actual red box filled with detailed instructions, a $1,000 pre-paid credit card, chocolate and a Starbucks gift card. Some 1,500 employees have taken the Kickbox bait and 26 of their teams have earned access to mysterious and customized blue boxes to bring projects to the next level.

Adobe has publicly revealed several product outcomes from Kickbox, including a personalized online learning tool within its Creative Cloud and a Memory Maker tool that synchs photos and music to create video slideshows within Adobe Lightroom. 

CISCO GETS MANAGEMENT BUY-IN

Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins and other higher-ups threw their weight behind the Innovate Everywhere Challenge, which launched last September after several months of planning. Organizers got managers to buy in to the program, such as by recruiting them to be advisers, so as to offset concerns about employees being taken away from their day jobs.

In addition to trying to unearth big new ideas, Cisco embarked on its Innovate Everywhere Challenge to develop the entrepreneurial skills of its workforce, get more employees working with each other across functional boundaries and just plain old making Cisco a cooler place to work for those who might otherwise leap to a startup. Pre-challenge surveys found that indeed, some employees were skeptical about whether the company really would give everyone a chance to innovate or take risks to do so.

 

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