Cisco Ignites Companywide Startup Culture

In the past few years, the mass digitization of business and society has pressured every organization – large and small, private and public – to innovate at unprecedented speed. This digital revolution has incited a new and disruptive era of hyper competition. It has accelerated the pace of change exponentially. It has forced companies to reinvent themselves. And it has utterly disrupted institutions and their cultures, upended entire markets, and hatched new business models that challenge traditional ways of operating.

However, too many organizations still focus only on their diehard approaches, processes, and cultures to develop new outcomes. Instead, organizations of all sizes must conspire from within to disrupt their
own culture almost overnight. Continued reliance on slow, incremental progress – while still needed to some extent – is a formula for extinction.

Today, it’s either disrupt or be disrupted. Pioneer or perish. Transform or terminate. Innovate or disintegrate.

So what’s the answer? To become a disruptor, organizations must begin by activating grassroots cultural transformation from within. The maverick instigator can emerge from any group, function or geography. It could be Strategy in the United States, Human Resources in China, Engineering in India, or Finance in London. But how can this happen swiftly enough amid established bureaucracies and the blindingly chaotic speed of digitization?

The answer is easy but the execution is hard: Think and act like a lean startup, but scale as an enterprise.

At one time, every organization was a startup. But what happens over time? Growth and success bring new worlds of opportunity, but also new challenges to speed, agility, organizational structure, and process.

To keep pace, leading organizations are reinventing themselves by recapturing their original spark of entrepreneurial passion, speed, and agility. At the same time, they’re cultivating an environment where employees truly feel empowered and free to tap into their passions and innovate.

In a mere six months, Cisco did just that. With support from CEO Chuck Robbins and Cisco’s Chief People Officer Fran Katsoudas, Cisco’s Corporate Strategy Innovation Group and 16 “co-conspirators” mapped out “My Innovation,” a grassroots movement evolving on several fronts.

Collectively, they recently jumpstarted the revolution with the rollout of the Innovate Everywhere Challenge, which is disrupting the company’s global workforce of 72,000 from within.

For the first time in the company’s 30-year history, the Innovate Everywhere Challenge urged every single employee to “team up, disrupt, and innovate.” This was an ask beyond their day jobs designed to tap into their biggest dreams and vision for market opportunity.

The key objectives of the Innovate Everywhere Challenge were to:

We recognized that organizations can’t disrupt any of this until individual employees disrupt themselves first.

  • Capture disruptive venture ideas from Cisco employees and help grow them
  • Create game-changing value for customers, partners, and employees
  • Develop entrepreneurship skills and culture at Cisco
  • Enhance employee experience, empowerment and collaboration across all functions
  • Reinforce Cisco’s “innovator” brand to attract, develop, and retain talent

Uniquely designed to model startup-like phases — ideation, investigation, seed funding, and implementation — the challenge also encouraged employees across all functions, geographies, and grade levels to take risks, fail fast, and move forward quickly to the next innovative idea. The purpose: disrupt the Cisco culture, competition, and marketplace.

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