You know it's true: the digital revolution is changing the way we do business and forcing organizations to reinvent themselves. Instead of relying on their traditional way of doing things, Cisco decided to rise to this challenge by embracing the call for reinvention and creating a cultural transformation within their organization.

They wanted to bring back the entrepreneurial passion and speed they experienced back in the 1980s as a startup. With this in mind, they created the Innovate Everywhere Challenge, which encouraged every employee to “team up, disrupt and innovate.”

The Innovate Everywhere Challenge was based on the premise that good ideas can come from everywhere. Although innovation has always been a top corporate priority for Cisco, they realized they needed to move past the traditional model of internal innovation programs being housed in separate silos.

As well, an employee survey revealed that - to some extent, at least - employees felt resistant to or disillusioned with how innovation operates within the organization.

The survey received comments such as “It’s not my job to innovate,” “We don’t adequately reward risk taking,” and “We don’t follow through with employee ideas.”

While Cisco, of course, wanted to use the Challenge to gather high-value disruptive ideas from their employees, they also had other objectives: developing entrepreneurship skills and culture internally, empowering employees and getting them working with each other across all functions, and boosting their image as innovators to help attract and retain talent.


The results were impressive. Almost 50% of employees participated in some way. Employees cast more than 45,000 votes. Over 1100 ideas were submitted from more than 2000 employees, with almost 50% from teams.

The Challenge was structured in four phases that mimic the startup journey: ideation, investigation, seed funding and implementation.


In the first phase, employees were asked to form cross-functional teams and work together to find a problem and then propose a solution. The teams were to create their solutions around key markets (e.g. manufacturing, intelligent infrastructure and security), technologies (e.g. 3D printing, wearables and drones), and business models (e.g. pay-per-use, advertising and license).

Since the Challenge was for everyone in the organization, not just those with traditional innovative jobs, the organizers supported participants with their Adobe Kickbox-inspired Adventure Kit 1. The kit included a step-by-step guide that took them through the innovation process.

Submissions to the Challenge were published on a collaborative platform that everyone had access to and where they could comment on the ideas and cast their votes for the “People's Choice” submission. Submissions were also judged by a panel of employee experts. The judging narrowed down the entries to 15 semifinalists, who went on to the next phase.


During this three-month phase, the semifinalist teams validated the market opportunity and technical feasibility of their ideas. To do this, they received the Adventure Kit 2 and participated in a three-day workshop around the principles of lean startup. They also benefited from mentoring and coaching by company volunteers and received $1000 to build a minimum viable product (as well as $5000 in prize money).

The 15 semifinalists were reduced to six finalists after pitching their ideas (via a 5-minute video and slides) and submitting a business model canvas to the industry expert judges.

Seed Funding

Next up was the seed funding phase, where the six finalists kept working on their ideas, connected with internal sponsors and continued marketing their ideas using grassroots methods. All this led to pitching their ideas during the grand finale – which was broadcasted company-wide - to a live panel of industry leaders from inside and outside the organization. After, this, the three winners were chosen.


The three winners didn't just go home with the admiration of their peers. They also received resources and support to help them implement their ideas, including $50,000, technology resources, mentors and the option to take three months off from their day job to participate in an innovation rotation program.

Cisco also helped the winning teams to figure out their best next steps, for example by integrating winning ideas into an existing Cisco organization.

The winners: EVAR (Enterprise Virtual and Augmented Reality), a framework and suite of services which will enable Cisco collaboration in VR and AR applications; LifeChanger, which aims to use Cisco collaboration technology to virtually employ people with disabilities who cannot work in an office setting; and Rainmaker, a deadline-driven digital media logistics platform. The other teams weren't left out. For each of the 15 semifinalist teams, Cisco offered to match funds (up to $10,000) they secured from an executive sponsor.

Key lessons

For Alex Goryachev, Cisco's Senior Director of Innovation Strategy and Programs, the Challenge has been a rewarding learning experience.

“I think it’s paramount to focus on the innovator – not the innovation,” he writes in a Cisco blog post. “This means cultivating an environment where the employee feels empowered and encouraged to pursue his or her own dream.” It also means providing lean startup resources, such as tools, technologies and coaches.

He also emphasizes the need for a grassroots, inter-connected innovation community, which includes a diverse network of mentors and coaches. And though grassroots, he points out that it still requires strong and bold leadership.

Finally, he encourages us to really listen and learn from employees and to change plans as needed. “It’s more important to generate enthusiasm than it is to have a rigid game plan,” he writes.

Alex-Goryachev-intrapreneurshipAlex says the Innovate Everywhere Challenge was just the beginning of their revolution. “In today’s chaotic world of change, we know that disruptive innovation – organizational, cultural and individual — must be constant, continuous, and convergent.”

Interested in learning everything about Cisco's Innovate Everywhere Challenge?

Join Alex Goryachev at Intrapreneurship Conference #8 Silicon Valley as he shares the details on how Cisco empowered their employees to think and act like entrepreneurs.