Photo: Participants to Cisco’ Innovate Everywhere challenge

Innovation is not driven by a single great idea or the result of magical serendipity.

It is a process of disciplined exploration and experimentation. Moreover, innovation is not something that can sit in a silo, it needs to be part of everyone’s responsibility and mindset. The most successful companies are the ones that embed innovation into all aspects of the business.

If that sounds like a far-fetched future, you might be wondering- how do I do that, and where do I start? As a taster, check out these stories recorded at Intrapreneurship Conference Silicon Valley last year, featuring innovators at Cisco, GE, Adobe and Intuitwho embarked on a journey to make innovation part of everyone’s job.


Disrupting Your Culture to Ignite Innovation Company Wide

Mathilde Durvy, Cisco

Cisco knew that before they could disrupt markets and competitors with breakout innovations, they first had to disrupt themselves. So, they shook things up – in a big way. Cisco launched the Innovate Everywhere Challenge to capture and develop venture ideas from their employees, and develop entrepreneurial skills and culture within the organization.

It was an enormous success, with almost half of their 72,000 global workforce participating.
And now, in their second year, they are applying what they learned to make the challenge even better.

In the first challenge, cross-functional teams submitted their ideas and were judged in an open forum, where peers and leadership could discuss ideas and give feedback. Employees appreciated having a process and support to develop their ideas – but a few issues emerged.

They reported needing more manager support in the form of time to work on innovation; judging needed to be more meaningful, as friends ended up voting for friends; and where to innovate needed to be better defined, while still remaining open-ended.

In the second challenge, Cisco introduced ‘Founders’ and ‘Angels’. Founders were given a loose target or problem to solve – what Cisco calls an ‘ambition statement’ – around a market, and the freedom to mix-in business models and technology to find innovative solutions. Angels, primarily managers and leaders, could participate as backers, judges or sponsors, and could invest tokens into ideas they liked.

Three winners were chosen and given $25k seed funding to build their idea – and Angels were rewarded for investing smartly and building successful portfolios. Non-winners who nevertheless found a sponsor had that amount matched by Cisco, so they could continue on with their idea outside of the challenge.


How GE Broke the Mold: Fastworks

Rik Dryfoos, GE

As the first digital industrial company in the world, GE knew it needed to speed up product development time in order to learn more, faster. They developed FastWorks, a proprietary continuous innovation framework, in order to teach lean, innovative, customer-focused working methods to their 350 thousand employees around the world.

Working alongside thought leaders like Eric Ries, FastWorks combines the speed and agility of a startup with the scale and resources of GE. The company uses their framework to increase efficiency, speed to market and market impact, and to test ideas and fail fast. Their goal is to encourage entrepreneurial thinking and a curious, collaborative mindset among their engineering and manufacturing workforce – a workforce unfamiliar with lean startup concepts and Silicon Valley buzzwords.

This framework asks employees to start with a question or idea; then experiment, test, learn and iterate. They are encouraged to challenge norms instead of accepting them. The goal is to keep up with the pace of change by changing not just the way employees act, but the way they think about their work, their roles, their projects.

Since its implementation in 2014, FastWorks has gone through 4 iterations. The framework was first introduced in small stages, then gradually rolled out more broadly until it became the basis of a complete cultural change at GE.

Now, they are hoping to make FastWorks their basic, everyday process, influencing everything from how they set and define (and change) priorities, how they fund projects and how they conduct annual reviews. The intense focus on customer pain points, and the implicit permission to try and fail, has helped GE work simpler, become more customer-focused and outcome driven, and get solutions to their customers faster.


Innovation Revolution: Thinking Inside The Box

Mark Randall, Adobe

Mark Randall was a founder and serial entrepreneur, and his startup – which had done 4 products in 5 years, 3 of them huge successes – had been acquired by Adobe. They were looking to him to ship new products, and reinvigorate the brand.

Initially, Mark had no idea how to function in such a huge team – he was used to 250 ppl max, now 10K+ organization. He couldn’t get anything off the ground for the first 2 years. Then he realized he was taking the wrong approach – working within a 10K+ organization was a completely different job than a 250-person startup.

So, he went back to ‘beginner’s mind’ and started shipping new, unexpected products and ideas, things no-one had asked for, things that, in some cases, Adobe actively tried to stop – but they were successful. After their transformation to a cloud-based subscription model, Adobe realized they needed to change their process for innovation, and asked Mark for help. So, he developed Kickbox.

Inside the box, you find a prepaid credit card for 1K, to test the idea of the product without needing internal approval; sugar and caffeine, the major food groups for innovators; and simple instructions, broken down into 6 levels with a set of checkboxes at the end. Innovators move through each level and once they’ve checked all the Level 6 boxes, they’ve beaten the red box and earn a blue box – by getting a senior director or above to fund their next round of experiments.

To date, Adobe has given out 1600 red boxes, and 26 blue.

Before Kickbox, Adobe’s innovation process involved 6 months of prototyping at cost of several hundred thousand dollars, with a team of designers, product manager, maybe ethnographers. They averaged a dozen ideas per year, and out of that 2-4 new products – a 1 in 4 hit rate.

Kickbox changed the culture entirely. Employees in non-traditional roles are pursuing ideas. There is no limit on ideas, no committee – the innovator is the CEO for the first 1K of their idea, and that autonomy has opened up the imagination gates.

Sound risky? Adobe realized that if you want to change the playing field, there is no zero risk option. For 4 years, internal innovators have been testing unfiltered ideas, directly with small numbers of end users for a brief period of time, and… the world has not ended. Nothing bad has happened.

As Mark puts it: “If we can connect our employees’ passions with our organizational purpose, which is solving a hard customer problem, then it’s a win for everybody. The employee, the customer, and the organization.”


Lessons On Innovation From Intuit

Bennett Blank, Intuit

Intuit has been around over 30 years. Their biggest challenge: How do we survive the literally thousands of startups everyday that are trying to kill us? How to innovate with no corporate innovation silo, incubator or central group responsible for innovation?

Their solution? Make innovation everyone’s job – and train them how to do it.

Intuit invests a lot of effort into training volunteer Innovation Catalysts who act as coaches to teams in need. Intuit thinks of this as leadership training – many of the employees who go through the training and master their innovation framework end up growing into senior roles. This training is open to anyone, from any department.

This helps them innovate not just products, but processes. One Innovation Catalyst & product manager was fed up with how long it took to hire quality people on her team. She went through a rotation with HR, applied her product management and innovation skills to the hiring process at Intuit, and developed a program called Assessing For Awesome. Candidates go through a real project before hiring decisions are made, so the candidate, teams and hiring manager get a real sense of fit and capability. As a result, speed of hire went up, candidate experience improved (even for those not hired), and they attracted better candidates.

Because they have skilled innovators to draw from, Intuit created Discovery Teams to apply innovation principles to older, core products. As they aren’t starting from scratch every time, they can quickly assemble a team, tackle a problem, have a big breakthrough and then disband the team, so everyone can get back to work on their core projects. Their Discovery Team revamped Turbo Tax to dramatically improve customer benefit, and had their best year ever last year – Turbo Tax got a higher share of the market, and even stole market share from competitors.

Intuit developed a shared innovation language, and one metric that teams are held accountable for: what’s the measurable improvement in the customer’s life that matters the most to them when choosing that great solution that you’ve put together?

But their focus is always on their people. If you show them how to innovate, and give them unstructured time to do it, they will go do it, wherever they are.


Eager to understand more approaches to intrapreneurship?

This fall, we’ll be bringing together the global intrapreneurship community in one of the most innovative and diverse cities in the world: Canada’s most populous city, Toronto. A city on a roll, fully embracing the new digital economy, and rapidly becoming a highly attractive hub for startups, scale-ups and corporates alike.

As always, you can expect to experience an inspiring innovation immersive- 3 days packed with talks, case studies, workshops and peer learning sessions. Unlike other conferences, we won’t lock you up in hotel ballrooms with thick carpets- we’ll be exploring Toronto’s ecosystem and visiting more than 10+ innovation spaces across the city. Check out first speakers and sessions here