Cisco unearths its inner startup culture via companywide innovation contest

Nearly half of Cisco gets involved in Innovate Everywhere Challenge
  • Bob Brown (Network World)
  • 15 June, 2016 20:42

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

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

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.


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. 

MORE: Four top innovators are leaving Cisco | IBM uncovers its inner Kickerstarter via enterprise crowdfunding


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.

Those who took part were encouraged to fail fast, then quickly move on, all while keeping customer needs in mind as they developed their mainly B2B ideas. Broad company participation was encouraged by making plans available online for all employees to see, comment on and vote on, and by essentially gamifying the whole shebang. The company’s complementary online Cisco Innovation Academy website provided additional information about entrepreneurship and developing new ideas, and in fact, Cisco will be tweaking that website in light of what it’s learned during the challenge. 

Cisco saw the most participation in its challenge by members of its human resources teams, though Goryachev says those on the winning teams tended to hail from engineering/IT and sales. “That’s a really good combination because sales people are the closest to the customers and they can quickly gain business validation and obviously the engineering people understand our core portfolio and what we can build on top of that and the adjacencies,” he says.

Employees taking part in the challenge were given access to Cisco’s lite version of an Adobe Kickbox – dubbed an Adventure Kit 1 – and were guided through the process of identifying a problem and then coming up with possible solutions. Those ideas were vetted by a panel of judges and the masses within Cisco, and 15 semifinalists were chosen to take part in a 3-day workshop and access Adventure Kit 2, which included a $1,000 pre-paid credit card to fund minimum viable product, plus mentoring/coaching. During this Investigation phase of the competition, semifinalists pitched their ideas via video and slides, and were whittled down to 6, including 1 People’s Choice candidate.


In mid-April, three winners were selected following 5-minute live pitches, followed by

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Q&A sessions, at Cisco headquarters in San Jose. Winning teams earned $25,000 in seed funding and another $25K in prizes, plus they were given an option of entering a full- or part-time innovation rotation program to last three months. Cisco worked with these teams to find possible fits within the company for their ideas, and set up concierge services to streamline access to IT, legal and other necessities.  One gratifying outcome for Goryachev is that so many of the winning teams’ members met online, and probably would not have interacted if not for the competition.

Winners of the first Cisco Innovate Everywhere Challenge were:

*Enterprise Virtual and Augmented Reality (EVAR): This team has designs on integrating third-party virtual and augmented reality technology with Cisco’s collaboration offerings such as Spark and Telepresence.

*LifeChanger: Focused on helping employers bring more disabled workers into the fold by enabling them to work remotely via Cisco collaboration technologies.

*Rainmaker: A logistics platform for coordinating complex digital media campaigns, assuring that high priority assets don’t get bogged down on busy network pipes.

Eight-year Cisco veteran Phil Trease, a systems analyst and user experience expert in southwest London, says the EVAR team initially connected during an earlier hackathon and that the Innovate Everywhere Challenge enabled the members to take their ideas to a new level (read more in my interview with Trease here). "We want to see past the 'Wow!' [of VR and AR] and how we can use it to bring business value," he says.


Encouraged by results from its initial Innovate Everywhere Challenge, Cisco is plotting another one late this summer and will shoot to run roughly two such challenges per year.

And in light of Cisco benefiting so much from Adobe having open sourced its Kickbox, Goryachev says Cisco will do its best to share knowledge learned from its experience with others. It has published a whitepaper on the Innovate Everywhere Challenge and Goryachev says he has already begun fielding calls from other companies looking to follow Cisco’s lead.

“Every single company was a startup at a certain point in time,” he says. “So how do we keep that energy in a large enterprise? I think we’ve accomplished that, but now the question is: How do we maintain that and keep it interesting and challenging for our employees?"