Barbie: Hello and welcome everyone to today’s webinar, Innovation Leadership Essentials. This is one in a series of webinars where we connect for 30 minutes to bring to life the challenges we see in the market and what to do about them. During today’s session, Raphael Viton, Axialent’s global transformation lead, will engage with Oseas Ramirez Assad, co-founder of the startup Cisco movement to discuss failures, victories and insights for the trenches that will help you implement change more easily and separate the essentials from the important when it comes to delivering better innovation outcome. We will host a Q&A session at the end of today’s presentation. If you have any questions that come up during the presentation, you can use your control panel. There’s a question application and you can put in any questions and we will address them later in the call. With that, I’ll pass it to you, Raff.
Raphael Viton: Thank you, Barbie, and welcome. Barbie joined us from Key Biscayne, Axialent’s North America headquarters, and welcome as well to many of our friends, colleagues, clients all over the globe in many different time zones. A big shout out to our global headquarters in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I see some friends and colleagues from Spain on the line, London, etc. For those of you who are not joining live, but joining us afterwards on the recorded version of this, welcome to you as well. I am in the Chicago land area. Oseas is joining us from Guadalajara, Mexico, in his home. Good morning to you. Thank you for joining us. Pleasure to be with you.
Barbie: Hi, Raff. Hi everybody. Pleasure to be here.
Raphael Viton: Always fun to jam with you my friend and we caught you on a good week where you’re not traveling out spreading the good news of innovation across the globe, so you have time for us. This is great. My name, again, is Raff, and I’ll be your host for all of these Innovation Leadership Essential webinars. This series is intended to help us bring together leaders driving this type of change and transformation inside of corporations. We seek them out to help dispel some of the counter-productive misinformation folklore and opinions out there about innovation and about change that describe innovation as being innately hard to do. The idea that it is uniquely a domain saved just for the very special few creative folks, very special talented folks for these uniquely qualified organizations, and instead we’re going to try and share stories that help indicate that that is not the case, that it is merely an opinion disguised as a fact and this series of webinars hopefully helps to demystify the complexity of driving sustainable and successful innovation outcomes inside of organizations like yours.
We invite this perspective, we invite the learning lessons from leaders like Oseas, who have been in the trenches and hopefully their stories will actually demonstrate how innovation is not hard for them. How innovation can actually be easier when done the right way and sourced with the right mindset and attitudes. A number of the lessons learned. Oseas, if you would click ahead for us, you’re driving today. A number of the lessons learned are featured in my book, “Free the Idea Monkey: To Focus on What Matters Most,” and comes from a number of firsthand encounters working side by side with leaders like Oseas inside of multi-national companies to help drive innovation. The book, I co-wrote with my former business partner, Idea Monkey himself, Mike Maddock, from Maddock Douglas. This is not a plug for the book. I’m not trying to sell the book. I’m happy to give away the book electronically. Email me if you’d like a copy of the book. I’ll send you a PDF after the fact. After the webinar, I think I will share my email address so you guys can request a copy.
The idea is, and our guest today … The idea of the book and our guest today help show how the two most powerful innovation enabling forces in the world are along this spectrum of idea monkeys and ring leaders, this spectrum of reliability, focused on what we know, focused on the success formula that got us to where we are today and made us successful, and the other end of the spectrum, which is the eventuality, the unknown, the future, and what’s happening in between in this. The dynamic of that polarity and how it shows up inside of corporate America, when you bring together both the David’s and the Goliath’s and the mindsets of the two inside of an organization and Oseas is a very good example of that.
Oseas, I think part of your bio that I remember and love is that at the age of 17, you started your own software development company. You’ve founded four of your own startups. You’ve been the CIO of a newspaper, a CTO and a family counselor. You’ve got this very diverse background and four years ago, you came into Cisco to help lead a very different way of thinking about innovation and you were born and raised in Guadalajara, had lived in the US, Canada, Cambodia. Guadalajara, as many may or may not know on the line, is known as the Silicon Valley of Mexico. It’s become known for over 50 years of the tech titans moving to Guadalajara to actually source some of that energy to actually help lead some of the elements of the digital transformation age. If I’m correct, inside of Guadalajara recently, there was a government grant created to help fund research around the internet of things. Is that correct?
Oseas Assad: That is correct. Yes.
Raphael Viton: Sourcing the right kind of energy to bring the idea monkey, the entrepreneur, the intrapreneur, that innovative mindset into corporate America and really help make some great things happen. I know in addition to startup Cisco, you’re also responsible for seeing the creation execution of a new global strategy, which is actually partnering on innovation with some of Cisco’s biggest customers.
Oseas Assad: That is correct. Yes. My current responsibility at Cisco is essentially creating and overseeing the execution for how do we co-innovate with our largest customers out of all of our innovation centers worldwide. It’s a very, very interesting challenge we have ahead of us. It’s so far been a great ride.
Raphael Viton: That’s awesome. Is there anything else I missed from your bio that would help round out the perspective? I know you won’t toot your own horn, so I was doing that for you.
Oseas Assad: Thank you. That was probably more thorough than I would have done it, so I appreciate it.
Raphael Viton: All right. Well, that’s good context. Let’s jump in and keep going and we’ll get to the three innovation essentials and perspectives that you have shared with me around how you and your team and the organization have learned about how innovation is not hard. We’re going to hear your three essentials. You’re going to tell some stories about the failures and the victories that’s part of the journey when you accept the innovation mantra, this is part of what you experience. It’s in the context of most corporate strategies today actually are filled with the need to shift from a current level to a next level, right? We talked about where we are today, and if you should shift it one slide ahead too, Oseas.
Where we are today? We’re all at our own current level. Our organization’s at their own current level, and we’re pursuing a next level. Some future strategy, a growth strategy, a new way of being, new types of businesses to be in. The most written up version of Cisco’s transformation, currently of course, is one shifting towards the cloud. Moving from where you were historically to a cloud software as a service type business, and many dimensions to it. We don’t have enough time to actually go into all of the different ways that Cisco is innovating today. Many formal versions of the innovation and strategy that are happening and we’re not suggesting by this webinar that there’s one right way to do it either, right?
We’re just going to talk about a few ways that your work helps showcase how, rather than hard, it can actually view it as easy. This transformation from current level to next level has many dimensions to it. Click ahead. It leads to this ongoing story line that you hear from CEO’s and the chief innovation officers and the inside of the organizations that innovation and change is hard. Everybody resists change and that it almost, in a sense, anticipates the lowering of expectations by saying, “It’s hard. It’s not my fault if it doesn’t work. It’s not my fault if we struggle in ways that aren’t anticipated.” The reality is, it isn’t hard or easy. It is what it is, but it’s definitely harder if we shift ahead.
It is definitely harder when we wait too long to get started. We don’t anticipate, we don’t plan. We don’t build the capabilities we need to be good at innovating. It’s definitely harder when we don’t prioritize and we don’t have resources set aside for it. We don’t have expertise set aside for it. It’s definitely harder when we treat it like an episodic event as opposed to a lifestyle and way of being. It’s definitely harder when we don’t use the expert tools and processes. It’s definitely harder if we think we can command and control a culture to change to be more innovative as opposed to invited to be more innovative and create the conditions where it can be more innovative, and it’s definitely harder when we’re not aware of our own default reactive mindsets and behaviors that keep us trapped in the old way of doing things, as opposed to opening us up to more possibilities, more choices, and therefore better strategies and better solutions. It’s definitely harder when you’re trapped there.
Not everybody’s trapped there. Not everybody’s wired that way. You’re going to help share a few stories that get us to a place of really understanding that innovation, transformation and change … Click ahead for me, are actually very much learned capabilities, muscle groups that have to be developed and trained. Along the way, it helps and it’s faster and it accelerates the adult development of building these capabilities if you ask for help along the way.
With that, Oseas, I think this is a good place just for you to just take over and drive and start telling the story of what it was like to build those capabilities and from a very different place than many other companies, many other folks on the webinar here will be starting from, but clearly there are some lessons to be learned here that can benefit us all from your experience.
Oseas Assad: Absolutely, Raff. Thank you so much for the kind introduction and for putting this together for us to share this part of the story. Let me start with something, which was probably one of the key moments or defining moments of my time at Cisco, which has been one of the most gratifying and satisfying experiences in my life. This one in particular, when I got here, was very difficult. Coming from a startup background, consider that coming from a startup background means different things in different countries.
In Mexico means you have to bootstrap. I did not go through the VC route to get this business started. The largest company that I’ve founded that is still apparent to this day, has its own management team and all of that, started out with a credit card and we were just recycling the money. Every cent counts. Then, I decided to join Cisco because I was curious what life was like inside of a large corporation. One of the first things that I started doing with my first role had to do with operations. I was very surprised that this was work that was done, the way that it was being done at the time. I wanted to change it because I, quite honestly, did not want to do a lot of the work that was required as part of my position, which people might find counterintuitive, but sometimes that’s a good thing because that’s when you try to change things for the better.
I was trying to find a way to automate something and I thought, “This is something that we probably able to, if we had a couple hundred bucks, it’s going to save us thousands and thousands of dollars that are currently invested and they’re very highly skilled workforce doing financial analysis type of work.” Then, I decided to go through the route inside of Cisco, which was partnering with an internal development team. I don’t want to even name the functions of what I was engaging with, but let’s just say that something that I had estimated would cost a couple hundred bucks and that should take maybe a week of work, or two weeks. After two months of work, we were just scoping the damn thing and it was already scoped to be something between half a million or $750,000 and take an entire year. I was thoroughly confused. How could this be so different?
I ended up paying $200 out of pocket to some developer here in Guadalajara who fixed the problem for me and then I just fixed it for some of the other people that were doing the same job and then that became the basis of something that eventually became a development and grew something. To me, it was the first contrast or the first crash that I had between coming from a startup world and a corporation. It is parallel universes. If you’re joining this webinar, I see a few of the names. I know that some of you are at Cisco, so you might be able to relate to this. Let me just say this, if you have worked in a corporation long enough, you are already living in a universe that is a different entity from the reality that many other companies live, and that creates a mindset and a way of looking at things, that in many cases, it’s phenomenal and it allows us to reach the scale that our corporations reach. In so many other cases, it’s also the same thing that prevents us from thinking outside of the box or moving quicker.
With that said, I got very interested in the space of innovation and I had the opportunity of looking into it closer when I was working in a program called Leadership Pipeline, which is something that we work with our colleagues from Axialent, at the time. I’ll tell you more about that in a second. As we were doing the initial research, we realized that even though Cisco is world class in innovation, and I’ll tell you more about that in a second, we have areas of opportunities, every company does. Some of the years of innovation is, when talking to employees and executives, etc., we realize that we don’t adequately reward risk-taking or we’re very optimized for efficiency, not innovation. Long-term view versus short-term view. We have a lot of short-term view because of our quarterly results, etc., etc., etc.
We started hearing these things and some might say, “Well, is that something that’s going on at Cisco?” No. This is happening at every major corporation. This is not a challenge that’s unique to us. What you can see now is that this challenge that we are facing, many others are facing and many others are looking at startups. Corporations look at startups and say, How did these guys solve the problems?” Sometimes we buy them. Cisco acquires a company every three to four weeks, and you’ll see news of corporations gobbling startups left and right all the time. Why does that happen? Why can’t we build what they are building? Well, in some cases, it’s actually cheaper to buy them. In some cases, they bid us to it and in other cases, you want the talent. There’s many reasons that can drive an acquisition. The point is, whether it is through acquisition or through the adoption of the startup innovation best practices, corporations are looking at what’s right with startups as a way of further improving what’s already right with them and fixing what’s not right with them.
That was the beginning of a journey. Now, if I were to summarize in three points, I would say, in light of Raff’s setup, innovation is easier when you reactivate your multinational startup DNA, when you focus your mindsets, biases and core values, and when you target corporate antibodies. Antibodies, as it happens with the body, or things that are very useful when they’re trying to attack a disease but then they can turn rogue and then they can turn on yourself when you’re trying to do something good for it.
Let’s talk about each of these for a second. The first one, reactivating a multinational startup DNA. If you’re joining this call, there’s a high chance that you come from a large organization. Any organization, whatever size your organization is, was small at some point. Maybe not a startup in the Silicon Valley sense of the word, but at some point, it was small. When it was small, it behaved differently than it behaves currently because it had different needs. It had different objectives. At that point, it was survival. At this point, it is maybe scaling or maybe is maintaining the dominance you have already achieved. It’s different points in the lifecycle that you have. The point is, there is startup DNA in your organization. How do you reactivate it? How do you bring back the resourcefulness? The making quick decisions? The moving faster? How do you bring that up?
When we were asking ourselves that questions, that’s when we were doing this leadership pipeline program. That was a very, very, very interesting program that ran for four or five years in the company and it actually was starting out in the top two percentile in the company across individual contributors, managers, and directors across all functions, across all regions. It was very ambitious and it gave us a platform to touch on a variety of different topics, which included conscious business as a platform and then on top of that platform, we built many other things, including the innovation programming that I told you about.
Now, let’s go back to the innovation landscape at Cisco. As I have mentioned to you, Cisco has five innovation pillars, build, buy, partner, invest and develop. At very high level means o has five innovation pillars, build, buy, partner, invest and develop. At very high level means build, we build our own stuff. We have over 22,000 engineers. We have over 300,000 developers in our network of DevNet. We have a lot going for us in terms of being able to build our own technology. We also buy as a measure. Every two to four weeks, you will see that we’re buying a company. We also partner. You’ll see that, “Oh, we’re partnering with Apple developing new technologies.” We invest in startup. We invest in accelerators, etc. Then, we co-develop, which is currently my job. How do we partner with the largest customers to build solutions? All of that is what is meant by innovation at Cisco. Usually people only focus on the build. You’re buying, you’re partnering, you’re innovating. Innovating is all of the above.
In the build front, even though we have 22,000 engineers, it is still difficult for employees to push their ideas forward by themselves and that has changed a lot over the last two or three years, fortunately. When we started, the situation was a lot harder. That’s when we were trying to effect, when we were doing the startup Cisco program, which is essentially a way to improve and increase the efficiency in intrapreneurial innovation by reactivating a startup DNA.
A few things you might want to know about how this program was, I’d just say unique. We started with no executive mandate or support. In other words, no executive told us, “Go ahead and do this,” and we didn’t ask permission from anybody to do it, which I know it’s non-canon, if you would like, inside of a corporation, but it’s also one of the things that allow us to be successful later on. Because later, the bottoms up connected with the top down and now it’s an official program in the company. We did have to resort to leverage things, like to lean start up, design thinking, service design, many things that startups were tending to use, things that are taught and accelerators as a way of moving quicker. We used those for ourselves and to help people with their projects. The program is entirely focused on internal innovation teams. Finally, it was cross-functional. This was not an HR program or a service program, we brought people from all functions to build this together, which is also slightly unusual, and that’s also part of what helps us be successful with it.
In the journey of building this program, we learned a few things. Remember, we’re talking about the first lesson, which is reactivate your startup DNA. Here’s where we started, with a program that said, “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to scores and balances. We’re going to enact them.” Then, as we were building the program, we’ll learn a few things about corporate entrepreneurship. Amongst the things we’ll learn is that there is a lot that is composed of methodology, advisors, training and mindset, business unit support. There’s many things that you need to make work around this and just focusing on the methodology piece.
We started using Lean startup, which is essentially the application of scientific method to entrepreneurship, which is another way of, when you don’t know something, go test it out, and go from not knowing to now knowing, which is different from how corporations operate sometimes, and you’ll see that a little bit more about that in a second. Now, the problem with this is it doesn’t translate off the shelf into corporations, so if you’re thinking just buying the book and doing it in your company, you’ll find there’s more than one challenge associated with it.
Before going around the challenges, why would you even want to do this? If you do this right, you’ll take less time to go to market with your innovation, you’ll need less money to do it, and you will decrease risk because there’s higher likelihood of success. From that perspective, this is a no brainer. This is something you would like to do. It’s more a matter of whether those people would actually believe it can be done and it can be, although, let me just say this, one of the first things that we’ve seen happens in most corporations when they’re trying a lean startup, or something else. I’m not advocating for any particular methodology. Choose the one that better works for you, and most likely, the answer for all corporations, as it was for us, is you’ll need your own flavor of it.
Putting lipstick on the pig is a disservice to anything that you’re doing. Sometimes you’ll see that whatever it is that it’s the new flavor of the month in your corporation, there’s a few new words that suddenly we will all start using and more frequently, we’ll start using those words and putting it on top of old behaviors, to say that we’re doing the new thing. Lean startup says you should be doing experimentation. People that don’t really want to talk to customers, but they get that now they have to say this word, they’ll say, “Oh, I’m doing an experiment.” They’re not really experimenting anything. They’re doing the exact same thing they were doing earlier, which is just playing in a lab without talking to other humans whether the thing you’re building is even relevant, but they’re calling it an experiment because that shows that they’re embracing this mindset, which they aren’t. This happens with innovation initiatives firm, that happens with any other thing that you would consider, this is something being driven by a central thing and we’re asking everybody else to adopt it.
Right now, I see a couple of my colleagues from Cisco that joined that are now part of a team called leadership and team intelligence. They’re driving a very interesting effort to get the awareness around teams and their strengths. Yet, if you’re not careful, there might be people that will just keep on doing the same thing that said, “I just talk about more teams and strengths,” and it will look like I’ve changed when I haven’t. Whatever the term is, remember putting lipstick on something is not what it should be.
I’ll tell you what happens when you actually put lipstick on the pig and not really pay attention by sharing a couple of colossal innovation screw ups. Now, this is public information. I’m not sharing anything that could like, “Oh my God, he said something about Cisco. I need to report him.” This is public information and we all know we did this, so let me just share this with you. Just think about this. Would you pay $600 for some hardware that goes on top of your TV, plus a recurring subscription, just so that the video conferencing that you have at home with your loved ones looks a little bit better? By the way, they also need to buy the $600 thing, and they also need to pay the $25 subscription a month. You need to increase the speed of your upstream internet bandwidth, because probably what you have won’t work. Other than that, would you buy it?
Not many people did, so we had to kill it. This was called the Umi or U-M-I. We launched it and not long ago, we had to kill it because it just didn’t work. For us, on the outside, it’s very simple to say like, “Why would anyone think that this is a good idea?” Probably because we were looking at it from a technologically driven point-of-view. Can this be done technologically? Yes. Should we put it in the market? No. That’s one of the differences that you want to try to drive when you’re thinking with a startup mindset, a corporation can’t afford to make $100 million or half a billion dollar screw up and it’s still floating around and nothing happens. I’m not saying those are the numbers we lost. They’re probably something right there, but it was significant. A startup cannot afford to do that because they die. In other words, you cannot put all your eggs in one basket, keep on building your product and then just put it in the market hoping that people will take it and then people say, “Well, I don’t want it,” and then you’re dead.
That’s why startups do something quicker. They do rapid releases, quick iterations, things of that nature that allows them to get information from the market and course correct as they go quickly. The ability to innovate is predicated more into your ability to adapt to what you’re hearing from reality versus being predicated in your ability to predict the future, which is something that we’re not terribly good at, none of us. That’s part of the startup mindsets. Startups are not trying to predict the future. They’re trying to create it in small increments and adapting with whatever reality is telling them. Keep that in mind as startup mindset above all. Now, we can dig down a little bit deeper when we think about innovation is easy when you focus on mindsets, biases and core values. Raff, I think you could help us here with this perspective, for example, knower/learner and many other mindsets that we currently or have implemented at Cisco.
Raphael Viton: Yeah. Just from a connecting the dots approach, the idea of, if you train an organization around a shared language, shared paradigms and frameworks that help them become more aware of mindsets that are either helpful to innovation, helpful to adapting, like you said, or actually do the opposite of helping adapt and change and instead keep people very focused on knowing, very focused on being victims of circumstances as opposed to finding their power and energy to do something more resourceful, more aligned with their values, more aligned with the goals and outcomes, it changes everything.
If you can effect, raise awareness to help people focus on developing the mindsets, it leads to more resourceful, more innovative, more adaptive behavior, which leads to the types of business activities that affect whether you get closer to the goals that you’re pursuing. It’s kind of that connecting the dots, but it starts with really having that foundation and understanding your orientation to changing circumstances. Understanding your orientation to ambiguity, understanding your orientation to each other as you’re navigating this high stress, change isn’t going to slow down any time soon. The performance standards aren’t going to be lowered any time soon. The idea of, how do you equip a community of human beings with the ability to increase performance under increased stress, so that you can better navigate, adapt, and prototype through all the stuff you’re learning as you’re learning it.
Oseas Assad: Excellent. That’s very helpful because moving on, just taking a step back, think about the first thing we said is reactivate your startup DNA. The second one, we’re talking about the mindsets. With this foundation that Raff just talked about, I want to share with you a little bit of the right mindset of, what does it mean to innovate like a startup, right? Keep in mind a few things. You can do your lean startup or whatever innovation program. There’s all sorts of flavors. Everybody has their own methodology. That’s not the point. The point is not which flavor you chose. The problem is that it’s a training program. It doesn’t really change the mindset. You have not really made any significant impact.
Also, consider another thing. It’s not only the startup mindset, building a little bit on what Raff said, whether you’re an intrapreneur or an innovator inside of a corporation, if you have a victim mindset, you will seldom succeed because you will always be blaming all of those other things that are outside that have nothing to do with how awesome you are about why things didn’t work. People I start with don’t really have time to do that because otherwise they’ll go broke. My first release of the product failed, well, change or you’ll die. You don’t have a lot of time to be brooding over this, because you’re really going to get killed. You need to move quicker.
Same thing when you have a knower mindset. I am the world’s foremost expert on so and so. When you think that, you might fall in the trap of trying to predict what people are going to think about your products, how much they should love it, and in many cases, they will not. If they don’t, you might be disappointed and you might be slow to react, whereas if you approach things with a learner mindset, you might be able to more quickly pick up on what’s not working and what did you need to fix quickly.
With that, let’s talk a little bit more about what I’m talking about this corporate entrepreneurship or startup mindset inside of a corporation. Think about this, corporations operate, in many occasions, to the three piece, politics, PowerPoints, and persuasion. Build some nice slides, figure out who do you need to talk to, convince them to do this thing, and then you do it. I’m sure if you pay a little bit of attention to your memory, that you have all either been … Have been subjected to work in something, or have had to suffer the consequences of something that was the result of somebody that was very good with PowerPoint slides and pushed an idea forward even if it was stupid.
They just needed to know what was the right place to push that idea into. That’s very painful and demoralizing for people that work on this and it’s something that we should really change. Startups can’t afford to do that. You might try to get a little bit of funding for a VC to get started, but at some point, people will be on you with your PowerPoint. What VCs require you is to demonstrate results, not only nice slides. Your slides should talk about your result, not about your vision of how things can be and you haven’t done anything.
Going from politics, PowerPoints, and persuasion into the startup mindset is get results quickly, then talk about your results. Corporations can’t afford inaction or incorrect action. Like I said, you can make a major mistake and probably nothing really happens. Startups really have to focus on the results. Corporations can deal with consequences of their size, like silos. There’s a silo. This team doesn’t work with the other one. Startups sometimes are not really big enough to have that and they really just need to get over those things quickly in order to keep them thriving. Corporations, we have policies and processes that are helpful to allow us to sustain our escalation process and stay there, but sometimes they also asphyxiate innovation. Sometimes startups have not even had the chance to think about what the rules should be because they’re too busy delivering value or trying to figure out what the value is.
If you’ve ever been in a corporation where you’re talking about whether “Did you think this policy allows us to do that and that and that?” You’re already trapped in the corporate cycle of asking whether we could even do something regardless of whether it’s valuable for the company because there’s some rules around it. I’m not advocating for breaking rules. I’ll talk about that more in a second. It’s a difference in having a startup mindset that’s focused on the value first. In corporations, a lot of times people are pursuing your safety, whereas, in startups, you’re having people that are persuading a mission. How can you drive an effort inside of your corporation where people are doing it because they’re driven to the value around not only the job security?
Another thing has to do with resource curse. I’ll tell you more about that in a second, or how we try to save face in a corporation? Sometimes we’re very nice, depending on the type of culture you have. Some of them are very cut throat. In corporations, you’re not trying to save face, you’re trying to save your life. In other words, this didn’t work. Okay. Let’s try again. This didn’t work, let’s try again. Instead of investing time in figuring out how to spin the failure into something that looks more favorable where you can deflect blame, that takes too much time and doesn’t really create any value. Hopefully, you can step outside of that as a way of driving innovation in your company.
More specific examples than this mindset, what happens when you apply it? Startups have limited resources. If you’re working in a corporation, if it’s publicly traded, most likely, you’re already part of this mindset of excess resource, which I call the resource curse. We have way more money than we need, but a lot of times we think that what prevents us from acting is that we need more money. Sometimes if you artificially introduce constraints, in other words, going something that’s counter-intuitive, instead of requesting more resources, trying to work with less, you will have to cut through the fluff and all the BS and focus on what really matters.
That’s what we did, for example, with startup Cisco. We could have said, “Oh, we need millions to do this and millions to do that.” We said, “Okay. If you only have $20 here and we have two weeks to deliver, what is the best thing that we could do?” We kept on doing incremental deliveries of value around that until the program evolved and scaled into what it is today, which is, let’s just say a corporate wide-adopted training program and also the kernel of how we co-innovate with largest customers. It went a long way, but it went in small increments and did not come with a huge grant.
Also, startups have limited time to survive. They can’t be monkeying around with what the right type of font for the PowerPoint, that we sometimes do, and again, if you’ve been in a corporation, I’m sure you’ve been part of something like this. How do you shift that to have a bias to action? Let’s not worry about that part when what’s the right action that we need to follow next when jumping into this. How do you break silos, for example, creating a cross-functional team? How do you work around the rules? Well, we literally bent rules whenever needed as long as we knew what we were doing that was delivering better for the company, talk about that more in a second. Then, startups think about how to exit. We were planning in our program, how to get internally acquired. In other words, we were thinking about, how would a startup think about this? How can then we apply that in our startup Cisco effort internally to model that to the groups of employees that will be joining the program to pursue an idea or a program that they’re trying to do as part of their day job?
These are just some of the ideas on the startup mindset and how it looks different and when you work in a corporation, how to bring the former into the latter? Finally, it was key for us to be successful to have a truly diverse team with risk-takers, people with a lot of cognitive diversity, and strong personalities with high EQ, and cross functionality. This was critical. We would not have been able to achieve anything if we had not done this for us. Now, a lot of times people ask me like whether risk-taking is something that’s always desirable. There’s different positions. There’s positions in which it is good to be risk-averse because you don’t want risk. If you’re looking at the functioning of the rocket propeller for a spaceship, you don’t want risk there. Your job is to mitigate it to zero. If you’re trying to eliminate financial variability that could cause this value of the stock in your company to swing wildly, you want to mitigate risks. There is jobs in which it makes sense to try to mitigate risks.
In innovation, if you’re really going to innovate, there will be risk, and you need to be able to take it. Otherwise, there might be better positions or other things that you might want to pursue or you might want to try to get different people. Cognitive diversity, if everybody’s thinking about the same thing, you’re probably not going to get very innovative or very creative or create a lot of value. Bring more people. If you have people that just agree with everybody on the beginning, you might want to bring somebody that’s disruptive, but people with high emotional coefficient. People that will not get offended because you said something bad about their idea. Those are probably not yet developed enough to participate in the type of dialogue that you have, and they will need to work on that on their own time. Try to steer away from them as much as possible. Cross functionality, I can’t stress it enough.
Where are we so far? Reactivate your startup DNA and focus on the mindset. Finally, what do you do with the corporate antibodies? If you’re trying to do something inside of a corporation, again the example we’re using here with the startup Cisco, which was a grassroots internal innovation initiative that grew, even though it was started in a non-conventional way. This applies to any other thing that you might want to be driving. You might not be trying to drive an initiative to help others innovate, it might just be an initiative in which you want to increase the value of your product, change the perception of your brand, improve an internal process, improve employee satisfaction, whatever it is that you’re trying to do differently, do know that when you’re trying to enter a new order of things, there will be resistance from the system, and those are the corporate anti-bodies. They are here to protect us from bad things, but a lot of times, they also prevent us from doing the right thing and you need to be able to distinguish, which one is which.
Corporate antibodies could be policies, it could be competing initiatives, it could be cultural norms. It could be a lot of different things. My personal favorite is fear. Many times, people will be afraid of what is it you are proposing to do and they will disguise their fear as something that has to do with a policy or a cultural norm, like, “We’re trying to do this.” “Oh, no, no, wait. We can’t do this because there’s this policy here and there or that person there isn’t going to like it.” They will not acknowledge that it’s actually that they’re afraid, but they will point to something that sounds plausible or feasible to stop action. If you’re planning on leading something, you’ll make your life a lot easier to innovate if you tackle this head on and figure out a way to work around it. The way that I suggest you do this …
Raphael Viton: I was going to say, that place there, just to bring through two of the points you’ve been making all along, the idea of … You’ve described how the leadership pipeline work and working with the high percentile build into the fabric of the culture with these very influential leaders, the idea of increased mental complexity, increased EQ, in relation to preparing them, readying them for how to deal with that fear. Fair to say?
Oseas Assad: Very fair to say.
Raphael Viton: That was a key part of how that became part of the soil of the organization that the innovation, the renewed spirit of the entrepreneur and that energy, and all of the innovation work that you’re doing had to build on as a foundation.
Oseas Assad: Exactly. I would say talking about this kind of soil that you’re describing, it’s just even the fact of being able to openly talk about a few of these things, right? You’re saying this thing. Are you saying it because you’re worried about this, this, this or that? Just being able to openly talk about it is tremendously helpful because when there’s enough trust, people will say, “You’re right. That’s my concern,” and you can work around it. When you cannot talk about it or people will feel offended if you say, “Are you afraid about something?” “I’m not afraid of anything.” Then, the whole conversation goes in a different, unproductive direction. You do need that soil or that baseline ability to even communicate at a deeper level when you’re going to be entering a space of uncertainty and you’re trying to do something.
Raphael Viton: That whole, the many years of that work that we did together was about thinking, relating and taking action differently than perhaps we have in the most recent history?
Oseas Assad: Absolutely, absolutely. Even the fact of having a common language. Going back to the mindset we mentioned earlier, the knower/learner, the victim/player, many of these things, sometimes just having a simple pair of words that people can connect to a deeper meaning because they went to a form of training, they’ve practiced it and now, they get it. That allows you to bring something that is very deep and has to do with the internal shift of looking at the world. You can insert it in a split second in a conversation without derailing it.
For example, sometimes I might be complaining about something if somebody would say, “Are you being a victim or a player in this situation?” Just that question, A, I would not feel offended, because I know where they’re going to. B, it refers me to a lot of work that I did in the past that allowed me to come back and say, “You know what? You’re right. I’m not finding what’s a way of being the player here in the situation and that’s not adding value. Let me try to change that.” Even the commonality of the language helps as this soil and allows you to build something more solid on top of.
Raphael Viton: Nice. Thank you.
Oseas Assad: With that said, let’s talk about how do you think outside the box when you’re in a corporation? The way that that I’ve tried to explain it is that there’s three boxes. The first one is an imaginary box. The first one has to do with bending or breaking select rules. The third one has to do with morality, legality or compliance. Let’s take one at a time. You should find corporate antibodies, by the way, in only two of these three boxes. You should not step out of the third one. What is an imaginary box? For example, one of the things that we did when we’re trying to get started with the startup Cisco program, we asked people that were in middle management position like, “Who can spend …” Let’s say, “2,000 of discretionary spend?” Everybody raises their hand.
You have 100 of those people. Boom. Suddenly you have $200,000 to fund an initiative without asking an executive. Now, that’s unkosher. I know that many people are like, “Oh my God, we cannot do this. There must be somewhere that says that you can’t do this.” Reality is that you would have to work really hard to find where is that policy that could somehow, through reading and implying what’s in it, could say that there might be something wrong doing that if you’re doing it for the benefit of the company. That’s why I’m talking about the imaginary box. That thing might not even exist but it’s just not a normal way of proceeding.
Maybe a less threatening one. Recruiting people. Everybody working on the startup Cisco program was recruited and they were doing this on top of their day job. Can you do that? Well, yes. They were from different functions. Is that okay? Yes, it’s just that many people didn’t think about it that way. That’s why we went through the recruited team of multi-functional teams with no sponsors. We asked ourselves at some point, “Do we have the right of creating an innovation initiative and bringing people from other teams?” Well, yes. Who we need to ask for permission?
If we ask somebody, they will just deflect to somebody that’s higher up and at some point, people’s fear of taking on the initiative of doing something for the company will have us going all the way up into the CEO. If we had pursued that route, three years into this or two years into this, I’m sure we would not have yet receive the approval from the CEO and we had not delivered any value to the company. Just go ahead and do it. If you’re doing something that’s of value for the company and you’re not destroying anything valuable, why not do it? Most of the time, it’s an imaginary box. Other thing is breaking free of the corporate spin cycle, which is, let’s talk about it, put in a PowerPoint, socialize, talk about it, put it in a PowerPoint, socialize, and you just keep on iterating on something and you don’t really get done anything. Break out of that.
Also, another thing that’s part of the imaginary box, pretend that your team is something that’s not. Our team is not a startup but we pretended as much as possible, that we would like to behave as one, and it gave us a lot of different insights on how to behave in situations that will allow us to take us outside of our corporate mindset and find different behaviors that were helpful for the situation. That’s the imaginary box because it’s just something that you’re just doing things different. Let’s talk about a stickier one. Bending and breaking select rules. Now, I know that this is unpalatable for a lot of people, so I’ll just say it from this perspective.
If you’re going to be innovating, if you’re really going to be changing something, that means that there’s already something in place that you’re going to be effecting. Otherwise, you’re not changing anything. That thing that’s already in place must have a reason to be there. If you’re just going to say, I will not act outside of the boundaries of the things that are already in place, whether it’s programs, norms, rules, agreements, etc., if you’re not going to play outside of those boundaries, then you’re not going to change anything. By definition, if you’re going to try to innovate, you will change those things and in many cases, it will mean that you will need to step outside of a boundary.
My recommendation is, if you’re going to break something, make sure you’re only breaking things that you’re aware of their existence and that you can clean up the mess. If you can clean up after yourself, you have the right to change something in a corporation. If you cannot clean up after your own mess, go find out somebody who can, and then do it. That’s the difference between smart disobedience and just being reckless. That’s what we did in many cases. We were bending rules or [inaudible 00:44:31] or other things because we could clean up after our own mess if something bad happened.
Another thing about this in terms of bending the rules is, demonstrate value first. A lot of times we’re thinking we absolutely need this sponsor because without a sponsor, you’re dead. Yes, but go back into thinking about a startup world. I think I’m much more likely to get a sponsor if I tell him, “Look, without your support, without centralized funding, without yada, yada, yada, we have already been able to deliver this value. We want to bring more of this for the corporation.” Then, an executive will say, “I’m interested in sponsoring you.” It’s just changing the order of the factors. I’m not saying, “Never get a sponsor.” I’m saying, “Work on demonstrating value first instead of working on your PowerPoint slides.” That means seeking sponsorship later. Obviously, have fun. Trying to do something different is fun. It’s invigorating. Make sure that you’re doing that when you have that.
Finally, the final box, then we’re going to wrap this up. Think about all of the pieces that you’ll need when you’re trying to do something new in your corporation. Whether you’re trying to drive a corporate and entrepreneurship initiative that will require you to think about the methodology, the training, the mindset, how you scale the funding mechanisms, all this complex stuff, or whether you’re just trying to change something, which you might just want to take a piece over here, “Oh, we could use this method. We could get this idea or use this mindset to change this thing in our corporation.”
Well, that’s the “what.” The important thing around the “how” is make sure you do it with a team that’s diverse. Make sure that you have a startup mindset, so you can move quicker. Make sure that you embrace failure, which is part of having a startup mindset, and always focus on what’s the minimum viable product. I don’t want to get into methodology right now. Let’s just say, “What’s the simplest, quickest, cheapest thing that you can do that delivers value to your corporation right now?” With that, those were the top three that I wanted to share with you.
How do you reactivate your multinational startup DNA? Focus on the mindsets. In this case, the mindset we suggested was that of a startup mindset with the fertile soil of what I would say is a conscious business mindset. Finally, target your corporate antibodies because you’ll need to do it if you really want to change anything where you’re working from. Raff, I am back just on to the broader message you’ve been driving.
Raphael Viton: Nice. Thank you for all those stories. I take it, it plays into the point of how innovation is easier when you do have a clear understanding of, “Yes, the process, the tools, the infrastructure, the strategy, the methodology, the governance, all of those pieces are critically important to get those right.” It takes a lot of skill and hard work to make sure those things are operation well inside your organization. As far as the essentials go, working with the human beings, the individuals and the collective community of human beings that have to design and implement these changes, design and implement the innovation and growth strategy is really where you get the most bang for your innovation buck, if you will. The idea of thinking you can just power through with process and methodology and, as an after effect, think about the relationships and the people and the mindsets, that just sets you up for false starts and some of those unnecessary failures that can be avoided. That’s part of what we’re trying to share here with this series. It’s easier when you focus on the essential.
There’s a number of programs in the Axialent innovation and leadership offering that help get to whatever stage you’re at with your innovation journey. If you’re just starting, if you don’t have an innovation portfolio yet, you don’t have a way of really thinking through your risk tolerance and what’s best for your organization, and how do I help unlock the growth potential and the openness of the team of leaders that are responsible for driving these outcomes, plenty of ways we can help those leaders see more, collaborate better, and feel stronger in the face of change. With that, 10 minutes for a Q&A. Barbie, let me know if we’ve got questions that have already been filing in that you might want to pick and choose from for Oseas.
Barbie: Thank you both. I really enjoy listening to both of you. We have a question. How much do you believe innovations team can still be innovative working inside the larger corporation? Isn’t a change of context needed to better change the mindset?
Oseas Assad: I absolutely say you need to change the context. One of the many ways in which you change the context is, first, we build a cross-functional team. Suddenly, when you’re trying to solve from a problem and we bring somebody from a different part of the company that you probably haven’t even met to work with, that changes your context. They’re not stuck in the same cycle that you are. They might be stuck in a different cycle, but it’s different than yours, so that changes the context. That’s one thing.
Secondly, we create circumstances that force you to break out of the context of the startup Cisco program. For example, we force people to go out and talk to customers, and customer’s customers. We force them to do things that usually Cisco will say, “Oh, I need to plan my call for two weeks from now.” “No, you’re going to call them right now. On the spot. Get the information. You have four hours. Come back. Don’t want to hear excuses.” Sometimes introducing a time constraint changes the context. Also, we’ve taken other things that had to do with the context. You’ll see, startup Cisco started as an effort that started growing.
Now, it is part of my innovation initiative, which includes the innovative where we were challenged in many other things inside of Cisco. Now, it is part of a broader initiative. What I’m trying to say is in our Cisco story, we change the context of everything that we had the control to change, multi-functional teams, etc., but then the organization itself evolved in a way that has allowed us to change the organizational context significantly and all of these things are interrelated. Yes, the context needs to be changed, but context changing doesn’t mean you need the huge change that comes from an edict from the CEO. You can start with smaller things.
Raphael Viton: I would add, Oseas, to your point, typically the business case for change provides a very focused, strategic reason to change and areas that need to change. Not everything needs to change. There’s very specific places where you need to create new capabilities, new capacity to be to able to amplify the growth strategy, as opposed to, and the question is a great question, because if you don’t change the context, then you are set up to undermine the growth strategy as opposed to amplify the growth strategy. It does all work together and I love hearing and seeing the stories inside of Cisco of how, as an enterprise, these pieces are fitting together in the right places to help accelerate and deepen the change.
Barbie: Thank you, guys. This one’s around an existing organization. What if I want to drive an initiative in my company? What would a best starting point be?
Oseas Assad: My suggestion would be, if you want to drive an initiative is, the first thing you need to do is find two or three more people that are passionate about that same thing but that think differently than you do, and start having a conversation with them. Now, the second thing would be, find what’s the first thing that you can do that will create any type of value? The simplest, quickest, cheapest thing that can create any value at all and try to focus on that as your first step. The actual objective here is not so much the value that you’re going to create, which might be just to drop it in the ocean, but all the learning that you will get from it. My point here being, is if you want to move fast, do things, and learn from you’re doing instead of putting a disproportionate amount of planning into it, which could delay you months and months and months from getting your first learning experience.
Barbie: As I’m doing that, how do I balance my daily responsibilities with my desire to drive change?
Oseas Assad: Hack the system. What I mean by this is, there’s a few things. Obviously, I can think of a few things that might help and this might make or not make sense depending on where you are in your organization, but here are the ideas that come to mind is first of all, recruit other people that are passionate about this that are willing to give 10% on top of their day time. That’s something that allows you to have more fire power because you have more hours of people involved in this. Second of all, if you have time constraints and you can only put four or five hours into this in a week, that will probably force you to be more effective in the rest of the things that you do and you won’t have to be monkeying around with things that are probably not a good thing to pay attention to because you don’t have time.
Third one, obviously, more obvious things. Look at anything that you want, because you haven’t done this in terms of personal productivity. We have so many time things in corporations that it is insane. I would not be surprised if 30-40% of our time is just overhead stuff that’s not actually delivering value. How many meetings can you stop attending that you don’t need to attend but somehow, you’re just pulled into those meetings and there’s 20 people in that meeting? Can you stop attending those? Can you have somebody that will take notes? Stop going to meetings. Stop answering to every email. Maybe narrow down whatever you can. Talk to your manager about your interest of pursuing this and seeing if there’s a body of work that you can offload. There’s many levers that we can pull from. None of them is the silver bullet. You’ll most likely need a combination of this to carve out a little bit of time. The bottom line is, if you’re truly passionate, you will be doing this probably after you’re done with your work hours anyway, because you really like it.
Raphael Viton: I would say, ideally, you get to a place where if you’re aligning the interests of the company and your creative energy, you will find ways to work on this in the context of the business or the role you’re in. I like to definitely find the extra time in the day where with productive time management skills and tools, you have more available to you, and be just that much more conscious and deliberate about how to practice these things in the context of my day job, as opposed to around my day job.
Barbie: Great. Thank you. I’m noticing time. I’m afraid to go into more questions and then not honor time. I propose that we close today’s session. Thank you so much, Oseas for joining us. Thank you, Raff. Thanks everyone. Have a great rest of your day and we’ll be sharing the recording.
Raphael Viton: That’s the email address where people, if you wanted a copy, a PDF of the book, feel free. I will send it to you. Email me and I will send it to you. Thank you, Oseas. Pleasure jamming with you today, as always.
Oseas Assad: Thank you so much for an invitation. Thank you everybody for joining us. Have a good rest of your day.
Raphael Viton: Adios.
Barbie: Take care. Bye-bye.