Enterprise Case Studies Part 2: How Cisco Learned to Act Like a Startup

Written by Jordan Rosenfeld, contributor for Lean Startup Co.

Editor’s note: From now through the end of the year, we’re offering excerpts of talks from select Lean Startup Week 2016 speakers. These pieces are a combination of tips from their presentations and interviews that took place at the conference in San Francisco.

Industry titans are suffering losses at the hands of agile new competitors while losing talent to these same exciting new startups. To counter this, Cisco Systems — the multinational technology conglomerate working with over 70,000 employees and 30,000 contractors — recently changed how it handles innovation by acting more like a startup. The company brought in Oseas Ramirez Assad, now Senior Director for Business Development and Innovation, whose nickname at work is “The Maverick.” Assad presented at Lean Startup Week along with Ligouri Innovation’s Stephen Liguori and Cisco’s Alex Goryachev on Cisco’s successful new approach to its business.

Breaking Corporate Culture

Assad brings a background steeped in startup experience to Cisco. He calls his transition into the company “quite a confusing time, having come from a place where you have to make decisions quickly and with only a couple bucks, to a place where doing anything requires buy-in.”

He wanted to tackle the need for greater innovation using tools from his startup experience — particularly opening team members up to customer feedback and experimentation — but this was no easy task. “Even though I had a startup background, many of the teams I formed [at Cisco] were corporate,” he says. He found at first he had to fight the corporate inclination to seek approval at every stage of the process. If there’s one thing he’s learned in business, he says, it’s that “if you ask for permission enough, somebody will say no.” Experimentation allows a company to test and achieve a result first, because “people can’t argue with a result.”

Involve Everyone in Innovation

Goryachev says they began by setting up innovation focus groups company-wide. Feedback soon rolled in revealing that “we wildly celebrate innovation, but individuals didn’t understand their roles in innovation and didn’t feel they had a role to play.” This was particularly true in divisions that don’t directly build products, such as marketing, finance, or human resources. They set out to solve that problem by creating a Shark Tank-inspired program where everyone in the company could submit ideas for projects, so long as they had the intention and follow through to implement them. The chosen projects were then granted the latitude to act like startups.

“It’s super interesting, because it’s like the Wild West of innovation,” Assad says. Allowing teams the freedom to experiment within the company is helping to ease the strictures of “the corporate mentality.” And it’s working. “We had a guy with a project that hadn’t made a lot of progress due to internal challenges. In 24 hours of doing things that were not innate [to corporate culture] we were able to make a lot of progress,” says Assad. From experimenting came lessons — and the ability to show that it made sense to pursue something.

Validation is a Positive Feedback Loop

Assad quotes Steve Figueroa when he says, “You can’t argue with success.” When people started hearing rumors throughout Cisco that someone using a Lean approach “had made more progress in 48 hours than [they] have in the last year,” Assad says, this acted as “a strong validation point” that opened more people’s minds to the approach.

Now, Cisco is running a series of internal programs called “acceleration cycles” that bring together people from different departments. Interdisciplinary teams from diverse parts of the company see how far they can get bringing new concepts to life. “We want to focus on things not native to Cisco,” says Goryachev. “Things we know how to do we do very well.”

The program has been so successful it’s having a trickle-up effect. Cisco execs from supplies, sales, and other departments are seeking to implement this new approach, conveying to Assad, “That makes sense, I want some of that!”

Overall, Assad says there’s an interesting cross-pollination from startups into corporations and vice-versa. “We need to be able to learn from each other,” he says.

Enjoyed what you just read? You can watch Oseas Ramirez Assad’s full talk at Lean Startup Week 2016 here. Learn more about Lean Startup at http://leanstartup.co.