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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

We Are the Experience: Innovation 101


Scrolling through your social media feed this morning, you’ve probably seen the word “innovation” in different forms at least a dozen times. Innovation has become a buzzword of the corporate world, almost mythical and seemingly unattainable. You may have even thought: “Innovation is for brilliant inventors only, I could never do that”, and… you are right. Not with that attitude, at least!

But, like any other skill, you can learn innovation if you are willing to get out of your comfort zone. All it takes are the right processes and an environment where innovation can blossom.

In search of the truth about innovation, I sat down with Steven Weemaels, one of the Cisco BeLux Innovation Challenge coaches. Together with Tom Istaz and Silvana Bongioanni, he coached the winning team.

Steven, you were the design thinking coach of the winning team in the Cisco BeLux Innovation Challenge. Tell us more…

S: It’s a challenge organized by our sales community here in Belgium and led by Hugues De Pra. Our goal is to work with our customers and partners, who are facing a business challenge and find the best ways to overcome it with Cisco solutions. We solve different challenges every time, trying to make as much positive impact as possible. It’s a three-day event with many brainstorming sessions and Design Thinking coaching that helps move the idea forward. After three days, a solution is pitched to the jury. They take a few factors into consideration – sustainability is a big one as it’s a major focus for Cisco and our customers. The viability, budget, productivity efficiency, making sure the solution is well-thought-out… All these also play a major role.

As you said – sustainability is top of mind for Cisco and many other major players in the industry. The business challenge you and the team you supported were solving was directly related to that. What was the idea?

S: The whole thing may seem really simple, but actually small changes can make a huge difference. Here in Belgium, we have “recycling parks”. Essentially, it’s a place you can go to throw away your garbage. So, when you go there, you expect to be able to do just that – but sometimes it’s impossible because a container is full. Imagine spending the whole day cleaning your house and then not being able to get rid of the waste – it can cause frustration, and unfortunately, some people would go and litter… Needless to say, it’s a disaster for the environment. At the same time, recycling trucks picking up the waste can sometimes cause traffic or other inconvenience in some areas of a city.

The winning solution focuses on making recycling quick and simple, rewarding those who recycle. With the use of Meraki cameras, AI, user application, and GPS tracking the customer can now monitor the containers and let the end users know the availability at nearby recycling parks. They can also pick the most convenient path for their trucks, to avoid specific areas like schools and not cause too much traffic. Finally, we all know how important gratification is. Once everything else is operational, the application will let its user collect points for recycling, showing them the real impact, they have on the environment. At the end of the day, it’s all about making sustainable life as easy as possible for everyone.

Simple yet brilliant – I love how innovation doesn’t have to be extremely complex to be impactful. I wonder if this solution could be replicated somewhere else…?

S: Of course, this could be easily replicated for other use cases such as monitoring the quality and level of water, used for example in Africa! In this challenge, we focused on recycling, as it’s our customer’s core business. However, we focus on different issues each time, asking our customers what business challenges they are facing, that have an impact not only on their company but also on communities.

I recently heard someone say that innovation is a skill anyone can learn. Do you think anyone can be an innovator?

S: Absolutely! Anyone can innovate – it’s all about having the right motivation, tools, and mindset. You need to be able to think out of the box and step out of your comfort zone, doing things you – or no one – have never done before. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone. But in the end, innovation is just a process. A while ago I had the opportunity to do a Design Thinking training at Cisco, which really changed how I thought about innovation.

It’s important to be in an environment where innovation is not only encouraged, but first and foremost: enabled. At the same time, companies need to innovate to keep up with the ever-changing world and to attract the right talent. A company may be offering the best products, but if they are not innovative and bold, they won’t make it in today’s reality.

Let’s say I want to innovate. Where do I even start?

S: If you work in a big company, there is a good chance you have some colleagues who innovate. When I first heard about design thinking, I started asking around, reaching out to Design Thinking pioneers at Cisco and trying to understand what they do, what tools they use, and what the processes are. Expose yourself to innovation. I had the opportunity to visit some innovation centres and start-ups with the craziest ideas like a beer machine, and it really broadened my horizons and made me realize innovation has virtually no limits. And then, of course, participate in Innovation Challenges, Hackathons. Here at Cisco, we get the opportunity to participate in many internal challenges to further develop our innovation skills, but there are many external activities you can partake in, too. Our next BeLux Innovation Challenge is in March, so I can’t wait to see more innovative ideas of our colleagues come to life.

Innovation and sustainability are key for any successful organization around the world. Cisco is no different. Find out more in the CX Unplugged podcasts:

Have you seen some other brilliant examples of simple, yet effective innovation? Let me know in the comments!

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