Future of Work

4 ways to create an impactful innovation culture at your company

innovation culture problem solving Chinese students battery fuel-efficient vehicle

To create a corporate entrepreneurship and innovation culture that extends into the world community, we must begin embracing and nurturing the natural problem-solver in all of us. Image: REUTERS/Stringer

Mary de Wysocki
Senior Director, Corporate Affairs, Cisco
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Future of Work

  • Impactful innovation has to be more than a mindset.
  • To create a corporate entrepreneurship and innovation culture that extends into the world community, we must begin embracing and nurturing the natural problem-solver in all of us.
  • As humans, we are born problem-solvers; some are better than others, like any innate skill.

When you think of the word innovation, what comes to mind? Better, faster technology, robots ...

And what about entrepreneurship? Risk, boldness, opportunity, unicorns...

While all these ring true, we often forget the most important factor of success in each case: problem-solving itself.

To create a corporate culture of innovation and entrepreneurship that extends into the world community, we must begin embracing and nurturing the natural problem-solver in all of us.

It is about making employees, customers, and partners believe that solutions are within reach. And beyond this, we have the power to effect change that can address – and in many cases solve – our world’s largest challenges.

We believe everyone has the potential to be a global problem-solver; someone who innovates as a technologist, acts as a social change agent and embodies an entrepreneurial mindset to combat issues such as the skills gap, climate change and economic inequality.

Yet without a diverse culture, environment and array of opportunities to support effective problem-solving, this belief becomes an idea more than action; problems more than solving.

Creating an impactful innovation culture at work

How can companies and organizations start to foster global problem-solving and build an impactful innovation culture that can change the world?

1. Instill the power of continuous learning.

Whether a recent graduate or a seasoned professional, more than ever, tomorrow’s workforce will need to be global problem-solvers equipped with an entrepreneurial and innovative mindset, the technical skills to succeed and the desire to do good.

At the company I work for, this environment of problem-solving started with the company’s focus on skill-building and hands-on experiential learning that extended out into the community with the creation of Cisco Networking Academy.

Present in 180 countries and reaching over 9 million students to date, students are developing the skills to succeed in the digital job market but also learning they can apply this talent to change the world for the better. For example, students in France’s created a smart walking stick for the blind and have since taken it to market. Most recently, Cisco released GPS: The Series, a free, animated web series for middle school students that teaches the fundamentals of entrepreneurship to tackle social and environmental issues, both global and local. Students can then apply these learnings to ideate IoT-based solutions in their own communities.

Reaching the next generation of problem-solvers earlier benefits everyone by creating an innovation culture. For example, the World’s Largest Lesson, produced by Project Everyone and UNICEF, teaches youth about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and inspires them to understand their role in a sustainable and equitable future. To date, there are nearly 300,000 students participating from across the world.

Through initiatives like Global Problem Solvers: The Series, we have the opportunity to both build problem-solving skills and open the eyes of youth to the potential of innovation for social good.

2. Provide opportunities to problem-solve, both large and small.

Empowering individuals, whether that be employees, partners, suppliers, students, or members of the community, to tackle challenges of all sizes, and to test and apply innovation and entrepreneurial skills, enables people to rethink the value they can create while uncovering new ways to approach existing challenges.

For example, Nike is taking its world-famous consumer innovation and further embedding sustainability to meet its environmental “moonshot”, one of its most ambitious goals to date that seeks to double the business while halving the company’s environmental impact. As can be seen in initiatives such as Nike’s Circular Innovation Challenge, Nike leaders believe “sustainable innovation is a team sport” and are building an environment of opportunity for all stakeholders to solve problems and feed transformative innovation.

Cisco is discovering and helping to fund tomorrow’s social entrepreneurs through innovation challenges such as the Global Problem Solver Challenge and the Cisco Global Problem Solver Prize at Rice University’s Business Plan Competition. Innovation Challenge winners have included Neopenda, who created a small wearable device that monitors the vital signs of critically ill newborns in low-resource hospitals, and Project Vive’s Voz Box, a patented speech-generating device (SGD) leveraging digitization to give a voice to the voiceless.

Nearly 3 million babies die every year in their first month of life and 98% of these deaths occur in the developing world. Founded by two Columbia University graduates, Neopenda has set out to change this with their low-cost wearable sensor that improves the care of newborns in resource-constrained hospitals.

3. Align purpose and profit for an innovation culture

Unilever has embedded social and environmental purpose into their value chain and is making purpose pay. Twenty-two of Unilever’s 26 sustainable living brands are within the company’s top 40 brands; and in 2017, the sustainable living brands continued to outperform Unilever’s average growth rate, bringing 70% of the company’s turnover growth.

About 90% of Cisco's product emissions occur during product use, which is why we focus on designing our products to be increasingly powerful and cutting-edge, coupled with a focus on energy efficiency. We have incorporated a Design for Environment (DfE) approach into our design processes and embrace a circular economy strategy to challenge how we think about product design and life-cycle management, increasing value while maximizing efficiencies and cutting waste.

4. Combine problem-solving and strongest assets for greatest impact.

And lastly, sometimes problem-solving comes in the form of being able to identify, assess and fund impactful opportunities that empower others to problem solve.

For example, GE is investing in tomorrow’s most promising solutions. Recognizing the unique capabilities of social enterprise, GE launched its Healthymagination Mother and Child Program in 2016, offering an accelerator and mentorship program that brings GE and Silicon Valley experts to sub-Saharan Africa’s social entrepreneurs addressing maternal and infant mortality.

We believe in a venture capital-like approach to investing in and then scaling tomorrow’s most promising early-stage technology solutions in the areas of critical human needs, economic empowerment and education. This approach enables social enterprises and nonprofits to prove their impact models, attract additional funding and accelerate their solutions.

Innovation: a never-ending journey

At the heart of any large business is innovation – it is why most, if not all companies are here today. However, impactful innovation has to be more than a mindset. It has to be continuously set in motion and fostered in a genuine environment that supports failure, perseverance and the relentless pursuit of the right problem to solve.

As humans, we are born problem-solvers; some are better than others, like any innate skill. And like any skill that is left unpracticed, we lose that skill.

By creating whole experiences through an innovation culture for employees – and stakeholders – to test and grow their inner problem-solver, we can build this muscle and accelerate solutions that create positive change for business, society and individuals.

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