“Innovation is a continuous process. It's not something you take care of when you have a spare moment. It has to be part of your culture, it has to be deeply rooted.”
Today, on our Innovation Rockstar stage: Sanjeev Mervana, Vice President of Product Management, Emerging Technologies & Incubation (ET&I) from the multinational technology company Cisco. With more than two decades of experience at Cisco, Sanjeev leads the ET&I team in sourcing, developing, testing, and managing new innovations, and incubation ideas that ultimately drive Cisco's product-led growth.
In this talk, it’s all about change, new innovation approaches, culture, partners, and leadership. With Sanjeev, we dive into Cisco's first-ever Bold Bets, an expanded new approach to driving future innovation and incubation, and learn that true innovation can only work by aggregating diverse talent with the right design partners.
If you want to learn more about Cisco's bold innovation approach but also what big topics are next on the agenda, don't miss this episode.
Below you will find the full transcript for the episode.
How Cisco prepares for change
Chris: Hi, and welcome back to Innovation Rockstars. My name is Chris Mühlroth, and I'm so excited to welcome Sanjeev Mervana from Cisco. Cisco is an organization where, in my personal opinion, innovation and leadership come together in an exceptionally good blend. So that is why I'm excited to welcome Sanjeev who is Vice President Products, Emerging Technologies and Incubation. That's quite a lot. Sanjeev. Thanks so much for joining us.
Sanjeev: Thanks for having me, Chris. I am equally excited to be speaking to you today. Thanks for the opportunity.
Chris: All right, so let's get this started. As always, let’s do a short 60-second introduction sprint. We’d like to hear more about you, your career and role in Cisco. For the next sixty seconds, the stage is all yours. Have at it!
Sanjeev: All right. I've been with Cisco for a while and worked with different product families, while always being on the lookout for new areas of innovation. In the last couple of years, we have been focused extremely heavily in incubating products within this group called emerging tech and incubation.
That’s exciting stuff, and I come from a very diverse background. I don't think people know, but I have moved around in different parts of the world. I started my career in India, moved to Africa, and then to the US. Cisco has given me a fantastic opportunity to work with cutting edge technology.
Chris: Wow. That's cool. Thanks much. I’d like you to complete a few sentence starters for me. Ready? Number one: “For me, thinking bold means…”
Sanjeev: Thinking bold means growth, innovation and disruption.
Chris: Truly a bold statement indeed. Number two: “One thing no one in corporate life knows about me is that…”
Sanjeev: That I come from Africa.
Chris: Good one. Last but not least, number three: “Recently, I changed my mind on…”
Sanjeev: I changed my mind on a lot of things, however recently, I changed my mind that I should probably run more half-marathons rather than less.
Chris: Wow. Keeping body and mind in good shape, right? Awesome, and thank you for these statements. Let's start with Cisco. Sanjeev, can you tell us more about Cisco as an organization on a very high level? How is that company structured, and how does it operate?
Sanjeev: Cisco has evolved over and transformed over its long and prosperous existence. I think the way you would look at it is that we have our strategic pillars; they drive our strategy. We have a very inclusive culture, which is one of the biggest driving factors within the organization. It's an organization with 70,000 plus people all over the globe. A conscious culture is a very big part of it. But along the lines of that, our core businesses of being innovative and driving for results lately have seen tremendous change. Our business is spread across multiple key areas right now, and we are on a journey for doing a software transformation at the moment, which is what Cisco is currently heavily focused on.
Chris: Definitely sounds like a huge transformation process. I imagine that with all the new technologies and business models there are fertile grounds to create new markets or even disrupt existing ones. As you said, reaching a stage of innovation and transformation is almost inevitable, right? How does Cisco prepare for such a massive change?
"We constantly ask ourselves the following questions: How can we start looking at trends and factor in whatever we hear from our customers and partners within communities? All of that plays a key role into driving some of those innovations and what we are bringing to the market."
Sanjeev: I think this is part of the culture itself and the markets, what we are going after primarily. I would touch upon how the emerging tech and incubation group was created with that notion that we want to look at. We constantly ask ourselves the following questions: How can we start looking at trends and factor in whatever we hear from our customers and partners within communities?
All of that plays a key role into driving some of those innovations and what we are bringing to the market. So, it’s not a singular thing. We are always listening to our customers and partners. We are listening to our employee base and looking at the trends in the market, which allows us to better tailor our steps to tackle various transformation projects; for example what we are incubating in this group.
Chris: It’s a lot of sensing. External signals of change. I would imagine that one of the complex things is that you always need to put things into context; that context has to be aligned to the organization and inform proactively the core strategy. Just recently I talked to Bob Petrie, a seasoned entrepreneur and innovation professional, who successfully built a series of companies and right now he's running innovation at Citi Ventures, which operates within a highly regulated financial sector. I asked him what in his opinion is the number one issue with innovation these days, and he said that if innovation efforts are disconnected from strategy, then it’s problematic at best and pure innovation theater at worst. Now at Cisco and as Vice President you lead the teams in sourcing, generating, screening and managing new innovation and incubation ideas that ultimately fuel growth and in particular product-led growth for Cisco. And the aim is obviously nothing less than to establish and advance the next bold bets for Cisco. Now, when we talk about those bold bets, Sanjeev, how can you make sure that you are not too far away from strategy, given that Cisco obviously is a multi-product organization with so many great products and markets you serve? How could you possibly align with strategy?
"It's very critical to be aligned with the strategy. You cannot, you know, try and drive innovation without knowing what your strategy is."
Sanjeev: I think that's a great question. And like your previous guest mentioned, I think it's very critical to be aligned with the strategy. You cannot try and drive innovation without knowing what your strategy is. So it's very critical. When we start looking at it, it's not that there is only one group within Cisco which is innovating. Everyone, every core business, every business which we run into, there is innovation happening. But there are different ways of thinking, especially the group where we are in. Obviously we are aligned very much to the strategic pillars which I was talking about. And keeping in mind, we are looking at software transformation. The way we would start looking at it is purely from a degree of separation. Okay, so we want to ensure that we tend to look at markets which may not be mature right now and which may be just very nascent. And we would look at both market as well as the time horizon, how much time it would take to even materialize that particular market. So we look at it from a degree of separation to our existing businesses to ensure that we are incubating into projects which can become the next growth areas for the company. Now, if we do not have the right strategy or the right focus areas, we could be doing a lot of different things. And in some times, that's also important. So we do have a couple of focus areas where we heavily emphasize our incubation. But we also look at things which have even not materialized. So something beyond five to seven years. And we do tend to look at those areas like quantum and sustainability. But we are looking at how we can play a big role in that area as well. So strategy is very important as part of how we incubate.
Chris: Of course. And you have the timing perspective. And then there is an assessment on emerging technologies and how nascent, how far out is a possible application in products and services. And there are many emerging technologies out there, of course. You always need to scan the market and the corporate environment for signals of change, understand problems and needs that can be solved and so on. Now, talking about those technologies and the ‘solution six problem’, there is one thing I'm particularly interested in. So one of those emerging technologies is the metaverse. And yes, it's a buzzword right now. And it's interesting because I feel it is kind of the same as when a few years ago, everybody was talking about artificial intelligence, how it will take over the world. So yes, metaverse is a hype term, too. Now, given your broad range of products, specifically in the collaboration space, take conferencing, WebEx, you know, phones and so on. I assume that there is a whole new category of opportunities emerging for you. How to collaborate and work in the metaverse. Is this something you are exploring?
Sanjeev: We are constantly innovating. The pandemic has taught us about the hybrid workplace and how it is evolving. It's a massive space. And like you outlined, we are doing a lot of cool stuff within our collaboration portfolio. Now, as part of that, we have introduced a lot of new functionalities into the market space through our WebEx tools. And we are constantly innovating around that, which requires how do we take augmented reality? How do we take holograms? How does virtual reality play into that space as you start collaborating and so forth? So it's very much an integral part of what we are thinking about. It goes back to the basics that there are certain technologies, which are really cool, maybe way earlier than what our customers or partners can consume. There are early adopters, but you got to time it well and you got to ensure that you're not creating a technology for the sake of technology, but for a specific problem in our customer environment. And that's fundamental in whether it is metaverse or collab technology.
Cisco’s “Bold Bets”
Chris: Yeah, 100% agreed. And now let's put this in context with bold bets at Cisco. And by the way, only the ones who watch the video right now can see your hoodie. It actually says Cisco Bold Bets. I love it. How are bold bets different from things you did in the past? How do you differentiate something, being a bold bet versus being “just” a product improvement?
Sanjeev: First of all, it's an always on program around the specific areas, which I highlighted, and we feel that all the employees, they touch the customers, they are working in their own environments. So sourcing the different ideas from all of this employee base, our partners, our customer base is a critical part where a specific idea could come from. So this program basically goes and bets those ideas into those categories and looks at it from both the market as well as the technology feasibility perspective. We would go and incubate ideas which can allow us to be differentiated into the market space. It may be something which is, you know, 10x better than what is out in the market. And that's where our group is focused on. So there is a combination of both the business as well as the technology aspect and the market aspect, which was not what we had done in the past before we initiated this program. Also, the sourcing of the ideas was from a limited set of people. This allows our entire employee base, our partner community and our customer community to join and share some of those thought processes and be part of the journey. So that's why it's different from what it used to be.
Chris: Well, that is super interesting. So you open up both internally and externally, providing or giving everybody a voice and letting people know that they can really make a difference. When you do that, you may run into an issue that will get you hundreds or even thousands of ideas from employees around the world. You open up a plethora of possibilities and channels to source from, as we discussed before, employees, partners, customers. Is there a good way to not get overwhelmed by the amount of ideas you get? And if so, how could you approach that?
"If you provide guardrails for ideas to be sourced from, then it becomes very meaningful. You have employees, partners, etc. all focused around solving a specific set of problems, but they all provide different solutions."
Sanjeev: Yeah, we learned that the hard way. And that's why the focus areas or the themes within which the problems which you are trying to solve are important. If you provide those guardrails for those ideas to be sourced from or the challenges you need to be sorted out, then it becomes very meaningful. You have employees, partners, etc. all focused around solving a specific set of problems, but they all provide different solutions. And that gives us a much better way to pick the needle from the haystack to see, hey, what could materialize? What could be impactful down the line from the business point of view?
Chris: That's a good way to solve that. And I would love to talk about some of the details of the program. But before, Sanjeev, let's play a quick game. And the game is called ‘Either-Or’. So the game is really simple. This is how it works. I will give you two options. You choose one of them and then maybe spend one or two sentences each to briefly explain your choice. So let's see what happens. And the first one is actually a much debated issue. What, in your opinion, drives innovation more? Is it market pull or technology push? And why do you think so?
Sanjeev: Both. Because it's not one or the other, right? They both have to work in tandem. You know, you can do a lot of research into a technology area, but that research is only good if you can apply it to a specific market and how you can cultivate that market.
Chris: I was actually hoping you would say that. So that's great. OK, the next one is a rather personal one. So are you either a night owl or an early bird and why?
Sanjeev: Night owl. I work really late at night and getting up early is not my trait. I mentioned my running, etc. I try to do it in the evening. So it helps me. That's how I've grown up.
Chris: And finally, Sanjeev, would you either stop working in the field of innovation or stop working at all?
Sanjeev: I would not stop working at all. All right. Innovation is one thing that you constantly need to do and it's not like, OK, this week I'm going to spend time on innovation. That's not how you can think about innovation, right? It has to be part of your culture. It has to be ingrained.
The “Bold Bets” innovation process
Chris: That's the simple truth. It's funny that you say that because just recently I heard a business leader saying at the end of the business year, something like, oh, well, you know, this year we got innovation done. Now what's up for next year? And I was like, dude, really? I mean, that's not how it works, right? Obviously, it's about building capability muscles in a continuous manner and incorporating that into the culture. But you're not done with innovation. Having said that, obviously, I guess there needs to be some sort of process that individuals can follow. And when we talk about bold bets, is there a process that the ventures follow? And if so, what does it look like?
“We follow a very venture-led model or a startup-led model where you have a set of ideas, but then you need to go and prove the product market fit of that MVP.”
Sanjeev: At a macro level, we have two or three key milestones which we go through. So obviously, the first step is all about ideation, where we are filtering the different ideas, figuring out. Can these ideas be validated both from a market as well as a tech feasibility perspective and so forth. And once we have thought through those areas, we tend to work towards building an MVP to just test the waters in the market because you cannot do a paper analysis unless you go into a specific environment, just like any startup does. So we follow a very venture-led model or a startup-led model where you have a set of ideas, but then you need to go and prove the product market fit of that MVP. And proving that product market fit, we work with what we call design partners who either co-innovate with us or join the journey and are facing the same critical issues. Once we have established that we can get insertion and prove the product market fit by having a repeatable use case, then the step of either we commercialize it or either we bring it to market through our existing channels. That's how we would move these ideas along. That's at a macro level. Three steps. Ideation, product market fit. You can also call it idea market fit because we need to look at it both from business as well as tech. Idea market fit, product market fit. And then we look at how we abstract value once we have proven the product market fit.
Chris: That's actually very interesting. So does that mean that the sensing and scouting activities are actually not part of the process?
Sanjeev: It is in step one. You cannot build an MVP to test the product market fit unless you have done all that scouting and testing, done the market research of which area you want to go after. We have a very simple methodology. Are there other players in the market who are doing the same thing? Can we differentiate ourselves and change that idea? Can that idea be 10 times better than what is out there in the market? That's the starting point, but that happens in the first stage.
Chris: With this, you are making sure that those activities are also focused, not too open but rather directed towards that specific idea or the venture you're after. Now we have culture and process. So what about the people? I mean, it's a challenge, right? How do you find the right people to work on bold bets on the ventures? And are they being appointed to this? Or is their participation rather voluntary? How does it work?
Sanjeev: I think it’s about having the right skills, both from the sourcing of the ideas, how you're working with the market or the startup community or the VC community, as well as the technical skills to build something. It's one thing to think about something and the other thing is to build it and actually move forward. So it's never an easy thing. We always face that challenge around having the right skills. We have been quite lucky enough to be able to attract the right talent from different areas, both from a business as well as a technology perspective, but it is a challenge for sure.
Chris: What keeps people motivated to take part in the ‘Bold Bets’ program? Do you provide some incentives? Why do people still participate?
Sanjeev: We definitely have incentive schemes for our employee base who may participate, work in different stages of this program, as well as we have some incentives for our partner community. For co-innovation, some ideas they bring in, we have a yearly innovation challenge with our global partner community as well. Those are monetary incentives. There is an incentive around what we call a ‘rotational team’. So people get to spend some time in a specific area. That can address the personal aspect, if somebody is trying to build their skill set. We give away some of these hoodies to people who are participating. There are different levels of incentives, depending on which stage you are at.
Chris: And do the incentives increase over time? Do you, for example, apply metered funding so that the further you get in the process, the more resources you get?
Sanjeev: We are still part of Cisco. So the funding is absolutely for taking an idea up to a certain level. We also want to make sure that we approach what we call a ‘flash team approach’. Now the flash team approach is very similar to how movies are made. You have a specific goal and an objective of what that movie needs to do. You bring different skills and the incentives are aligned towards those different skills, but you are not building a huge organization to deliver that small thing. I think the funding model varies based on where the projects are and at what stage the projects are.
Chris: There is one specific challenge I heard from in the past from organizations. In year one the participation rate is really high and year two, the same thing. But then, engagement rates starts to drop a lot. Can you think of any good ways you can keep engagement rates up over the years?
“We haven't cracked the formula 100%. It's a roller coaster. But the way we do it is to keep the teams motivated. We run targeted challenges.”
Sanjeev: We do tend to get run into that where the level of interest drops. So there is always the question, how do you ensure that you constantly motivate and have the folks participate into this program? We tend to do a few things which have worked for us, but obviously it's not that we haven't cracked the formula 100%. It's a roller coaster. But the way we do it is to keep the teams motivated. We run targeted challenges. And that allows different teams from different groups to come together. We also showcase some of that innovation within the company profile. Even if we are not taking that idea further by having what we call an ‘open mic’, we bring all the different folks involved, they can share their ideas, they can share their learnings. Some of the ideas help us drive new patents. Some of them are just that the ideas are stored into the library. So if I have some other idea, I would go through the library and figure out, hey, did somebody think through that and could leverage from that. If there is a connection, I could bring that person into my flash team. There are different ways how we keep them constantly engaged.
The role of leadership in innovation
Chris: Which I guess is utmost important. So it's a lot about communication. Cisco has one of the finest leadership cultures on the globe. And I think I can say that because I have been working with a lot of Cisco folks on very different occasions. So in your opinion, Sanjeev, to what extent is excellent leadership actually a driver for innovation? And what does it take to be an outstanding leader in this fast paced environment?
Sanjeev: You hit the nail there. Our conscious culture and our entire executive leadership team, our community, that whole culture at Cisco is very unique. And it starts from our CEO down, our chief strategy officer, our boss. It really starts from there. And that's what fuels the growth that you see within the company as well.
Chris: What do you think? Is there a good way to identify the right leaders and put them into those key positions? Are they just bubbling up because you notice they have the right mindset and experience toolbox? Or do you specifically scout inside the organization? 've seen organizations having internal scouts, specifically for strategy, leadership, transformation, innovation positions. How do you do that at Cisco?
Sanjeev: There's always that scouting. And again, depending on the type of projects you are running into, you require different entrepreneurial skill sets, depending on the stage the project is in. Or sometimes you just need the technology skill set to actually make the tech the differentiated piece. So depending on that, there's always internal scouting. We also have folks working across different groups. So even though this is within our group of emerging tech and incubation, that does not mean we would not partner with the other groups within Cisco. We absolutely do that because there's no one place where you have all the resources or skills. And this is exactly why we would go and partner with our partner community as well, or our customer community to actually co-innovate and make them part of the journey. Because this can't be done single-handedly, right?
Chris: That was a ton of experience in the past 30 minutes. Thank you. What are the three key takeaways you want the listeners to take away from this episode?
Sanjeev: First and foremost: Cisco as a company is really transforming. The kind of innovation and incubations we are doing is really not heard of. And I would really like the listeners to kind of look at some of the innovations or the incubations we have done. Specifically, the group where I am sitting in, we have put a couple of those innovations or a few of those innovations in the marketplace already. Go and check it out, Emerging Tech Incubation, so eti.cisco.com. The second thing I would say is: We cannot do this alone. Join the journey. Either become a design partner if you are a partner or a customer or someone who is facing the similar challenge for the incubation we are. Join the journey, sign up for the free products or become a design partner. And last but not the least: Cisco is always hiring, we are always looking for the right talent. I'm sure you will find tons of opportunity where you can get an opportunity to learn.
Chris: To be honest, I heard a lot of great feedback. Cisco being a great place to work. Now, let's move on to the next question. Let's look ahead. What can we expect from you or your bold bets in the near future?
Sanjeev: Like I mentioned, we have just introduced a couple of incubations in the market. So we are going to drive a lot of user adoption towards that. The journey does not stop. We have to continuously think through a couple of key areas where we are heavily focused on. One is around modernizing the application itself. Customers have just started the journey on cloud native. There's so much stuff to be done out there. How do you secure the cloud native? How do you modernize your application? How do you drive observability? So that's one set of area where we are focused heavily. The other set of area where we are focusing is around edge. How do you run application in a very limited set of resources? There's a ton of data happening at the edge. How do you run applications and make the decisions at the right place without taking all your data in a centralized location? How do you drive data compliance and privacy, which is becoming so critical as you move towards edge? And how do you leverage the tools that you have? You cannot use the same tools that you were using in a centralized cloud environment at the edge. So AI, ML tools, how can you make more distributed applications be installed at the edge? So those are key areas which we are looking at right now. You cannot use the same tools that you were using in a centralized cloud environment at the edge.
Chris: Okay, so that's the future. Now let's briefly look at the past. When you look back on your professional career at Cisco, Sanjeev, what would you say was your greatest Innovation Rockstar moment so far?
Sanjeev: I enjoy every day I go to work. I've been with Cisco a long time. There are a lot of innovations that we have brought, where we have helped the communities, where we have helped the customers. We feel really good about it, whether it is high end routers where I was involved or the operating systems that we had brought to the market. We are constantly challenged. Honestly, if there is no challenge, I would not be here either. You want to be challenged to drive that impact. And Cisco gives you that opportunity to be able to drive that. So I'm very fortunate, I must say.
Chris: And if there were no challenges at all, then it would be obviously very, very boring. So that's not how you would want to spend your time. With this, I would say we wrap up this episode. Sanjeev, it was a pleasure to listen to you. Thanks again for joining.
Sanjeev: Thank you, Chris. And thanks for the opportunity. Really appreciate it.
Chris: And to everybody listening or watching, if you like the show, then leave us a rating or a review and share the podcast. And if you want to get in touch, simply shoot us a message at email@example.com. Now that's it. Thanks for your time. See you in the next episode. Take care and bye bye.
Learn about some of Cisco's latest innovations like Emerging Tech Incubation.
About the authors
Dr. Christian Mühlroth is the host of the Innovation Rockstars podcast and CEO of ITONICS. Sanjeev Mervana is Vice President of Product Management, Emerging Technologies & Incubation at Cisco.
The Innovation Rockstars podcast is a production of ITONICS, provider of the world’s leading Operating System for Innovation. Do you also have an inspiring story to tell about innovation, foresight, strategy or growth? Then shoot us a note!
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