91 Left to right: Oli Barrett, Matt Asman, Shalini Khemka, Hardeep Singh Kohli

Matt Asman at Cisco won Intrepreneur of the year award, at the recent Great British Entrepreneur Awards. So what did he do, why did he win and what is an intrepreneur anyway?

“It’s a case of disrupt or be disrupted right now,” says Matt Asman, head of the Services Innovation Excellence Centre at Cisco. “We are living in exponential times,” he continued. “We are living in the fourth era of information technology, so the pace of change is incredibly fast. There are things that we need to do to make sure that we stay ahead of the competition. The barriers to entry for risk hungry entrepreneurs are getting lower and lower, so it’s increasingly important that a company like Cisco is able to compete more aggressively because the new wave of competition is already here.”

Matt Asman is what they call an intrepreneur, he is the guy – or at least he heads up the team – which helps drive entrepreneurism both within Cisco, but also beyond the company.

As Matt put it, this means “it’s really important for a company like Cisco to be entrepreneurial and make sure innovation is at the heart of what we do.”

So how does it happen, how does innovation occur at Cisco? Matt talks about five pillars:

  • First off, is to leverage the company’s internal innovation capability.
  • Second is around buying – mergers and acquisitions, something Cisco has a long history of doing.
  • Thirdly, partnering. “We have thousands of partners around the world,” says Matt, “and we partner with them on innovation, and a lot of joint initiatives come out of those opportunities.
  • Then there is investment, Cisco invests in around 25 different countries, and so far, they have invested in over one hundred different organisations.
  • And finally, there is co-development. For Cisco, this is big. "We have 300,000 developers which we are looking to expand to one million within the next couple of years,” says Matt, building on innovation centres around the world. This includes start-ups, all working in what Matt calls the Cisco innovation eco system.
As for Matt and the rest of the Innovation Excellence Centre, he says: “We focus on helping leaders and teams across the business with the job of innovation, so that’s everything from helping then with their innovation strategy and planning, through to how they build a culture of innovation within the business.“

Matt then goes on to talk intriguingly about a gilded cage. “For my team in particular,” he says it boils down to “setting some clear goals, and then giving people freedom within a gilded cage, through empowering them to do their job in the way they think it should be done. And in the process, giving people the opportunity to take a few risks, do some experimentation and be prepared to fail, providing an environment in which people feel safe to do that. “

And to get the best out of people, he says: “I like people to be able to bring their full selves to work – being able to do the things that they love to do in a way that they love to do it.” He calls this, one of the real fuels behind innovation.

He continues: “We are also helping other teams across the business with the job of innovation. So, the way we do this is that we focus on three major areas.”

Those three areas are:

  • Strategy and leadership for innovation.
  • People and culture.
  • The processes and tools that help enable innovation.
Matt is also very enthusiastic about applying the ideas of the lean start-up, working closely with Ash Maurya, creator of the Lean Canvas.

This involves for example using elements of the lean approach through coaching and mentoring and setting up experts on the approach within the business. He said: “We are running workshops that are structured around the lean methodology.” And that means guiding and educating individuals and teams around the lean methodology . . . so really injecting and introducing that into the way we innovate within the business.”

We may live in an era of disruptive technology like never witnessed before, but that also means lots of opportunities. And Matt talks with enthusiasm about “the multi trillion-dollar opportunity of the Internet of Things.” He adds, “We also need to be innovative in a way that means we can better meet our customer needs – and those needs that are coming over the horizon that we must be able to respond to with real agility. “

He continues: “As an organisation we have a lot of our engineers – thousands of them around the world – working in an agile development environment, but we are focused much more today on the lean methodology, and how to apply that across the business. So, for us that’s about how we build, measure and learn and how we can repeat that cycle, and how we can do things in a more iterative way . . . where you can fail fast and you can de-risk a lot of the work associated with what was previously very long development cycles within businesses.“

So that’s Matt Asman, Intrepreneur of the year. In this age, when disruptive technology changes the world so fast, you have to be bold and try lots of ideas, and encourage innovation via experimenting, and that is what Cisco is doing.