Have some sticky problems you can’t seem to work out internally? Try working with your partner companies in other industries, urge innovation gurus Jeff Dyer and Nathan Furr.

In November’s Harvard Business Review, the expert duo – along with co-author Kate O’Keefe – examines Cisco’s “Living Labs,” events designed to be small, agile and lead to useful prototypes to address big opportunities almost immediately. The lessons gleaned from this model help illustrate how you can collaborate with other companies to jump-start similar innovations.

Dyer and Furr, esteemed professors at BYU and INSEAD respectively, detail the results of a recent Living Lab in Berlin. Executives from Cisco, Airbus, Caterpillar and DHL all came together, under the aegis of a simple two-page legal document, to work on solutions for their supply chain problems. Afterward, “[one] team sought to update the ‘pen and paper’ tools used by most warehouse workers: Its solution was to replace them with augmented-reality wearables – and to design a pilot that launched in a Houston warehouse 60 days later.”

How can you lead this kind of “ecosystem innovation”? The authors present four basic stages:

  1. Identify the “focus zones” and innovation partners
  2. Find and define the problems that no single firm can solve alone
  3. Convene the participants to prototype solutions
  4. Immediately establish a multi-firm team (or start-up) to pursue the opportunity

“Not every project developed this way succeeds,” Dyer and Furr warn. “Some of them are too ambitious, some aren’t ambitious enough, some run up against cultural blocks, and some simply fail. But the process allows companies to bring extremely diverse ideas, skills, and resources together to solve ecosystem-level problems at astonishing speed.”

Read the article for more information on Cisco’s Living Labs, and contact us to learn how Dyer and Furr can help you emulate Cisco’s approach in your organization.