The WorkLife Hub Logo
Podcast Length Icon 36:14 17 Mar 2020

Is Innovation just an overused buzzword?

On this episode, we speak about how Alex Goryachev, Cisco's Managing Director of Innovation Strategy and Programs, went from being a hands-on manager in the Silicon Valley world to writing a book. We also touch on why the “lonely innovator” is a total myth and what is the link between D&I and innovation.

What follows here are snippets from our conversation with Alex - edited for length and clarity - make sure you listen to the entire conversation for the great insight!

Agnes Uhereczky: Before we start talking about your book and its key messages could you please tell listeners more about your work and what it is that gets you up in the morning.

Alex Goryachev: When I think about what gets me up in the morning it is all about streamlining chaos because, at the end of the day, whenever we are in the world today, or in a large company, we always find chaos. There is a lot of clutter and what I enjoy the most is solving problems. Or if one problem is unsolvable managing them to the best of our availability. That’s what I am excited about. Every day presents new complexities and solving them is a great challenge.

Agnes Uhereczky: How did you go from being a hands-on manager in the Silicon Valley world to writing a book? What was that you felt wanted to tell to the readers?

Alex Goryachev: I was doing a lot of blogging on societal changes and innovation in a non-tech way. I enjoyed talking to audiences about how technology can be used to solve problems. What I have noticed is there is certainly a lot of preference for technology and people can get armoured with them without really thinking about what it is they are going to use it for. I hear all about AI and machine learning but it is all about solving problems. What I wanted to do is write about innovation in a very plain way with as little technology as possible.

Agnes Uhereczky: The book has captured that because as you say, picking up a book about innovation, as you write about this in the introduction, that it is one of the most overused words in the world today, and has almost lost its meaning so much it has been used. Your book is really about the enabling environment and the levers organisations and leaders can pull to foster innovation without it being just focused on tech.

Alex Goryachev: If you think about it, we are all watching the news and what is happening in the world right now, but none of us could have predicted that when we celebrated 2020 that a quarter forwards the world is going to be disrupted.

If we said - "Hey the world is going to be disrupted” - I bet most of the people in the large corporation space would have started talking primarily about technology and how it is disrupting the world.

But right now, painfully, we know that it is not the case. However, we can use technology to make the world better. And these are not empty words and means something for all of us today.

Agnes Uhereczky: On the WorkLife HUB podcast we speak a lot about what employers can do. I was really happy to see a subchapter on diversity and inclusion in your book. Could you elaborate a little bit on how you see the link between innovation and D&I? What are the key pointers that you researched?

Alex Goryachev: The lonely innovator is a myth. Innovation takes two. I would not argue that the invention takes one. As certainly a lonely warrior can go and invent a lot of things. Commercializing and putting it to use and leveraging to solve problems would always require a team. First of all, it is about people that are working together. And when you work together with others the teamwork is essential and the reason is very simple: we don’t know everything. Innovation is about inclusion and diversity, it is about teamwork it is about getting together with other people and getting to know your customers and getting to know your ecosystem. Because at the end of the day we live in the age of co-innovation which means that nobody can solve a problem alone. It takes people with different backgrounds, points of views, experiences to come up with answers and help make these answers a reality.

Agnes Uhereczky: You also make very important points in the book in a dedicated chapter about leadership. According to your experience, what are today’s leaders still getting wrong about fostering innovation?

Alex Goryachev: In a context of innovation and employee engagement what I often see is when the leaders are so passionate about innovation - and want to shoot for the Moon - but give zero guidance in terms of what their priorities are. I used the term pragmatic innovation and it is central that in a large enterprise people execute towards the goal. Leaders need to know what their goals are and where they want people to be innovative or what problems they want to be solving. It is also essential for leaders to that point of view. It is very important to have a culture of creativity and openness and it is central that is leveraged for some kind of purpose. I often see enablers of the culture and their desire to innovate but sometimes I don’t see a state of purpose. The more people can state that purpose as it relates to their department, team, workplace or industry the better their outcomes are.

Agnes Uhereczky: You also have a lot of inspiring case studies in the book, and one of my favourites is with LEGO. If smaller companies read your book I was wondering what they can take away from the case studies.

Alex Goryachev: The LEGO case study is really about the fact that they diversified their business after which they touch everything from movies to amusement parks etc. But it all ties back to one single premise which is: everything is possible. What they simplify in their corporate culture is everything is possible. Frankly speaking, it is no different than in any other company. It is just by nature the business they are in they can unlock the childlike curiosity and be able to have different opportunities. When they faced difficulties some time ago they were able to manage and bounce back. If you think about it, LEGO is a non-digital product. It is only plastic. But plastic is magical. And it is all about what it makes possible. And what it makes possible is endless imagination. And that endless imagination translates into pragmatic results for that business.

What I would like to say is that endless imagination coupled with a structure, governance and metrics etc. provides the same result for the business. What I try to explain in the book is how you can balance between creativity, engagement, at the same time metrics and execution.