Alex Goryachev is the author of Fearless Innovation: Going Beyond the Buzzword to Continuously Drive Growth, Improve the Bottom Line, and Enact Change. He’s an award-winning Silicon Valley veteran whose resume reads like a brief history of tech disruption. He’s worked at Pfizer, IBM, Liquid Audio, Napster, and now Cisco Systems, where he’s been for more than a decade, currently serving as their Managing Director of Innovation. According to Fortune, Cisco is listed as the 48th largest company in the world and has over 74,000 employees.
Alex was born in the Soviet Union and came to the United States as a teenager in the 1980s. He joined us for Episode 71 of the Agents of Innovation podcast to talk about his entrepreneurial experience as well as the topics discussed in his new book, Fearless Innovation.
“Most people in Silicon Valley were born somewhere else: be that in another country, or in another city, or in another state,” say Goryachev. “What makes it a special place and the hotbed of innovation is really the inclusion and diversity. It’s the fact that there are a lot of people that come there and that are willing to challenge the norms,” he said. “When I came to the United States, I wasn’t the one challenging norms. The norms were challenging me. It was a radically different experience.”
That experience helped form his approach to the world. “Disruption can come at any time,” said Goryachev. “The fall of the Soviet Union is a great example. We can argue about whether or not it was predictable or forecastable but at the end of the day, it just happened practically overnight. And that’s an interesting observation that stayed with me for the rest of my life.”
When he arrived in the United States in the 1980s, the personal computer and the internet were just coming into being and he joined a hacking community and learned about technology and information systems.
“When we think about the early adopters of the internet, it’s really the entertainment industry; when we think about digitization and the growth and digital business models a what a lot of the traditional companies are going through, that’s something that the music industry, you know, went through for 20 years ago and I was lucky enough to be a part of it,” said Goryachev.
When he was with Liquid Audio from 1998-2002, he tried persuading Billboard to start tracking digital downloads, “which was not an easy sell to the traditional media magazine that was tracking CD sales.” From there, he moved on to Napster between 2002 and 2004, “with a very honorable mission … working with them to track the digital downloads.”
While there may have been much disruption being created by companies like Liquid Audio and Napster, they were actually pioneers in trying to get the music industry to see that change was coming, and instead of resisting it, they should innovate. The one thing even those “disruptive” companies didn’t really predict is that we would all have smartphones – and instead of simply digital downloads that we would own, music would become a service that we could stream.
In his new book, Fearless Innovation, Goryachev says that “innovation is a horrible word. The term has become so buzzy, it seems to have lost all practical meaning.” The word ‘innovation’ seems to be everywhere these days – and because of the overuse of this word, “we remain utterly confused by the concept.”
“Innovation happens when agents of innovation come together,” said Goryachev. “Innovation is a team sport; it doesn’t happen in the basement. The lonely innovator is a myth. There could be a lonely inventor, but at the end of the day innovation happens with teams.”
Innovation “takes courage and it takes embracing the unknown and it takes not getting no for an answer,” says Goryachev. “To me, innovation is an ability to stay open and act on it and create something new and not being settled in the dogmas.”
“When I think about fearless innovation, I honestly think that my innovation here is my son. He’s five and a half years old and he does not take no for an answer because he doesn’t know that ‘no’ exists,” said Goryachev. “I think we’re all born innovators. And then somehow, as we become adults, somehow perhaps we lose that. So, when you talk about artists and musicians and philanthropists and entrepreneurs, a lot of them are really in touch with their childlike curiosity, so of course, they are agents of innovation.”
Goryachev also stressed that “Innovation is definitely a mindset. It’s a mindset of being urgently curious. It’s a mindset of not denying change. And it’s a mindset of embracing the unknown.” Goryachev said companies need to innovate and adapt to remain relevant and successful. “It’s a mindset of where change is coming and how we can adapt to it.”
“In order for larger organizations to remain innovative, it needs to be more of a team sport,” said Goryachev. “It goes back to breaking the silos and connecting people, connecting people together. When you think about a startup, one of the biggest assets is people and their knowledge. And if you look at large companies, there are way more people and their knowledge is tremendous. It’s all about connecting employees with each other and connecting them cross-functionally. I go back to that concept of inclusion and diversity and the concept of just getting a different opinion. Of course, if you have a diverse team, with people from different backgrounds, what you will end up with is a better product, and as an employee, you’ll end up with a far better experience.”
“Connecting employees to strategy and connecting them with each other is, I think, one of the key ways to keep innovation going in any organization, big or small. It’s just that in the startup that often happens naturally,” said Goryachev.
In his book, Goryachev points out that “Change happens naturally, but innovation doesn’t.” On the podcast, he added that as organizations grow larger Goryachev, he believes “the real unsung heroes of innovation are the middle managers of the companies … because there are so many things that they need to hold together; they need to balance the workforce needs, and the executive needs, and the Wall Street needs,” he said. “I think the middle managers are the ones who have the most influence when it comes to innovation.”
While he believes many companies should hire Chief Innovation officers, he does not think companies need to hide innovation in some special corner of the company. “It belongs to everyone and there is a potential and a need for every function in a company to be innovative.”
Goryachev also talks about how we’re witnessing the emergence of companies that are as
passionate about social impact as they are about profits. “I’m seeing that happening with large and small businesses,” said Goryachev, “and that makes me hopeful.”
He also said that for individuals and organizations to be productive and creative, we sometimes need to pause and reflect. “The one thing that I would encourage everybody is to disconnect from time to time … because at the end of the day, in order for us to be innovative, in order for us to be curious, and in order for us to create something new, we have to have space in our heads, in our lives, and in our brains and that requires slowing down and breathing,” said Goryachev.
That’s sound advice from a man who continues to be filled with life and professional experiences that have witnessed rapid change while embracing that change as an agent of fearless innovation.
You can listen to the full interview by tuning into Episode 71 of the Agents of Innovation podcast on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Stitcher, and SoundCloud. You can also follow the podcast on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. We welcome your comments below and encourage you to write a review on Apple podcasts!