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Ep. 197 - Alex Goryachev, Cisco's Global Co-Innovation Centers MD & Author of Fearless Innovation

Alex Goryachev is the managing director of Cisco’s Global Co-Innovation Centers and author of the new book Fearless Innovation. Alex and Brian Ardinger, Inside Outside Innovation founder talk about a variety of innovation initiatives going on at Cisco. We talk about the power of the individual innovator to drive corporate change and the many benefits of creating a strong ecosystem of partners outside your organization.

Before we start this week’s episode, I wanted to let you know that we recorded a number of interviews before the Coronavirus disruption started. Wanted to give some context before we jump into some of these shows. Thank you very much for listening. Being part of the Inside Outside innovation community. We look forward to talking more about the disruption of the Coronavirus and other things. Stay safe, and be well.

Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast that brings you the best and the brightest in the world of startups and innovation. I’m your host Brian Ardinger, founder of InsideOutside.IO, a provider of research, events, and consulting services that help innovators and entrepreneurs build better products, launch new ideas, and compete in a world of change and disruption. Each week we’ll give you a front-row seat to the latest thinking tools, tactics, and trends in collaborative innovation. Let’s get started.

Interview Transcript

Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I’m your host, Brian Ardinger, and as always, I have another amazing guest. Today we have Alex Goryachev. Alex is the managing director of Cisco’s Global Co-Innovation Centers and the author of a new book called Fearless Innovation: Going beyond the buzzword to continuously drive growth, improve your bottom line, and enact change. Welcome, Alex to the show.

Alex Goryachev: Thanks for having me. I’m really excited about being here today.

Brian Ardinger: I’m excited to have you on the show. Cisco’s one of those companies that you hear over and over again about the types of things that they’re doing when it comes to innovation. Let’s talk a little bit about what’s your role at Cisco and what are some of the amazing things that you’re doing when it comes to the world of innovation?

Alex Goryachev: When I think about Cisco, you are absolutely right. There’s a reason why we are the world’s best workplace. To me, it comes down to the fact that we have so many innovators in the company. I’m a bit of a matchmaker, I think internally, trying to ensure that our innovators know each other and they’re able to connect them, and bring their ideas to life. We do have about 74,000 employees in the company, and I would say, each one of them is an innovator. And when we connect, the magic happens. So that’s on the employee side. And then connecting to the outside world is another priority of mine. And we have a number of co-innovation centers around the world. Getting our employees and our teams plugged in and working together with universities and other ecosystem partners is another part of my role.

Brian Ardinger: Let’s talk a little bit about what Cisco’s co-innovation center is. We hear a lot about hackathons. We hear a lot about corporations that are trying to do startup corporate matchmaking and that, what makes your program different? And tell us a little bit about the co-innovation centers.

Alex Goryachev: When we think about going innovation centers, they exist in different parts of the world. For example, we have centers in Tokyo, we have them in Australia, we have them in London. When we think about that flavor, that flavor changes depending on the geography. Because what we do well in one country is not necessarily what the need is in another one.

I think what’s really important and what is the common thing is our ability to listen to our ecosystem and then figuring out joint solutions. And when I say solutions, I use the term broadly, right. It could be a joint research with the university, could be an internship program, could be a way for us to partner with a local startup, but it’s all about let’s stay connected with others and let’s move the technology or business models forward by working together. We’ll look at this as a win-win for everyone who is participating.

Brian Ardinger: Was there a standard way to engage with these partners? Do you have particular quarterly or monthly get togethers, how do you go about finding the right partners and then working with them.

Alex Goryachev: That’s an exceptional question. And again, it all depends where we are locally. For example, in Australia, we are right on the university campus. We are right in the middle of innovation, and we’re right in the middle of staying connected with a lot of the startups that come from university or students themselves. Right. And then in many other countries, we’ve been a very active player in the local startup ecosystem for many years. We obviously know our solution partners as well. We tend to be the partner of choice for them to connect with. The one interesting fact, we do encourage our employees to volunteer and gets engaged with the ecosystem as well. Some of those connections, they just happen organically and that’s what the magic of it is.

Brian Ardinger: Well, I love that part about it. I’ve read a lot about yourself and what you do at Cisco and that, and I think we have the same feeling that corporate innovation is great, but at the end of the day, it’s about individuals that are innovators within that organization that really make it or break it. What are you seeing when it comes to what makes a great innovator within a company to actually drive change and innovation?

Alex Goryachev: I think it’s someone who wants to win together, because at the end of the day is the lonely innovator is a myth, right. When we think about companies, especially large companies, there’s just so much knowledge in the organization and obviously there are great opportunities for scale, but what often happens is people are just not connected, and it’s not because they don’t want to, but because there’s so many things to do.

Look, the larger organizations tend to be siloed just simply because they’re large. When people look at a cut across functional approach, when they want to win together and get others on board, I think that’s when magic happens. If I think about innovation leader and people that are really making a difference, they’re the people that are out there connecting their teams with other teams across the company and seeing what the win could be.

Brian Ardinger: From a practical perspective, it probably it didn’t start out that way where you’re thinking from a perspective that everybody within Cisco’s an innovator. What are some of the grassroots things that you did to start that ball rolling or get people engaged in this process?

Alex Goryachev: It did start that way in terms of…there are tons of good innovation programs around Cisco, but what happened is they were typically very much function based. Their work was programs for engineering or IT or other functions, but they typically focus on the scope of the organization, as well as what should happen. Then what we did is we took a very cross functional approach. It happened organically because for a number of years I’ve been running startup competitions for Cisco and the way we go and engage with the outside world, and every year there would be employee or two or three or more or a dozen that are applying and saying, Hey, we want to be a part of this. There wasn’t necessarily a cross-functional vehicle.

And then the other thing is the nature of the business obviously. The more removed you are from technology, let’s say you were in finance or in some other field, probably there are less opportunities for you to innovate on the new products for obvious reasons again. But what we found out is when we have an engineer and a marketing person and the finance person and people from different backgrounds and roles and responsibilities, cross functionally, that’s where the magic happens because they all get to work with each other.

Brian Ardinger: What are the biggest challenges that you’ve had, or you’ve seen…case studies within Cisco, that have made it either more challenging or more productive?

Alex Goryachev: Anytime that people begin to work cross functionally in a large organization, there are some challenges because there’s always a political process in the larger organization, but once people get passed through that, that’s the real advantage. So again, when you think of a startup…startup is a team sport. When you think about any larger organization, be that a city or corporation, nonprofit, or United Nations for that matter, it becomes a political process. Once people are connected on the individual level, that turns to be an opportunity, then that turns to be the advantage.

Brian Ardinger: Let’s switch gears a little bit and talking about your new book that’s coming out called fearless innovation. Let’s talk about why you decided to write a book and and what’s in it for the reader.

Alex Goryachev: Thank you for asking this. The first thing is when I talk to others and I say, look, I’m working on innovation, such a broad topic and hard to explain to others, but at the same time, each one of us is an innovator. When I look at my five-year-old son, Matthew, he’s the innovator because he’s unstoppable and he questions authority. What I really wanted to do is to create a very simple and very pragmatic guide for people, and especially middle management and midsize and large companies, to go and get started with innovation activities. Because often they hear be innovative, but nobody really explains what that is. Nor do people that are saying it often know. So that’s the first part.

And then the second one, when we think about innovation, innovation is always about growth. We as humanity survive, then we will continue to survive and thrive through innovation. And innovation is not always about new products. Could be about business processes. It could be about saving money. That’s why I really talked about growth and I talked about bottom line as well. You do not have to come up with $1 billion idea to save $1 billion if you’re a large company.

Brian Ardinger: When you’re in a corporation, you see yourself as an innovator. What are some of those first steps that a person can do to start the wheels rolling within their own management team or within their own group that doesn’t require the CEO mandate to say, Hey, we’re going to be innovative.

Alex Goryachev: I talked about the win together approach, and I think there’s power in numbers. I would bet that if you look at any organization, there are plenty of innovators and there are people that are doing things differently in every organization. I think the first, and the most important thing is discovering the people that are innovators, that are trying to change the system or they’re trying to do things differently and connect with them and do things differently in the company. If you look at the large company, of course CEOs, they have a lot of authorities and so is the board and the other executive leadership. But at the end of the day, all of us are employees and we all have a say.

When people are connected cross functionally, they can go in, they can drive the agenda, and they can put those proposals in front of decision makers, or they can have some proof of concepts of things that are already working. In essence you do not need to have a CEO mandate to start doing things differently. I think it’s important to find people that are like minded and then figure out what is the small and measurable milestones that they can deliver it, and what are the things where they can demonstrate success.

Brian Ardinger: Do you think there’s a disconnect between corporations on how they incentivize innovation and how that impacts a person’s willingness to throw up their hand and say, Hey, I want to try something. I want to do something.

Alex Goryachev: To be honest, I think it’s not even around incentives. It’s really just about the time of the day. Because generally speaking, in a large company, especially in public companies, we are all measured on the results of today, and that is normal. But sometimes when you don’t create space for other things today always gets in front of tomorrow. It’s the same thing in what happens in the busy household. It’s all about prioritizing, and I think incentivizing investment for the future is a great way for the companies to grow innovation and the innovation mindset.

Brian Ardinger: You mentioned the types of folks that are out there. We term those folks the curious and the restless. Are there other skill sets that you’re looking for in an innovator that helps a bigger corporation to be able to move the needle more?

Alex Goryachev: When we think about the essential skills, just communication. These are the people that are evangelists, that can communicate and communicate not on behalf of their big egos. It’s not about them, it’s about the team. And it’s really enabling the team. On that team, there’s all sorts of personalities and skills, but it’s almost like there needs to be a business development person or an ambassador or an uber project manager. And we think about most of the projects we’ve probably seen that moved flawlessly or appeared to move flawlessly, it’s because we have that uber project manager, somebody who was humble and who really worked very hard to make the team successful. That’s the same type of personality that’s required for the innovation programs.

Brian Ardinger: If you had a couple of words of advice for folks that are trying to get started in this particular space, what are some things they should definitely avoid or definitely should include in their processes or spinning it up.

Alex Goryachev: I think they need to avoid ambiguity, and I think they need to find the metric because at the end of the day, when we’re a part of a large company or a small organization, for that matter, we’re measured on something. And by itself, innovation is not a metric. Innovation is a vehicle to get more happy customers, right? To save money, to offer new products, to save the world, whatever that is. But it’s very important to find an area. That they’d like to move through innovation and not be limited to technology or a business process, and just focus on the problem that they want to solve. And then solve it through small measurable milestones and demonstrate success to others.

That is the best way to approach this. The flip side of the coin is we see more often hear about people that are saying, well, just give us money and leave us alone. I don’t think that’s a good idea. Innovation must be measured, and it should be measured, and small and measurable milestones are great.

Brian Ardinger: The last core topic I want to talk about. You deal a lot with the outside world when it comes to innovation. There’s a lot of folks that run programs within the four walls of their corporation and that, and there’s other folks that do corporate venture and that’s their way of innovating and they look to outside startups to invest in that. You obviously seem to have a preference for both inside and outside types of approach to innovation. Talk a little bit about building that ecosystem outside when you may not have that native desire in that to move beyond your existing walls.

Alex Goryachev: I’ll talk about the small measurable milestone that companies could achieve. And if we think about innovators, the innovators are the employees of the company and each one of us has the potential to be innovator. And again, I look at my son and I’m…We were all innovators at a certain point, maybe in the larger organizations, we just become content, right, or we’re too busy. What’s worthwhile is getting in touch with the community. When we think about just employees on the grassroots level, being involved with the academic community or being involved with startups, with accelerators, just mentoring, right, getting out there, getting to know people. Magic happens. The magic happens because they come back to their workplaces.

They talk about what they’re seeing and then they want to stay connected, right. We all want to be a part of something bigger, and if we can make our communities be more innovative, if we can have more startups to be more successful at generating workplaces, we’re happy and obviously every company wants to be a part of that. Going back and just starting this on the grassroot levels and incentivizing that community connection, I think is essential to success.

Brian Ardinger: Great stuff. I appreciate that a lot because it’s one of the things that we talk about quite a bit. Obviously, the Inside Outside approach to innovation is about finding innovation no matter where it happens, within your own walls or outside, so appreciate that insight as well. If people want to find out more about yourself or your new book, what’s the best way to do that?

Alex Goryachev: and in the book I do talk about the success stories of many companies and how they’ve approached innovation, and I’ve purposely stayed low tech. There’s a lot of technology out there, and at the end of the day, it’s all about what we do with them. What is the mindset that we have? So definitely learn more at

Brian Ardinger: Well Alex, thanks for coming on. I encourage our listeners to pick up fearless innovation and I look forward to continuing the conversation in the future.

Alex Goryachev: Thanks for having me.

Brian Ardinger: That’s it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.

This podcast originally appeared in Inside Outside with Brian Ardinger on April 28, 2020


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