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Innovation 101: Cisco’s Story of Transforming the Company Culture

“If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.”- Steven Johnson. This quote aptly describes Cisco’s perspective on “Innovation”. Alex Goryachev, Managing Director of Innovation Strategy and Programs at Cisco, talks about kindling an innovation revolution in the company, about employees investing in “My Innovation” programs, and how disruption is the antidote of stagnation. Alex began his Cisco journey in 2004 with a singular focus: Innovation. Prior to Cisco, Alex was a successful consultant with extended assignments at Napster, Liquid Audio, IBM Global Services, and Pfizer Pharmaceuticals.

Innovation is the lifeblood of organizations and always has been. But more than an ‘eureka’ moment, real innovation is the result of sustained efforts and a deep-rooted commitment. What role should CHROs play to build an organizational-wide innovation mindset.

Innovation is about talent. The CHRO office is an ideal starting place or ally to incubate, develop and launch programs that cultivate a more entrepreneurial culture because innovation is a mindset and an attitude. Innovation is really more about talent and the culture than it is about technology solutions and outcomes.

CHROs should either direct or play a major supporting role in igniting a highly disruptive “revolution” to transform into a culture of innovation companywide, across all functions, grade levels and geographies.

I firmly believe most anyone in any function can be the sparkplug for a companywide innovation transformation, but it can’t be done without the strong support or leadership role of the CHRO, along with other C-Suite leaders.

Tell us more about Cisco’s culture of ‘employee-led innovation’ and how similar approaches at other companies could be directly tied back to business outcomes? How can CHROs build a business case with the Board for such investments of time, money and resources?

Three years ago, I started a grassroots movement among like-minded “co-conspirators” that eventually enlisted the full commitment of the C-Suite, led by CEO Chuck Robbins, Chief People Officer Fran Katsoudis, and Chief Strategy Officer Hilton Romanski. I think this approach can and should be replicated in organizations of most any size or market sector. First, you need to take the pulse of your entire workforce to find out their entrepreneurial interests, frustrations and desires. Then, assemble a “coalition of the willing” across all functions and grades to help you interpret the survey, develop a business case for companywide innovation, map out the strategy and set no more than five common goals. Your business case should include industry research and lessons learned from your own company’s innovation programs. This varies with each company, but the most powerful business case is the cost of inaction. If you don’t do this, what will happen? Once the value proposition and coalition are established, take your case to the C-Suite, especially the heads of HR and Strategy and ultimately the CEO. Be bold and rebellious, challenge them and emphasize the threats and fears of NOT taking action. Make sure you link the game plan with corporate business and cultural strategies; in our case, we mapped it to HR’s People Deal manifesto, which affirms that innovation can come from anyone, anywhere. (At Cisco, co-innovation is one of our five strategic pillars for innovation; the others are: buy, build, invest and partner.)

What are your top tips for CHROs or CPOs to engage functional leaders and get their buy-in for ‘everyday innovation’: employees investing their time and efforts on innovation on a day-to-day basis?

First, launching a companywide innovation program that disrupts the tradition of how people work and interact is not for the faint of heart. People at all levels will try to shoot you down because of corporate politics, egos or turf battles. **Stagnation is the enemy of innovation, and you will encounter it in any large organization**. This is why it’s so critical to build and fortify your rebel alliance up front. For this transformation, you need to identify and enlist the maverick leaders in your company. These are not your usual, process-driven leaders—most likely they’re the ones who others might think are outliers or even odd, but they also share a deep passion for the entrepreneurial spirit that gets things done fast and furiously. Like you, they’re the disruptors. You probably already know who they are, but if not, you need to identify them, get them on your side and empower them with co-ownership of the game plan. Give your allies control and then you can be in charge of the common destiny. This is a broad-based movement — you’re the catalyst and cat herder.

Must innovation disrupt? What is innovation not? What are some of the misconceptions or myths you have observed about innovation and how can CHROs help bust those?

The biggest misconception about innovation is that it means creating something new. Not true. That’s more of an invention. Innovation is not tangible, a one-time event nor a result. In fact, it doesn’t really exist. To me, it’s about fostering an environment where people feel empowered to tap into their own passions or motivations, and then giving them support to bring their brilliant ideas to life, whether it’s financial incentives, training, mentorship, resources or time off.

Innovation is a mindset and behavior necessary for survival first, and then breakthroughs later.

For most organizations, especially ones with long and successful histories, I do think it takes a disruptive shock to turn everyday employees into entrepreneurial-like innovators. The results of their efforts can be incremental improvements in technology, processes, solutions or services; however, the environment itself must be massively disrupted—consistently and frequently. Another common myth is the “lone wolf” innovator who labors night and day in a garage and mortgages the house to develop one brilliant idea. In reality, innovation is a team sport with each player bringing unique skills and perspectives—CHROs must emphasize the importance of forming diverse and inclusive teams in any innovation venture.

The Cisco LifeChanger program is already creating economic and social good. It empowers people with disabilities by helping them to work remotely and productively through voice, video and collaboration technology. How can CHROs leverage technology more effectively to enable diversity in the workforce?

The Cisco LifeChanger solution emerged as one of three winners from our first companywide Innovate Everywhere Challenge three years ago. The solution was created by a diverse team of employees representing a wide diversity of functions, including HR, Engineering and Sales. We’ve hired nearly 100 new employees facilitated by LifeChanger, with more planned, and we’ve seen their productivity is more than 200 percent higher than their co-workers without disabilities. The same collaboration tools deployed for Cisco LifeChanger—voice and video shared on an enhanced and interactive communication platform—can also be leveraged to bring together people from all kinds of different backgrounds and locations around the world. **Engaging communications and user experiences are also key ingredients for rallying diverse audiences around a singular mission such as innovation**. In addition to multi-media campaigns, including promotional videos, articles, demos, in-person and online interactive All Hands meetings, we developed a feature-rich website for innovators. Called The Hub, employees can access this platform 24/7 to get involved with more than 40 programs under our “My Innovation” umbrella, invest virtual tokens for their favorite ventures, form their own interactive communities, find teams to join or team members with special skills, apply to be angel sponsors, or find mentors (we have 3,000+ at Cisco). More than half our 74,000 employees participate on The Hub.

Innovation is not only for large enterprises, but its driven by people. What can small organizations – startups and SMBs – do to drive innovation when they don’t necessarily have access to the best talent pool?

Like in larger companies, always remember to focus on the innovator—not the innovation. Innovation is driven by people, but it takes more than a brilliant idea to develop a go-to-market solution that can be monetized. Diversify your team. A team of only engineers won’t know how to bring their product to market. A team of marketers will overpromise the deliverable. You need different perspectives and skill sets—and the environment to empower and enrich them—to come up with the most innovative solutions. It’s also important for any organization in today’s complex digital world to build its own external ecosystem of partners (from large companies to startups and individual entrepreneurs or application developers), and know your role in the value-chain when co-innovating with them.

People need to work increasingly with machines as the workforce of the future evolves. How will this new man + machine interaction at the workplace impact innovation as we know it, going into the next decade?

There are four major inter-connected technologies driving new business results, culture change and innovation: The Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (or Machine Learning), Fog Computing (distributed cloud) and Blockchain. Collectively, these exponential technologies are also driving the mass digitization of business and society, and how each employee in the workforce must think about his or her career path.

Today’s digital economy, powered by these “man + machine” technologies, increasingly requires employees who embrace constant change, have technical know-how, business acumen and soft people skills.

In addition to new skills for new jobs like data scientists, data harvesters and cyber security experts, we need more people who can lead or work in a cross-functional team environment to help innovate and deploy this new generation of technologies. Industry, academia and government must partner more to address these growing skill gaps.

What strategies do you – specifically in your role – use to engage meaningfully with key stakeholders such as the CHRO, functional leaders, and other leadership, to bust the bureaucracy and risk-aversion that parades in the garb of ‘processes’ in larger teams?

I do my homework, arm myself with industry research on best practices and results, regularly collaborate with key stakeholders to strengthen my coalition, and emphasize the importance of “co-ownership” in developing and deploying innovation practices throughout the company. I emphasize that research and experience show diverse teams across functions how to develop the most valuable innovations, which means we need to break down business unit siloes. Individual departments can still do their own thing, but everyone must work hyper collaboratively on companywide initiatives around innovation. Most companies also don’t think employees are stakeholders. They’re headcount. But employees should be stakeholders if you want to unleash the power of innovation among your talent. Everyone wants to be listened to, and so listen and respond to your employees. I also emphasize lean startup methodologies, which have a disciplined but flexible, agile and fast approach to co-development. Every company in every industry is vulnerable to unforeseen digital disruptions, so I always pose the question: “What is the cost of continuing to do things the same way?”

What obligations does company leadership have towards society and how should they be approaching innovation as a way to create a win-win for society? To what extent should they be involving themselves with players like the government and social influencers to make this happen?

I’m a firm believer that companies must increasingly focus on both the economic and social impacts of their actions. Corporate Social Responsibility, whether it involves the environment or demographic makeup of a workforce, is also an increasingly important issue for a new generation of workers. I have been particularly struck by the number of innovative ideas from employee venture teams that are focused on social good, whether it’s a solution to help people with disabilities work remotely or a new way to contribute vacation time to one’s charity of choice.

Cisco has the IEC, P&G also has Connect & Develop, an innovation program for employees and partners. What are some of the other great examples you have seen in recent times across organizations of all sizes?

I’ve been impressed with Adobe and its Adobe Kickbox, which is like a toolkit of methodologies, actions and mindsets that guide companies on how to train employees to think and act more like entrepreneurs in a startup. Bristol-Meyers Squibb also recently partnered with Gagen MacDonald to drive innovative change across the workforce by engaging and listening to employee feedback, and recognizing teams that work in new ways to make transformational changes.

This article originally appeared in Spiceworks Inc. on December 16, 2021


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