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Innovation has no borders, no owners: Alex Goryachev

Alex Goryachev, the former managing director of Cisco's global co-innovation centers, dwells upon the nuances of innovation that can transform businesses and continuously drive growth

Innovation is one of the most bandied-about words of the decade. The most misunderstood, too, perhaps. What will it take to get beyond the buzzword and catalyze 'true' innovation, the kind that can transform businesses and continuously drive growth? Alex Goryachev, one of the world’s top experts on innovation and the former managing director of Cisco's global co-innovation centers, dwells upon the nuances in his new book Fearless Innovation. Excerpts from an email interview:

Q. How would you define ‘innovation’ in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

I think we are just starting to see the growth from the seeds planted over the last two decades. The internet democratized entrepreneurship and innovation, providing almost everyone with opportunities to connect and collaboratively implement their ideas. We have innovated at unprecedented speed, creating platforms and technologies that revolutionized many aspects of our lives. I see a tremendous impact in the areas of workflow optimization, commerce, and media.

At the same time, I feel we are just starting to realize the true potential of the 4th Industrial Revolution and innovation is beginning to take a wider effect in improving living conditions and creating economic opportunities for all. As we move forward in the post-pandemic era, it becomes obvious that the internet has been created for more than shopping and entertainment and there are lots of other areas where we need to innovate as strongly. One-third of the world's population lacks access to clean water and half of the world population does not have access to basic healthcare. We need the best ideas, teams, and technologies to focus on solving these and other pressing societal problems.

Q. A leader’s role in taking innovation beyond platitudes…

When I was applying for one of my first leadership jobs, my future boss asked me what leadership is about. I gave him an OK textbook answer, and he corrected me with: “If your efforts are successful, you will get to share the credit with hundreds of others that made it happen. And if it fails—it’s all your fault.” That shaped my thinking for many years to come and helped me focus on what separates leadership from management: Strategy, talent development, relationship building, and execution.

Leadership is about vision, execution, communication, transparency, and an open heart. Without such strong, informed leadership, there is no innovation. Lack of innovation leads to stagnation, and stagnation leads to death. Leaders must take charge to avoid this, instead of hiding their heads in the sand.

This journey begins with the simple realization that, in every organization, a gap exists between where we are and where we want to be. The aspects of our jobs that we could all do better; there are initiatives that get lost, ignored, or forgotten. Humble understanding that we don’t know it all, taking the pulse of the organization, and being honest and radically transparent about it is what builds trust, and allows for an open dialogue and space for new ideas and culture to emerge.

Leaders must develop a clear, step-by-step strategy with employee input and take ultimate accountability for its execution throughout the organization.

Q. The lonely innovator myth…

Smart leaders realize that, unlike invention, solo innovation is a myth. Ideas can come from anywhere and nobody has a monopoly on innovation. When I look back at my time at Cisco, I realize that acting on that philosophy to democratize innovation and establish cross-functional innovation programs was one of my major contributions to the company’s success.

New to my role in corporate development, I set out on a listening tour and realized that innovation programs were mostly offered in IT and engineering communities. Many outside of those functions felt they had good ideas too—ideas that could result in better company performance, but were unclear on the pathways for execution. Together with my colleagues, I set out on an adventure of ‘innovating innovation’—establishing a vehicle for all employees to co-innovate together, regardless of rank, location, and department.

The results were stunning—nearly 85 percent of the 74,000 employees engaged, breaking silos and producing a multi-million impact in new products and operational efficiency. This experience has taught me that true innovation is enabled through cross-functional teams, made up of individuals with diverse backgrounds and expertise that openly exchange information. As a leader, it is essential that we show the way by humbly collaborating with others and working together to get things done.

Q. Role of HR in fostering a culture of innovation…

HR is actually a key driver of innovation. Innovation is all about talent, and so is HR. It’s only natural that the two go hand in hand. Of course, preventing litigation and handling employee disputes are important aspects of the HR teams’ duties, but they are certainly not the only ones. Equally important is their focus on talent and culture, which they enable through recruiting, hiring, and onboarding the best employees.

Today, HR is transitioning from a policy-centric entity to a people-centric one, focusing more directly on talent and employee experiences. In one way or the other, HR is the only group that has a connection with every single employee, so their team leaders often have information that other leaders don’t. They are also typically the first to recognize the changes taking place across the ecosystem. They have the opportunity to connect with people of all different levels, across geographies and industries. Since HR is tasked with picking the best candidates for the future, they also have first-hand knowledge of employee expectations, desires, skills, and capabilities, which contributes to their unique insights into industry trends and evolving markets.

Q. Why do metrics matter in innovation efforts?

I love metrics—as I am a firm believer in pragmatic innovation—and it’s all about a clear purpose with measurable results. When it comes to most organizations, innovation should almost never be undertaken for innovation’s sake alone. Your efforts must be geared towards creating an impact that is going to directly affect your business for the better. That’s where real goals and metrics come in.

If you can’t measure these efforts and show their clear impact, then they are probably not working. Without demonstrable and transparent metrics, you won’t improve anything, and “innovation” will lose all credibility, becoming just another expensive team-building activity or publicity exercise—what I call “innovation theatre”. Metrics incentivize innovation. They hold leadership accountable and transparent, helping people understand what works, and what doesn’t.

Q. Power of the ecosystem…

Metrics show that for innovation to succeed, you need to tap into the entire ecosystem. That means partnering and co-innovating with customers, suppliers, academia, non-profits, cities, governments, and more. Just like the internet, not all innovative ideas are born inside the offices of traditional companies.

My experience shows that engaging with the entire ecosystem leads to a larger pool of opinions and vantage points. Diversity creates the best outcomes—the more varied the points of view, the better the results.

In India, I have leveraged the ecosystem co-innovation approach while working with National Geographic and Kevin Pietersen on the ‘Save This Rhino—India’ documentary. When looking for the best ways to protect rhinos in Kaziranga National Park, I helped tap into the wider wisdom of the ecosystem and searched for ideas in the impacted community. The best solutions to the human-wildlife conflict, as well as opportunities to improve flood and disaster response, and health and sanitation, came from a wide range of community members coming together and sharing their common passion for the environment.

Working with other organizations and groups builds collective knowledge in an ever-expanding innovation atmosphere. Innovation is not the domain of only one person, one initiative, one company, one industry, or one country. Just like open source, innovation has no borders, no owners—it’s everywhere all the time. To that end, if you really want to be innovative, you cannot be territorial. You must think creatively and partner with people and groups far and wide, including customers, cities and governments, academia, and nonprofits.

This article originally appeared in Forbes India on February 23, 2023


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