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TEI 219: How Cisco innovates to beat competitors and deliver value – with Alex Goryachev

The surprising ways middle managers can drive innovation and product management.

I love hearing how companies improve their innovation capabilities and foster a culture of innovation. Anytime I hear such stories, I always find lessons for how other organizations can also improve their capability.

In my experience, this best occurs by enabling the largest number of employees to participate in innovation activities. More employees thinking and acting like innovators results in more innovation for the organization.

Cisco has had a program for the last four years that is built around an Innovation Challenge and Innovation Centers. It grew out of work with startups that expanded to Cisco employees.

To learn about this, our guest is the Managing Director of the Cisco Innovation Centers, Alex Goryachev. Alex enjoys turning disruptive concepts into emerging business models. He has a good cross-functional background for doing so, serving in senior roles in product development, marketing, finance, and sales.

Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers

[2:25] What does your role entail?

Cisco has more than 74,000 employees, many of whom do not have innovation in their title but have it in their mindset. I connect employees with our 14 innovation centers around the world and oversee the teams who are responsible for innovation. Our innovation centers are places where we can create new technologies and act on ideas. We work in conjunction with universities, the government, and other partners.

[4:20] How do you connect employees to innovation?

I used to run start-up competitions at Cisco and would field calls from employees asking to participate. I had to tell them no because the competitions were not open to employees. I realized that this was not a good approach so we created a cross-functional program for employees to innovate and execute their visions. Innovation is not about invention, it’s about execution. We’re looking for people who will stand up and act on their ideas and put in the time to make it happen. We ask managers to give us a percentage of the employee’s time to work on their idea. If the idea advances, the employee can choose to pursue it full-time within the company. The culture is very cross-functional and focuses on making sure people are involved in many projects.

[9:10] How are middle managers important to innovation?

At the end of the day, middle managers have the most control. The only thing that individuals have control over is their time because they don’t have budgets or teams. Senior leadership only controls the strategy. Middle managers control tactics and execution. We see clusters of great ideas that come from teams managed by certain people within the company. Once the culture of innovation is implanted in a team, it tends to take hold. At the end of the day, our manager designs our experience at work and can do a lot to promote a culture of innovation.

[12:50] What do these managers do to drive innovation?

They are open to new ideas that are not in their field and are willing to listen to ideas that come from other people. Innovation comes from inclusion and diversity and hearing different points of view. Every organization has silos, but innovative managers know how to develop cross-functional teams. You can have a lonely inventor, but you can’t have a lonely innovator. You need to have a team to drive innovation.

[16:08] Do these collaborations happen through structured programs, or is it more organic?

It’s a little of both. Innovation is fluid and there’s a culture that exists within a team. We do run an annual challenge that’s more focused and has a milestone-based approach. It really evangelizes the idea of being an innovator. The challenges have three phases: idea collection, judging, and implementation. About 50 percent of Cisco’s workforce participates in the challenge. It’s run on an open platform, so anyone can read the ideas, judge, or vote. It’s not tied to performance reviews. People are doing it because they’re having a fun experience that leads to real benefits.

[19:50] What happens to the winning ideas from the innovation competition?

They receive a seed investment, part-time or full-time assignments, and an executive sponsor. We have the role of Innovation Concierge, who works with the winning teams to help the ideas forward through a structured process. We also provide an operating budget, and the Innovation Concierge assists with things like procurement and scheduling meetings with executive sponsors. The teams can be in different locations and most of them are virtual. Along the way, we’re asking whether the ideas are aligned with Cisco’s priorities. We’re also looking for opportunities to pilot ideas with our customers. Our top ideas tend to be in the area of corporate social responsibility because people are thinking about how they can use Cisco’s resources to do good.

[26:11] What are the outcomes?

The challenge has allowed us to create a horizontal network of innovators around the company. The common denominator is the desire to change things. It creates a network and relationships that are essential for innovation. The ideas are measured in revenue, operational savings, and patents. The last piece is corporate social responsibility, which can’t be measured but makes people proud to work for Cisco.

[28:58] What qualities do managers need to drive innovation?

They need to have a “winning together” mentality that’s very inclusive. For innovation to occur, you need to have diversity and inclusion paired with execution. They also need to be brutally honest and transparent. You need to get clear feedback, especially in a corporation that can easily succumb to politics. They’re also very pragmatic and know how to get things done within the organization’s structure and constraints. It’s all about breaking down large projects into small, measurable milestones.

Useful links:

  • Connect with Alex Goryachev via his LinkedIn profile

  • Cisco’s Innovation Centers

Innovation Quote

“Form follows thought, and if you can imagine it, you can create it.” – Unknown


Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it on your favorite social network.

This podcast originally appeared in Product Mastery Now on March 4, 2019


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