Alex Goryachev’s seven principles to ignite a culture of innovators


Culture of Innovators

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I came across an article in TechCrunch last night, written by Alex Goryachev, senior director of Innovation Strategy and Programs at Cisco.  I couldn’t put it down and actually read it through twice. Goryachev knows innovation, having spent 20 years creating inspired organizations where innovation is allowed to flourish he says, and turning disruptive concepts into emerging business models.

Goryachev’s experience and understanding of the influencers shaping entrepreneurship and innovation in today’s frenetic environment of digital disruption and increasing corporate demands for innovation make this article, titled “Seven principles to ignite a culture of innovators” an informative and well-timed read.

The author launches into the first paragraph with an observation I found intriguing: every big company was once a “lean and mean startup” that innovated its way it success. For many corporate executives, the inescapable influence of today’s digital disruption is renewing the entrepreneurial itch, and resisting such a powerful opportunity to rekindle the entrepreneurial flame that put their businesses on the map appears to be no easy task for many. The impulse to get innovating is on! 

A Culture of Innovators

Every company wants to be “innovative,” but Goryachev writes that “innovation” has become an overused buzzword that has lost its meaning. Executives at companies of all sizes toss the word around as if they’re doing it, he says, and they point to experiments ranging from departmental contests and monetary awards to innovation fairs, idea boxes and time to dream big as strategies for motivating employees to innovate. Executives at one company even dressed up as innovation superheroes in a calculated “intervention” concocted to galvanize employees into action.

Their intentions are good, Goryachev says, “but many of these initiatives are what I call innovation tourism.” They tell employees to spend a little time visiting innovation, but they lack the sustained commitment that’s required to disrupt and transform their entire culture.

Goryachev’s observations of successful business leaders, seemingly motivated to establish a culture of continuous in-house innovation and seize the potential opportunities and possibilities for change in today’s volatile and uncertain business environment, often prove contradictory upon second glance. Goryachev noted a common lack of any real commitment to the kind of investment necessary to develop and support a culture of innovation. In the current volatile and uncertain, business environment, such a commitment will not only ensure a business’s survival, but protect their ability to compete and even flourish in the face of adverse and fluctuating business and economic conditions. Is this shortsightedness, or an indication that these executives aren’t entirely onboard with the burden and disruptions of innovation?

In the corporate world, established executives with traditional business models, five-year sales plans and  practices adapted for incremental product improvements to avoid alarming a loyal customer base often struggle with with the disruptive minds of entrepreneurs, perpetual change agents ready to plunge into a situation from a completely unfamiliar perspective to generate something unseen to fulfill a need previously unidentified. But new products and services are the driving force behind economic growth today. Without innovation, opportunities for traditional business expansion will run dry along with the finite resources available to them.

Real, effective innovation requires company executives to invest in their people, arm potential innovators with the resources and tools they need to make their ideas a reality, and create a supportive environment for innovators. Superhero interventions and idea boxes won’t cut it.

Goryachev thinks companies need to focus less on the innovation and more on the innovator if they’re going to achieve their goals of disrupting existing markets and transforming corporate culture to one of continuous innovation. 

Goryachev’s “Seven principles to ignite a culture of innovators” are as insightful as they are pragmatic. Below are excerpts:

1. Corporate innovators need a grassroots disruption from “co-conspirators”

You can’t mandate innovation from the top. Vision statements aren’t enough. Ad hoc initiatives fizzle fast. To infuse an immediate and lasting entrepreneurial spirit into each employee, you first need to disrupt the culture. Innovators need an environment of support.

Of course, such a massive disruption requires active commitment from the C-suite, including the CEO and head of HR. Pitch them on the value of the transformation and ensure its goals align with those of the company. Do your homework!

This collective support helps to shape and champion change. It helps to free employees to think and act more like entrepreneurs in a startup. It can even help spark that creative tension where people stretch their talents outside their comfort zones.

2. Innovators can come from anywhere

Engineering and R&D used to be the sole domains of innovation in tech companies. Now, however, we recognize that innovators can come from anywhere company-wide — across all roles, grades and geographies. Discover and develop them all, whether they’re millennials in marketing, mid-career in HR or long-timers in finance.

Innovations rarely — if ever — trickle down from the top ranks. Innovators typically pop up like wild flowers from the grassroots. For example, the idea for those ubiquitous Post-it notes? They came from a pair of 3M scientists who noodled on how to use a light adhesive that executives had disregarded on another project.

3. Innovators tap into their own passions and motivations

Ordinary people become great innovators when motivated by powerful emotions. They begin their journey by tapping into their own passions. Then, they leverage that inspiration to identify and align it with a problem to solve.

4. Innovators ignite more value collaborating on cross-functional teams

Nothing profound will come from engineers working with other engineers unless they involve other functions to round out the solution. To create true breakthroughs, you need to wipe out business silos and form cross-functional teams with multi-dimensional insights from marketing, strategy, finance, HR and beyond. Innovation is a team sport requiring different talents at different stages, but all working toward a shared goal. Each contributes value because of different skills, perspectives and approaches.

Overwhelming research and my own experience validate that inclusive and diverse teams create the most transformative value.

5. Innovators need direction, strategy and resources to guide the way

The biggest mistake companies make to jumpstart innovation is their failure to provide clear guidance. Nearly everyone I know has a brilliant idea for the next big app, but few know how to bring it to life.

Innovation doesn’t ask us to reinvent the wheel — it asks us to create something better. Real innovation is challenging, and having a great idea alone is not enough — finding the right way to execute innovation requires a tremendous amount of R&D, capital and collaboration. What’s even harder is that organizations looking to break through the mold of iteration must embrace risk. And this is where creative strategy can make all the difference.

6. Mentors and coaches are more important than managers

Show the innovation way with mentors and coaches — not traditional managers. Mentors and coaches, both inside and outside the company, must replace managers to guide cross-functional teams. Traditional managers are often roadblocks to innovation. They slow progress by focusing on hierarchy, top-down decision making, rigid deadlines and short-term outcomes.

7. Empower employees to experiment, take risks and fail

To create game-changers, employee innovators must feel empowered to brainstorm, experiment and make decisions — without judgement. Companies must give up control and level the playing field so teams value everyone’s idea. To thrive, team members must hold each other accountable while driving to their goal. Netflix and TED are two companies that exemplify the democratization of decisions.

Goryachev sums up the article with a Gartner prediction that while 75 percent of businesses are preparing to become digital companies, only 30 percent of  them will be successful. The John M. Olin School of Business at Washington University also predicts that in 10 years more than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies will no longer exist. 

And finally, paraphrasing former Intel CEO Andy Grove, Goryachev writes “Only the innovative will survive.” Companies must fully commit to disruptive change, ignite innovation across the enterprise and nourish a startup culture where employees can become entrepreneurs.

Focus on the innovator — not the innovation.

Read and be schooled by Goryachev’s full original article here