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Featured image: Innovate or Die: Going Beyond the Buzzword

Innovate or Die: Going Beyond the Buzzword

Alex Goryachev, WSJ Bestselling Author "Fearless Innovation"

"When people communicate and collaborate with each other, that's when they become empowered and get a voice. And that's when innovation happens."

In this episode, we are joined by the award-winning Global Technology Executive and best-selling author Alex Goryachev. With a resume that reads like a short history of technological disruption, Alex not only shares his expert knowledge on digital transformation as a sought-after speaker, but he also regularly contributes to leading media in the field.

Together with Alex, we try to get to the bottom of the big buzzword "innovation" and learn what key role communication plays in this context. If you also want to know the secret story behind sushi and what it has to do with innovation, but also why Alex believes that children are better innovators than adults, then you should definitely invest 30 minutes of your life and tune in to this episode - it's definitely worth it.

What is innovation?

Chris: Hi, and welcome back to Innovation Rockstars. I am Chris Mühlroth, and I welcome Alex Goryachev to this episode. So Alex has an impressive track record, spending more than 20 years as a global innovation technology executive. He's a globally recognized and award-winning expert in digital transformation and a Wall Street Journal best-selling author. It's great to have you on the show, Alex. Thanks for being here.

Alex: Thank you, Chris. I'm delighted that we are meeting here and in this beautiful setting. I love that guitar in the background, by the way.

Chris: Thanks a lot! Let's kick things off as always with a 60-second introduction sprint, where it's all about you and your professional career. The stage is all yours. Off you go!

Alex: Well, if I think about what my professional career is, to be honest, I still don't know. I keep innovating, and I wouldn't say go with the flow, but I try to find all the opportunities the universe gives me and make the best of them. About 25 years ago, I had a choice to work on Wall Street or to work in Silicon Valley, and most of my friends were split between the two locations. And you know, the Silicon Valley moved over. I moved around various places; it wasn't still a phenomenal place. Although 20 years later, it reminds me a bit of Wall Street. I spent some time in the music industry, working for a legendary Napster startup. Ironically enough, I was driving rights management. That is how we selected artists there. And then, I moved over to Cisco, where I spent nearly two decades driving different innovation and transformation initiatives, which was an excellent opportunity because Cisco constantly transformed itself.

Chris: I'm with you 100%. Alright, thanks. Up next, I'd like to ask you to complete those sentences. Number one: "The one thing nobody knows about me is …"

Alex: I will forever remain a mystery.

Chris: Awesome. Okay. Number two: "The single most critical element that separates innovation success from failure is …"

Alex: Communication.

Chris: Communication and all its exciting facets. We'll come to that later in our podcast. Finally, number three: "I recently changed my mind on …"

Alex: How important the brain is. However, I also realized how important the body is and have been trying to shift from my brain into my body to bring happiness, joy and innovation to my life.

Chris: Wow. Why do you think that is?

Alex: I'm still trying to figure that out, but I feel it's perhaps more rooted in primal reasons. Since we've been innovating to get a feel for the environment, we don't try to make sense of it in the brain, which is a shame.

Chris: It's a journey, right? Beautiful. That's cool. Alex, I had no idea about your past professional life as part of the music and entertainment industry. I'd be interested to know what you learnt during that time within that industry and how that influenced your later executive career as Head of Global Innovation Center for Cisco?

“Innovation is a lot about moving into the unknown.”

Alex: Well, I think it's a complex question on multiple levels. I believe innovation is about the ability to extend the mind. And I think every time I finally talk about the body, now we're talking about the reason, but it's about our ability to expand our awareness. It's about our ability to expand our consciousness, and it's about our ability to see and hear and feel things that are not necessarily in front of us or imagined. When you think about the music business or any live performance or art that you're witnessing or experiencing or creating. It's a similar process because you are moving into the unknown. And I think innovation is a lot about moving into the unknown. When we think about art and entertainment, we continually co-create with others. If I'm looking at two guitarists, I'm sure you have a favorite musician that you probably see more than once, and even with the same setlist, two different concerts are never the same because you co-create with an audience. There's a lot of communication involved. And last but not least, to make a successful executive career, there needs to be a bit of a theater, or innovation theater as some people say, for viewers, so I think entertainment is something that blends reality with imagination then it creates an experience and innovation is very much like that. And there's lots of money to be made in innovation and entertainment as well.

Chris: Right. The term innovation tends to become one of the most used buzzwords, but it's what everybody wants and that every organization strives for. Every website essentially promotes at least that notion somewhere and I'm, of course, acknowledging that there are many definitions of the term innovation. From your personal experience, how would you define the term 'Innovation' today?

Alex: It's our constant ability to co-create with ourselves and others. Innovation is a horrible term, it's a buzzword, and everybody has their own meaning for it. And at the same time, I think it's about evolution. It's about being able to constantly adjust. And to that point, you said that in the last year or two or a few months, as a planet, as a society, as any organization, we've been going through a lot of turbulence. And I think now every human can really define what innovation is, because we innovate as parents, we innovate as countries, we innovate as society, and now these are not the empty words.

ISO 56000: A global standard for innovation management

Chris: This is a wholesome definition. And frankly speaking, in the past, a few other guests I interviewed recently, were also going into that exact same direction. They were describing this as a capability, as building muscles for individuals, also for an organization to do exactly what you just described. That is interesting. So we have that. On the one hand, you compared it to a bit of art, actually, then you have the capability perspective, but now you're also selected as US tactical expert to the International Standards Organization, the ISO, working on global innovation standards like the ISO 56000 Innovation Management. Now, that's a different aspect, right? Because this is on standards. Now, we are talking about clear standards, maybe rules, procedures whatsoever. So can we talk about that? So what is the ISO 56000 Innovation Management exactly?

Alex: Well, I think exactly it goes to the ability of us speaking the common language. And again, I think even in the art space, we understand the difference between watercolor and acrylic, or between different genres in music like jazz or hip hop. And I think in order to have innovation as a mindset, as a way of life, I think it's essential that the organizations have the same definitions for different terms and different standards. So I think for the ISO, we really have the opportunity to tap into global expertise, because it's a collection of people from different countries working together, right? Trying to bring the best practices. And what this really allows us is to learn from each other, be that in Japan or in Korea or Israel or Germany, whatever those countries are, to come up with the best practices. And at the end of the day, standard is always a guideline, right? It's not set in stone, but it's always good to have a starting point, especially for the organizations, for either large organizations that are trying to transform or to drive consistent processes, or for medium and small sized organizations that are trying to be innovative. And I think maybe going back to your previous question, innovation is really a way of life. So you can't innovate from point A to point B. It's a continuous process, much like transformation. I see a lot of companies that are hiring a transformation program manager and somehow it has a span. And I think that's very ironic because transformation, much like innovation, is a constant process. The minute that you stop transforming or innovating, you die as an organization or as an entity or as a family or as a societal unit. And I feel that standards and the dialogue between innovators in different countries or organizations is essential in keeping that evolution and keeping that flame alive.

Chris: And I mean, you don't magically stop innovating because you're done, right? You don't do the same with a transformation, obviously, right? You're not saying, oh, well, okay, great. This year we have innovated a lot. Innovation is done at the organization. That is basically not the way it works. Now, can you maybe just on a very high level, briefly walk me through some of the principles of the ISO standard, just to understand what it's made of, what are some of its key components?

Alex: Well, I think the key component is being able to, first of all, describe what the different terminology is for different things. I mean, everybody has their own definition for innovation. But again, it's important that the organizations have the guidelines. So we go from literally from point A to point Z to understand what are the different mechanics that are involved in innovation whenever that's, you know, process innovation or technology innovation or business innovation. And then what are the typical processes and the workflows that are involved in that? And terminology is important. The process is important because different organizations can go and then evolve on top of that process. But I think having a starting point is essential. And I think that framework really provides a good starting point for the organizations to not only innovate, but constantly evolve.

Chris: Yeah, understood. OK, now, Alex, before we move on to a few actionable insights out of your recent, out of your professional career so far, what I would like to do is to play a quick game. And the game is called ‘Either-Or’. So, Alex, this is how it works. Let's see. I'm really curious to see how this will play out. So I'll give you two options, right? And you choose one and then spend maybe one or two sentences each to briefly explain your choice for the option. So let's see. Number one, are you either an early bird or a night owl? Or don't you sleep at all?

Alex: I'm an early bird.

Chris: OK, number two, Alex, if you had to start over in your professional career, would you either work in a small company or in a large corporation and why?

Alex: I wouldn't change a thing. I really would not change a thing. And I think I'm trying to remember where I started. You know, first of all, large companies are like a lot of small companies, if it's a really large company, it's a very fragmented thing with a lot of different tribes and organizations. But I think I started as an entrepreneur, actually. My first job was being self-employed and I wouldn't change that for a minute.

Chris: Beautiful. OK, and now finally, would you either stop working in the field of innovation or just, you know, stop working at all?

Alex: This is going to be a, you know, a worthy answer. But first of all, all of us are working in the field of innovation. And now that I have two kids, eight and three, I work in the field of innovation every day.I think now that I have children, the saddest thing that I've noticed in myself is that when we become adults, we as humans, we kind of stop innovating. We stop listening to new music or questioning authority or challenging reality. And my kids gave me a real strong push to question what is the lifestyle that I'm learning? And so the bottom line is I'll never stop innovating, no matter if that's my personal life or work life. And, you know, somehow now we're believed that this whole thing is one.

Innovate or die

Chris: That's a beautiful answer. And Alex, this kind of leads to ‘innovate or die’. I mean, Peter Drucker, famously declared this phrase and many others have shared, rephrased, whatever, reshared it again. But I guess the core sentiment is clear, right? Stay ahead of the curve of change or you're roasted. So let's talk about that for a bit. How can organizations understand and also communicate the urgency of innovation?

“Communicating the urgency of innovation is transparently describing what's going on in the industry and in the marketplace and in the company. And that will drive change because acceptance or awareness is what drives change.”

Alex: Organizations are so large and complex. But if we think about the awareness side, I think it goes back to transparency. What are organizations? It's a collection of people. And as people, we often are not in touch with our feelings. We're often not in touch with reality. And we do not want to speak self-evident truth about what's going on inside us or outside in our communities or families. The organization is the same thing. I think it's critical that the organizations listen to the environment. And they have a very candid communication and dialogue about how well they're doing in that environment and are they meeting their goals and needs and aspirations. When you think about a typical company, you go to a company meeting and everything is so great, it's just amazing. Right. How come we're out of business six months later? Communicating the urgency of innovation is transparently describing what's going on in the industry and in the marketplace and in the company. And that will drive change because acceptance or awareness is what drives change. So in order to do that, you need to have a strong capability, a strong muscle built in the organization to actually perceive and also understand that change. Because some organizations could say, well, oh, yeah, sure, I'm seeing this and seeing change whatsoever. But man, we earned a lot in the past few years. We have great products, great business model, great services out there, customers that love our products. So why change? So they really have to translate what they find specifically externally into an urgency, into the style of communication that says, well, you know, the world is changing. Customers are changing. Needs are changing. Technology is changing. We are not changing. Maybe that's not a good idea. So it's building a capability, building a muscle. But somehow you need to translate this into everybody understanding that standing still is probably leading up to failure. I mean, the only way forward is through movement. And if I think about building that capability, I mean, you've talked about the decision making. That decision making, you know, often happens in the boardroom where people look at consolidated financial statements that I'm sure have been fudged and massaged many, many times. And every single word is very politically correct so that nobody gets in trouble and everybody gets promoted and keeps their wonderful jobs. You and I know that innovation doesn't happen in the boardroom or it often happens. And most of the time it involves executive compensation. Right. What we're talking about is building that muscle is an ability for every employee in the company to express what they're seeing and exchange ideas in the workplace. When people communicate and collaborate, they become empowered. They have a voice. And that's when innovation happens. That's when the core capability needs to be developed. And by the way, speaking about ITONICS, that's why I love your product, because it really does many things. Right. But it really allows people in the organization to have a voice. And when everybody has a voice, that executive boardroom gets very different data. Because there's way more input and that input is way more real.

Chris: Yeah, that's true. You know, constantly striving to empower everybody to innovate. And that's what we're trying to do. And Alex, in your Wall Street Journal bestseller, I think it's called ‘Fearless Innovation’. You also state that corporate innovation projects and corporate innovation initiatives fail. Can you talk to this? Why do you think that is? Are they doing a bad job in empowering those individuals or are there some other, you know, things that lead to failure?

“Innovation belongs to all. It does not belong to a group of cool kids in the corner office with kombucha on top and better stock options.”

Alex: Well, I think most of the things that lead to failure in large corporations are either politics or low engagement. Somehow people say that it's budget. But when you have better politics and high engagement, you kind of always have budget. So I think the essence of the failure of most of the innovation teams is that because they're set up as innovation teams, they're not set up as cross-functional efforts. Cross-functional innovation is much harder to do. But when people create innovation initiatives, sadly, it often becomes another silo. And it really creates another class of citizens in an organization like they're, oh, these are the innovators and the rest, like 99 percent of the others, they're not unwashed masses. They're the innovators. And I feel by putting the money and creating a shiny object versus doing the hard work and to your point, enabling everybody to innovate, getting people on the same page, getting the differences on the table and talking through those differences is what leads to failure. I think innovation belongs to all. It does not belong to a group of cool kids in the corner office with kombucha on top and better stock options. That builds resentment and builds another silo.

Chris: I was just about to say that, right. That just builds another silo saying, well, these are the crazy guys and girls over there trying to do something, trying to maybe even disrupt some parts of our business. So, yeah, let them do their job. And talking about food, by the way, I guess, in your book, you actually talk about the secret story behind sushi and how this disconnects to innovation. Can you tell us more?

Alex: Yeah, I'd love to talk about it. And maybe just a very quick comment. I think you use that word disruption, which is yet another buzzword, as you and I know, because when you're in a larger organization, it's all about, let's admit it, it's all about how you play well with others. So nobody in the organization wants to be disrupted. It's all about how you integrate innovation and get all the functions from legal to an attorney. I'm married to an attorney. Attorneys do not want to be disrupted. It's all about how you integrate everybody from legal to finance in the innovation process and build value versus disruption. And if I think about value, I think sushi, the salmon sushi is a wonderful example. Where as I write in the book, I personally didn't know this, that 20, 30 years ago, nobody ate salmon sashimi in Japan. The reason that we eat salmon sashimi, not only in Japan, but around the world, is because Norwegian government had a surplus of salmon and they really wanted to create a market for it. And what's a better market than Japan, where there's a lot of fish consumption. You can sell salmon sashimi at premium prices. But the roadblock that they needed to overcome is, well, nobody thinks it's a good idea to eat salmon sashimi. And they were able in 10, 15 years, if you think about it, to shift the entire world and Japan first by building a communication program and by working with all stakeholders and getting them on board, whether that's chefs or restaurants or TV or media. And as a result, through that complex change management, they actually changed our food habits and they've created what we now would call a staple of Japanese cuisine that really came from Norway. I feel that's pretty incredible. And look, if that is possible, a change in the organization, big or small, is possible, too. As long as you play nicely with others, respect the traditions of the organization, much like Norwegians respect the traditions of the country and build on them gradually by getting others on board.

Chris: I didn't know that. And that is actually an impressive example with massive impact, right? Everybody knows sushi today. And it's like some of the weekly lunch schedules for many individuals. So that's a huge impact, actually.

Alex: I believe innovation is a win-together job, right? Now, can you imagine if Norwegians or an outsider, as typically happens in a large organization, would show up and say, hey, I'm here to disrupt your sushi business. I'm working on something very cool. It's going to change the world and you're all going to love it. I'm not sure the outcome would have been the same.

Chris: Yeah, probably not.

Alex: Anyway, your lunch would have been different.

Innovation best practice: Wikipedia

Chris: And I guess a second example you also cite, I think it's interesting, is Wikipedia. Also, as a classy example of innovation. OK, sushi and Wikipedia, I'm not sure if there is a connection, but certainly there's a connection to innovation, right? So taking Wikipedia also as an example of innovation. Where's the connect? 

"Wikipedia is a wonderful example of how you can empower communities, societies or employees to contribute. What is the market, how it should be governed, how it should be operated is crowdsourced."

Alex: I think the connect is you can trust the masses to self-govern and create a world class product. We can argue about the accuracy of some of the information there. Having said that, that's a wonderful resource that's created by people like you and me. There's not a large corporation behind them. There's a nonprofit that really just facilitates certain things. It's a self-governing community, and that self-governing community is able to go and serve millions of people around the world, not only by giving them the information, but by allowing them to contribute to that information. And I think that's a stellar example of something that can be implemented in every major organisation, because as you know, in major organizations, nothing is documented. People tend not to share information because information is job security or power. And, you know, most of the knowledge basis that you go to or documentation has been outdated by several years. Not the case with a Wikipedia. So I think Wikipedia is a wonderful example of how you can empower communities, societies or employees to contribute. And an amazing thing about the Wikipedia is the strategy for Wikipedia itself. What is the market, how it should be governed, how it should be operated is crowdsourced. Now, I would argue that that is the biggest lesson that corporations should take from Wikipedia, because in many, many cases, outside consulting firms, which have a lot of knowledge, I'm not going to argue with that. They're wonderful. Contribute to the strategy you've created. And what if we were to give every employee an opportunity to comment on the strategy, you know, crowdsource that strategy in the company. I think that's not necessarily a better idea that large consulting firms, but there would be more impact and more employee engagement and true innovation would occur. And that is the biggest Wikipedia lesson that I'd like companies to remember.

Chris: That's interesting. It sounds like, you know, crowdsourced strategy. And I'm pretty sure this might be a very good way also for any individual in the organization to actually connect to the strategy, into the tactics associated. Because oftentimes, you know, strategy is something that some boardroom, some directors or whomever maybe is leading the company or the consultorium that is leading a company is deciding in a closed room, hidden from anybody. And then it's being communicated top down and here you go. But oftentimes there is not really a connect, right, between many individuals in the organization and the actual strategy. So connecting crowdsourcing into that could be also a great tool. And talking about tools, what other tools do you suggest organizations should put into their toolbox to actually build and lead, you know, global, maybe even cross industry businesses and technology teams when focusing on innovation. What else could be in the toolbox that helps innovation succeed for organizations?

Alex: I think it's really about expanding their knowledge. And the only way you can expand the organization's knowledge is through the knowledge of the employees, right. And it's really about the opportunity to get the employees to be involved in the local innovation community. Look, our organizations are created by people like you and me. It's what all of us bring to work. And when we're excited about something, you can feel it. You can feel that energy. And I think it's important that the organizations look at the ways that their employees can be active in the communities. Can they work with startups? Can they mentor startups? Not everybody is a technology company, but I think getting people on a cutting edge within their industry to work with startups or individual changemakers is a very, very good investment. Because this is why I love having interns, right. People that come in and they intern, they show up and they're saying like, what are the tools you're using? And they show up and they're saying like, what are the tools you're using? What's that? Oh my God, that is so outdated. You should be using that. And in the large companies, somehow many people probably don't know about, unless big consulting company tells them, about different things. So internship, number one, exposure in the community by getting people to work with a local ecosystem, local venture community, local startup community too. And then the third thing is as many rotational opportunities as possible. Anything that breaks the silo and allows us to move from point A to point B in the organization or different organizations within the company is priceless in building that connection and building that culture where people question the way they do things.

Chris: Right. So, you know, stay in motion. And would you argue specifically to do job rotation? Like really say, okay, well now, you know, six months, 12 months into a role, whatever into a team move.

Alex: I think that's very good. I think rotating managers and employees is very good too. There needs to be movement and there needs to be change. And I think people generally are not comfortable with change. And at the same time, that comfort with change is comfortable with innovation because every time people are innovating or they're creating change and lowering the barrier of resistance to change in the organization and getting the mindset that change is going to happen. That's acceptable. And by the way, it's going to happen all the time. Perhaps sounds like chaos, but we live in the chaotic world and the capability that we need to build is being open to that chaotic world and embracing it and then creating beauty out of it or bigger revenue or whatever that is, customer satisfaction. Knowing those metrics and driving to that metrics whenever that's, you know, love as the company value in Southwest Airlines, for example, or profits and margins like it is on Wall Street. One is not more important than the other in the context of business. It's how all of this combines together.

How the corporate innovation landscape will change

Chris: Got it. And thanks for the actionable recommendations on what to do and what to put in the toolbox. Now let's have a look into the future if possible somehow, specifically on the big picture. Alex, how do you think the corporate innovation landscape will evolve over the next three to five years, maybe?

"There has to be standards in the organization. There has to be a way for people to express innovative ideas. And there has to be a process for those innovative ideas to be evaluated and either funded or killed. [...] As we are becoming distributed more geographically, it's essential that we capture the employee voice and we take it and we take it to action."

Alex: I'm going to use the buzzwords in a way, but it's all about the co-innovation. It's about the ecosystem innovation. It's about getting together and getting connected with others. Definitely the fact that some of us work from home and there's a flexible workforce that brings a lot of ideas to the workplace. And I think it's essential that people capture those ideas. So going back to employee crowdsourcing, I think smart organizations will double down on that. The word information management is a bit of an oxymoron, but you and I talked about the standards, right? There has to be standards in the organization. There has to be a way for people to express innovative ideas. And there has to be a process for those innovative ideas to be evaluated and either funded or killed. And I think more organizations will establish programs just for that. As we are becoming distributed more geographically, it's essential that we capture the employee voice and we take it and we take it to action. And it's essential that we work with our competitors and we work with our ecosystem partners on creating a bigger value.

Chris: And a few weeks ago, I actually heard the term or the sentence “collaboration is the new competition”, which I think is an interesting term to think of. Now, when we come from corporate innovation, let's look at you, Alex. So what's next for you, you personally? I mean, what are some of the high priority topics on your personal radar?

Alex: I think it's about being true to myself and living my life to the fullest potential. I'm not big on a career nowadays. I don't want to have a career at the cost of giving up me being a parent and creating a lunchbox for my son, which is something I do every morning and I love doing it or getting to a dance party, which is something that I now have the opportunity to do. So I think for me personally, it's really about helping startups succeed and really helping drive an agenda, a good agenda for an agenda setting company whenever that's helping transform a big business that really wants to continuously transform or getting a small company to the next level. But I think all of it is about integration. It's about integrating family, it's about integrating life and the community and all of this.

Chris: OK, so we looked forward. Now for the last question I got for you, Alex, and then I think we're already kind of done with this episode. But when you now look back on your professional career, what would you say? And I'm interested to hear that. What would you think was your greatest Innovation Rockstar moment so far?

Alex: You know, to be honest, I think my Innovation Rockstar moment was enabling a lot of innovators. Innovation is a team sport. I mean, if you were to ask me about like, what did you invent, Alex? I'd say, hey, you know, many years ago, I invented an opportunity for a venue to sell tickets online and you're able to pick your concert seats. You actually have a seat map and you know where you're when you're going and you can do that through the Internet. This later became a product that Ticketmaster integrated that I helped build, you know, 25 years ago. And every time I buy concert tickets, I'm like, oh, remember, Alex, you did that. But in reality, if I think about the Rockstar moment, it's about empowering others to innovate. I am blessed that I worked for people and that they were true mentors that empowered me to innovate and they gave me the opportunities to be the innovator and be in charge of my own destiny. And I think my biggest moment is being able to discover and enable people like that. And if I think about what I want to do in the future, going back to your previous question, that's exactly what I want to do. And whatever my next gig is, is to empower others to drive change, because change only happens when everyone is involved in it.

Chris: That is a beautiful Rockstar moment and actually also a beautiful mission, Alex, going forward. And with that Rockstar moment and with that mission in mind, we already wrap up this episode. Alex, that's it. Thanks for sharing your experience and insights. It has been incredibly insightful to listen to you.

Alex: Pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Chris: All right. And to everybody listening or watching, if you like to show the leavers a rating or a review and share the podcast with colleagues or whomever you think this might be good for. And if you want to get in touch, simply shoot us a message at Now that's it. Thanks for your time. I'll see you in the next episode. Take care and bye bye.

Show notes

Alex' best-seller  "Fearless Innovation" - a pragmatic and effective guide to help your organization survive, transform and prosper.

About the authors

Dr. Christian Mühlroth is the host of the Innovation Rockstars podcast and CEO of ITONICS. Alex Goryachev is Wall Street Journal bestselling author of "Fearless Innovation".

The Innovation Rockstars podcast is a production of ITONICS, provider of the world’s leading Operating System for Innovation. Do you also have an inspiring story to tell about innovation, foresight, strategy or growth? Then shoot us a note!



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