Have you ever repeated a word so often that its meaning begins to drift away into sounds and syllables? It’s an odd happening, and one I see all too frequently as a business consultant. Clients, colleagues, and even audience members at conferences allow their eyes to drift as soon as someone throws a so-called “buzzword” into an otherwise engaging conversation. Rendered near-meaningless from repetition, these words once had inspirational power and influence – but now, they just seem to be something to say. After the fact, conversationalists reflect on the matter and think:


“Well, what does ‘innovation’ really mean to me, anyway?”


But I would argue that we shouldn’t roll our eyes or cross our arms at innovation and its like. Popularity doesn’t make the term any less meaningful to those of us in business – it just requires us to take care and use it properly. In practice, innovation isn’t a single shot of inspiration or a motivation slogan to sling around the office, but a culture to foster and grow.


Businesses who embrace innovation as a mindset are never satisfied with the status quo or willing to let old systems stagnate. Rather, they constantly push for fresh thinking and encourage their employees to ask: “How can we do this better?” and “How can we move beyond where we are now?” An innovative workplace doesn’t confine its focus to profits in the present, but looks forward to potential advances in the future. In our increasingly tech-centered world, we need this sense of foresight and readiness to adapt to revolutionary changes in the business landscape. Those who allow their ventures to stagnate in outdated business practices and management modes will inevitably be left behind.


But implementing an innovation culture is easier said than done. Individuals and groups naturally resist change, preferring to tread familiar paths and follow tried-and-true working strategies. A company that simply announces their dedication to innovative thinking without the necessary follow-up likely won’t see any results – or worse, they might spark resentment for demanding unexpected or unsupported change. Successful implementation ultimately depends on two factors: leadership and change management.


Before we move on, let’s take a moment to set the record straight on leadership. Contrary to what most might think, leadership doesn’t have to be – or perhaps shouldn’t be – confined to those in management. Even the lowest-tiered employee can be a leader if she has the skills and confidence she needs to empower and inspire those she works with. Both business and society as a who demands a mix of diverse leadership types linked by one common factor: an ability to balance their personal goals with an organization’s core values and visions. I firmly believe that once we achieve this human capital balance and cultivate strong and diverse leaders, we will have built the foundation for a thriving and sustainable business environment.


Now, cultivating leadership can take time and strategy – not simply for the organizations as a whole, but also for individual employees. In my work with Sustain Leadership consultancy, the brunt of my efforts are focused on helping client organization identify what “leadership excellence” means to them, then helping individuals tap into the skills that will ultimately help them to hone their leadership skills and achieve their goals. Ultimately, I aim to guide organizations towards true potential by identifying their business strengths and aligning their behaviors, procedures, and processes, into a cohesive and value-driven organization of empowered individuals.


Note the verbiage: empowering individuals through a cultural change is key. An innovative workplace environment is predicated on employees feeling confident enough to speak up and share their ideas with the larger community. If a company attempts to develop their leaders without addressing the overall environment those leaders navigate, their efforts will be in vain. Productive change management creates openness and collaboration in the workplace. To achieve innovation, companies need to build a working environment that fosters individual confidence – however, such assurance can be difficult to come by for some employees. During my time in the increasingly gender-balanced workplaces in the MENA region, I’ve found that women in particular often feel hesitant about speaking up in male-dominated workspaces, fearing that doing so will make them seem less competent than they are. Situations like these call for specialized solutions that activate female networks and give women the confidence they need to speak up. Female networking opportunities such as Lean In circles have, in my experience, worked well: women are brought together in a safe space and given the chance to air questions and concerns that they might otherwise keep to themselves. Ultimately, this community experience helps women develop the confidence they need to share their thoughts outside of the space and contribute to a company’s communicative and innovative environment.


Innovation is not a buzzword, and change doesn’t have to be frightening. But to achieve lasting change, individuals and organizations alike need to think beyond the theoretical inspiration of “innovation” and implement effective policies to encourage leadership, communication, and fresh thinking in the workplace. Otherwise, the potential benefit of innovation may, like the word, simply fade into the background.

Top Picture: Hanane Benkhallouk stands attendees of the 2017 Woibex Global Women Leaders Conference.