A key enabler of innovation is commitment to diversity

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“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower,” once said late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple.

During periods of economic instability, many businesses make the mistake of viewing innovative measures as an unnecessary expenditure. The immediate reaction to distress is to incorporate budget cuts as the ‘go-to’ bunker until the storm has passed. However, such defensive approaches often eclipse the opportunities that emerge as the result of the economic downturn itself. A key enabler of innovation in any company is commitment to diversity.

Build a coherent, yet varied team

When we talk about diversity, the focus is generally on gender, color, ethnicity, et cetera. While such diversity surely has its place in the corporate world, the definition should be understood in more abstract terms. In order to thrive despite economic troughs, businesses must be willing to accept and embrace diversity in terms of new ideas. Having a diverse team and an inclusive leader are fundamental prerequisites to incubate an environment whereby new and creative ideas are welcomed. “The distance between someone who achieves their goals consistently and those who spend their lives and careers merely following is the extra mile,” to reference motivational business speaker and author Gary Rayan Blair.

Wael Fakharany, former regional head of Google in the Middle East and Africa, shared a meticulous process whereby new hires were interviewed by a wide range of people from different departments who then collectively made hiring decisions as a committee as opposed to a one-man responsibility. He explained: “The reason we design it this way is to ensure that we end up with a culturally and socially diverse team that can easily engage with people from different backgrounds. We find that it promotes acceptance and tolerance among employees which encourages group dialogue when it comes to decision-making and invites team members to freely propose new ideas without fear of judgment or rebuke.”

To thrive despite economic troughs, businesses must embrace diversity in terms of new ideas (Image via Rania Abdallah).

Fostering creativity

Diversity in the workplace also fosters an environment of creativity, a characteristic that lies at the core of Azza Fahmy Jewelry. As a renowned jewelry retailer, Azza Fahmy prides itself on the experience that it offers its customers. When the revolution took place in Egypt, the company had to pool together their team’s collective ideas to come up with a way in which they could maintain the ‘Azza Fahmy experience’ while carrying out the necessary budget cuts. Fatma Ghaly, managing director of the company said:, “We became very conscious about our costs during the revolution and its immediate aftermath. It became very clear that we had to cut our costs, but we needed to do so in a creative manner that wouldn’t harm our reputation or client base.” The Azza Fahmy team pooled together their diverse backgrounds and ideas to restructure their marketing operations by going online. In terms of products, they capitalized on the patriotic spirit that prevailed by producing Egypt-themed collections. Both initiatives proved to be sturdy sails that helped the business weather the storm.

Agility is key

When asked what she looked for in new job candidates, Dalia Wahba, chairperson and cofounder of CID Consulting, a management and communication consultancy since 1995, cited agility as a main attribute.  “We look for people who have a high elasticity when it comes to a fluctuating economic environment. Crises management is usually bred from such periods, so it is important that we have a team that is able to quickly and effectively respond with smart solutions,” she said. According to her, the younger generation is more agile and adaptive to the pressures of the work. “Not only are they more resilient to the shocks and changes that take place, but they also have higher energy levels when trying to work through difficult times,” she said. This ability to handle shocks goes hand-in-hand with innovation. The formula for success is to have a team that is comprised of diverse, progressive members who are passionate and hungry to learn and who contribute while holding creativity and innovation at their core.

“At Azza Fahmy, we look for people who are entrepreneurial. I want people who can come in and treat the business as their own. Our corporate culture does not have stringent rules so you can basically create your own day but with guidelines,” said Ghaly. This type of flexibility requires employees to be self-motivated and passionate about the work they are doing so that they can channel their creativity to good use and be able to solve problems independently, she added.

Willingness to take risks

The willingness to take risks without fear of failure is the final and perhaps most crucial attribute required to stay afloat during turbulent times. There was a shared consensus that failure should be welcomed as a learning opportunity through which the businesses could refine their operations and strategies. Wahba said: “It’s imperative to accept that there will be losses along the way. By experiencing such failure, you learn and better absorb shocks in the future.” In the same line, Ghaly said: “Failing is part of the process. A successful business has to be willing to try new things without fearing failure and instead viewing it as a way of learning.” Going one step further, Fakharany stated that failure lies at the heart of Google’s strategic operations. “Google actually designs stuff to fail,” he said, “of course you will take hits initially, but everyday you will learn 20 different ways of how not to fall.”

It is important that businesses recognize the necessity to innovate in times of economic downturns, and that such innovation is only made possible by embracing diversity in all of it’s manifestations, cultural, ideological, and the willingness to accept new ideas with full knowledge that they may or may not succeed. Most companies panic in times of instability. The willingness to take risks and act fast in such a time is what separates the leaders from the followers.

Feature image via Pixabay

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