lighbulb with different colored bubbles coming off of it

“Innovation” has become a buzzword recently, especially in professional services. We’ve heard with increasing frequency from many firms, especially in the management consulting space, their desire to be seen as forward-thinking, original, a game-changer. And this makes sense: in such a vastly consolidating industry, where firms’ service offerings are continually evolving and overlapping, often through acquisition, it’s more critical – and challenging – than ever to stand out.

Innovation though, more than simply a buzzword, has a distinct meaning: coming up with new and creative solutions – be it new methods, new ideas, or new services – that improve or challenge existing routines. As Jim Moffat, Chairman and CEO of Deloitte, writes in Consulting Magazine, a truly innovative company asks itself, “If we were the competition, and we had nothing to lose, what would we do differently?”

The difficult – and to many CEOs, frustrating – caveat of innovation is the fact that it cannot be forced; leadership cannot simply tell their employees to innovate. But the choices of CEOs and key leadership within firms either promote or suppress innovation. “Companies can become innovative, and they can lose their ability to innovate – not by luck or chance, but as a direct outcome of strategic decisions by leaders,” writes Moffatt.

For professional service firms to truly deliver on the “innovation” promise, they first need to focus on why innovation is important to them, how it relates to their overall brand, and how to communicate that to key stakeholders. What is the benefit to customers, and how is your offering different than your competitions’?

Because the word “innovation” has become over-used and therefore vague, professional service firms must find their niche within innovation – that space which is both credible and unique, coming from the brand. Finding this space will also serve as a proof point, giving prospects, clients and employees, a reason to believe the innovation claim. Research – both internal and external – is key to uncovering this niche.

But, how can firms foster a true sense of innovation? How can they translate a brand idea into a core component of company culture? Companies must concentrate on how leadership communicates the value they put on innovation to their own employees. If the firm is transparent and forthcoming in explaining its objectives and strategy, employees will understand leadership decisions – and feel that they are a part of a team, working towards the same objectives.

Indeed, a Gallup study proved that “engaged employees inspire company innovation.” Because professional service brands are built on reputation, relationships, and intellectual capital – in other words, their people – these employees should feel a sense of shared purpose, a fundamental connection to the company’s mission, vision and values, and an understanding of how they contribute to the company’s success. We’ve often discussed how to cultivate a genuine connection with employees by engaging them: perks aren’t always everything but with the right training, tools, and use of technology, they can feel invigorated by your brand, and be inspired to innovate.

Clearly the process of changing perceptions in the marketplace is not an easy one. But it does start from the inside-out: identifying the fundamental attributes, or pillars, on which to build a differentiated brand, and then empowering employees to live that brand on a daily basis. For companies that want innovation to be more than a buzzword, employee buy-in is essential: after all, your employees are the ones delivering on your firm’s promise. Clear, consistent communication from management, combined with the right tools, can help invigorate these key stakeholders so that they are excited to innovate and enabled to live the brand.