Value Systems: It Shouldn't Take A Crisis To Catalyze Innovation Businesses that embraced tech and innovation from the start have made a smooth transition to crisis conditions with the least disruption. Those that have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the digital era are finding it is costing a lot more to adapt by virtue of necessity.

By Areije Al Shakar

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In the Middle East, the rapid growth of regional tech and startup ecosystems has seen a greater focus placed on mobile technologies by investors and governments alike. So, it is perhaps unsurprising that during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent global lockdown, companies with a strong digital-led model –such as food delivery app Talabat and grocery service GetBaqala– have thrived.

Across the MENA, and particularly the GCC, the outbreak is catalyzing a regional uptake in technologies and new innovations at an unprecedented rate. Just look to the astounding surge in e-commerce and mobile payments in a region that is notorious for its stubborn preference for cash. In Bahrain, for example, electronic fund transfer systems Fawri and Fawri+ saw transactions up by 935.7% year-on-year in May.

Conversely, companies which were previously resistant to this way of working have had to scramble to pivot and ensure their businesses stay relevant in these unprecedented times. There is a lesson to be learned: businesses that embraced tech and innovation from the start have made a smooth transition to crisis conditions with the least disruption. Those that have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the digital era are finding it is costing a lot more to adapt by virtue of necessity. It shouldn't take a crisis to catalyze innovation.

This way of thinking extends well beyond a company's digital capabilities. When internet entrepreneur Marc Benioff founded Salesforce –which is today a multi-billion-dollar software company– he took the unusual step of laying down the company's value systems from the very earliest stages of growth. Crucially, these had buy-in from not just the company management, but also from employees, clients, and other stakeholders. In other words, from the very beginning, Salesforce knew what kind of people it wanted as managers, what kind of people it wanted as employees, and even what kind of people it wanted as clients.

Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce. Source: Salesforce

Related: Driving Progress By Enabling Innovation Anywhere, Anytime

From the start, Salesforce knew – with razor-sharp precision– what kind of company it wanted to be. Salesforce's clear value systems have been maintained by ensuring clear communication between stakeholders at all times. Employees, managers, and clients alike all have a forum where they can voice their thoughts, concerns, and even criticism. This has resulted in a strong culture of trust, which has served as an engine to drive the company through even the most challenging of times. In short, they have the infrastructure in place to carry them through any crisis.

Benioff outlines these thoughts in his book Trailblazer, which carries a special significance in these unprecedented times, despite being published before the COVID-19 outbreak. Surviving a crisis as significant and complex as the current pandemic requires a strong culture of trust and communication– deeply embedded in a company's values. This is doubly true for major multinationals, managing thousands of employees across multiple jurisdictions. Just like those companies that have invested in digital capabilities from the start, those that have invested in their values from the earliest stages will be the ones that best navigate COVID-19 and future crises.

None of this is rocket science, but how many companies actually sit down at the start to outline a firm values system? When you're a small team with a new idea, the focus is on building and growing, with values and identity thought of as something that can be figured out later. This is what sets Salesforce and companies like it apart– having a clear set of values from the very beginning, a company mindset put in place at the earliest stages that can be turned to guide all decision-making, from the mundane to the market changing. This is what has kept them afloat in difficult times. More importantly, this is what has ensured they don't lose their way.

Now in 2020, we are faced with a global pandemic, a time of great uncertainty for the foreseeable future. Now more than ever, a culture that can sustain itself through the unprecedented is important. Flexibility and adaptability are crucial too, but it shouldn't take a crisis to catalyze innovation. Nor should it take a crisis for a company to figure out its own values.

Related: Rising to the Challenge: The UAE's Innovation-Driven Food Security Movement

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Areije Al Shakar

Director and Fund Manager, Al Waha Venture Capital Fund of Funds

Areije Al Shakar has more than 16 years of experience in banking and entrepreneurship. In her current role at Bahrain Development Bank (BDB), she is a Senior Vice President heading the Development Services Division, and leads the fund management team of the Al Waha Venture Capital Fund of Funds as Director and Fund Manager. Her role and involvement at the bank includes coaching, mentorship, startup seed funding, and entrepreneur development. She has been involved in the development of several support services for entrepreneurs, namely in the establishment of BDB’s Rowad Program and the Seed Fuel-Rowad startup funding program, a part of the Global Accelerator Network.

She has worked in reputable organizations including Investcorp, Citibank, BNP Paribas, and Lehman Brothers on the treasury, investment management, and advisory side. She holds a Master’s of Science in Public Policy and Management from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and a Bachelor of Commerce in Finance from the John Molson School of Business, Concordia University. She is also a Kauffman Fellow Class 24, and a certified business coach and mentor from the UK’s Chartered Management Institute. 

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