How to Talk About Innovation

Before embarking on a program of innovation, you need a lingua franca.

I was at the Conscious Capitalism Alliance Summit recently, and I relearned something important. Understanding and endorsement of new ideas is only possible if your stakeholders can actually understand what you’re saying. Here are some of the takeaways from the Summit.

The talk starts from the top

Sustainability is an idea that can’t be effectively socialized from the shop floor. True, the inspiration may come from employees. But the chief executive needs to be the torchbearer. There are fundamental business decisions involved that could affect earnings – if the boss doesn’t buy into it wholly, it isn’t going to work.


One way for the CEO to help C-suite and board skeptics envision the upside of the journey is by doing a simple perspective exercise. Imagine coaching a football team from the field level. You see exactly what the opposing team sees. But what if you could lift your perspective, and sit in the media booth? You’d see the field of play, the two teams’ strategies, even the fan reactions. Sustainability is that big picture – it’s seeing the economics, the business strategy, but also the market and shifting consumer priorities. Any coach (or coaching staff) with that perspective would truly have an unfair advantage over the competition.

The body metaphor

Business leaders tend to think of business as decoupled from other aspects of the world. Bottom line priorities trump concerns for social welfare and the environment. It’s useful to compare the organization to the brain of a human body – a fantastic asset, but useless on its own. In a similar way, any chief executive believing they can push for sustainability-focused innovation without stakeholder engagement might be reminded that even if they have terrific heart for this, that heart can’t function without the cooperation of the body.

Everyone gets ‘purpose’

Doctors understand a sense of purpose. Teachers, and countless other vocations do too. But oddly enough, many businesspeople don’t seem to. One solution is to shrink the scope of purpose to something businesspeople can ‘get.’ Let’s use ‘happy’ as an example. Happy customers are usually a reflection of happy employees. And happy employees today are those who feel a more holistic sense of purpose at the workplace. They want to feel their job is a reflection of their environmental purpose, their personal purpose and their community purpose. A wise chief executive should work to foster that sense of happiness – if they want to continue to foster happy customers!

Take it out of the green context

There are plenty of terrifically successful, highly ethical, socially and environmentally engaged businesses…that don’t see themselves as ‘green.’ Faith-based organizations are just one example. Perhaps the roadblock to building a more sustainable organization is the language of green, and all the baggage it brings.

Think operating system

Every computer user understands new vs. old operating systems. Windows 98 was a great system for its time. But no matter how you upgraded and boosted it, there came a time when it simply needed to be replaced. Installing Windows XP was probably messy and a bit unpleasant – a jolt from your old way of doing things. But ultimately it enabled you to exponentially boost your productivity and job satisfaction. At its root, conscious capitalism is simply an evolved operating system. It may take some getting used to, but there are abundant examples of companies making the leap and coming out happier, healthier, and much more competitive for it.