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Vive la difference?

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Someone sent me this paper the other day written by Jane Lorand who runs a Green MBA at a university in the USA. The arrival of many more Green and Sustainable MBAs will no doubt mean we get a lot more of this kind of thing. I am not sure I am looking forward to it.

Lorand argues that “For today’s businesses, there exist two distinct paradigms about what is real and important.” She separates these paradigms and describes the characteristics of each, including the beliefs on which she believes they are based.

For “Business-As-Usual” companies “1) Everything is Separate and 2) Materialism is the Only Reality”.

And for sustainable companies “1) Everything is Connected and 2) Spirit and Matter Co-exist to Form Reality.”

There are things I like about the paper. I enjoy breaking things down into categories. But I think we need to be careful not to be too hard on Business-As-Usual companies.

For one thing, Lorand says that “individuals who work in Business-As-Usual corporations find it very difficult to assert belief structures, identities or methods inconsistent with their corporation.”

She also suggests that Business-As-Usual has a singular goal: “maximizing financial profit for shareholders.”

I worked for a large US corporation during the 1980s and while profit was important as far as I could tell it was never the single goal of the company. The goals were much more diverse.

Wouldn’t it be great if life was that simple and it was possible to set a single goal and then attain it? In real life, we all do our best and and a number of different things result. Often results emerge that we weren’t expecting and didn’t intend.

Reading the paper I started to wonder if every big corporation has its own Stasi – controlling the workers. By contrast, the company I worked for contained such a very large number of “mavericks”, both people and groups, that it would seem absurd to suggest that people were unable to express their own beliefs.

In fact, that company, like all others I’d suggest, was a much more diverse and heterogenous mix of people and ways of doing things than management consultants who focus on ideas like “culture” would have us believe. (In some unkinder moods I’d suggest that if organisational culture didn’t exist, management consultants would have to invent it.) I am of the school of thought that believes that culture emerges fluidly and dynamically from the beliefs and activities of the people who work in a business. It’s not some intractable glue magically imposed top-down or somehow encoded in the papers of incorporation.

Why is this important? Because as we navigate the waters of sustainable business I think we need to be very careful to be inclusive. I think we need to welcome people of all backgrounds and cultures, including those that have worked in “big business”. We need to work with these people, not against them. In my experience, most people who work in large corporations have hearts just as big as those who work in sustainable business.

And we also mustn’t start to think that big business is somehow not open to change. That sounds much too much to me like the kind of thing I might say to my wife!

This approach itself creates barriers to change – it puts people’s backs up (just ask my wife), and it disempowers us – we stop believing in the possibility of change.

Big businesses, like any business, change fast once change starts. There are armies of “catalysts for change” at every level in every decent company – not just a few undercover agents.

The evidence for this is that few big companies would have survived in the turbulent years since I have been working without an incredible ability to develop and grow in response to change. Only the real dinosaurs suppress change – and these typically go the way of the dinosaurs.

I haven’t met Jane Lorand but I feel sure she’d concur.

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Author: Pete Burden

Strategy, Leadership and Organisational Coach I am an experienced strategy, leadership and organisational coach. I work with the MDs of purpose-led businesses - people using the freedom, flexibility, and practicality of business to disrupt the world in positive ways.

2 thoughts on “Vive la difference?

  1. Can you give examples of the organisations that communicate their blend of social conscience and commercial for-profit motives elegantly and in tandem?

  2. Not sure I understand your question, Will. I think many companies large and small blend social conscience and commercial for-profit motives. If you are asking about which ones communicate this well, I’d pick Innocent (as was). Bill’s of Lewes and Brighton. Solar Century. Thousands of others.

    Is that what you mean?

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