A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK

Why Consciousness


People sometimes ask me why am I involved with Conscious Business?

I have been involved in business for over 30 years. During that time I have worked with some marvellous people, and in some marvellous groups and companies. And we’ve done some great things.

So the business bit is easy – business is, in my view, simply the best and most powerful way to get good things done.

But why ‘conscious’?

I’ve often noticed that the things that seemed to work really well in those successful groups weren’t the stuff of conventional business or management. It was as if I was operating in a parallel world – that, to me, seemed very different from the conventional one outside.

About 10 years ago I moved to Brighton and helped create the MDhub, a collaboration of local MDs. Working with this group I realised that a lot of them wanted to do things in more innovative, more collaborative, more successful ways, but that they too could only find the one business and management book – the conventional one.

So I started working with some of them to do things in slightly different ways from how they are usually done. Business, but different.

Digging this up is a bit like archaelogy. It is only through uncovering artefacts I can date certain of these activities and things that I started to do differently.

For example, I know it was it 1987 that I learnt some of my first lessons about self-responsibility at work. On my first day of work in my new job at DEC, I was left to my own devices. On the next day too. And the next. It took a while for me to realise that I was meant to figure out what I was meant to do – for myself. Without instruction.

I know that it was during 1997 that I started doing stand-up meetings with teams, because I know that is the year that BBC News Online launched. And I remember the first large team meetings – held in an abandoned studio that had no chairs. Hence it was a “Stand-Up”.

I know it was in early 2007 that I started measuring happiness in my favourite organisation – my family. I got the idea from Paddi Lund – an Australian dentist – and my wife, kids and I measured our happiness daily for some months. I know because I still have the spreadsheets.

Having prototyped (!) the approach the only sensible thing to do was to start trying it out with the businesses I worked with.

The financial crash of 2008 certainly isn’t too far back to remember. The crash accelerated the number of MDs, and people from other fields, calling out for different, more effective ways to do business and management. The trend was already clear by then, and it wasn’t just financial. Bigger social trends such as the feminisation of the workplace were already well underway.

So working with my partners we’ve continued to develop and deliver new and different ways of doing business.

But why consciousness? Looking back the key to change in all the outfits I have worked in has always been a change in the level of consciousness, first with individuals, and then with the group.

By a change in level I don’t meant anything esoteric. Or spiritual.

I mean something quite simple to understand. But hard to achieve in practice. I mean a change in my assumptions, a shift of paradigm.

I don’t know how many levels there are.

But I do know that my experiences of 1987, 1997, and 2007 were all about increasing my consciousness and those of others.

In 1987 I learned first-hand that business worked better when I and others chose what to do.

In 1997, standing up, I and others learned that meetings weren’t the be-all and end-all of getting things done.

And in 2007 I realised that measuring happiness every day – paying attention to it – actually seemed to change my level of happiness.

There are many ways to ‘do’ change in organisations. Change is often approached like a technical problem, as if a company was a machine that could be prodded and pushed into action. Much is ‘technological’, believing that new technologies will somehow drive changes in behaviour.  Some change is ‘structural’ – change what is connected to what and things will get better.

In my view all of these work to some extent. But the thing that makes most sense to me is increasing consciousness. To me changing, and developing and growing, in fact, maturing, seems to me to be the only thing that really changes things sustainably and reliably.

I am not saying it is easy. It has taken me these three decades to make even a few real steps forward. And I often step backwards too.

But, personally, I find the process of growing my consciousness terrifying and fascinating in turns, and ultimately deeply rewarding. We get better things done, and it is more enjoyable.

That is why I choose to work in Conscious Business.

Author: Pete Burden

New ways to organise and lead - for people with 'purpose' #leadership #inquiry #noticing #complexity #communication

9 thoughts on “Why Consciousness

  1. Interesting stuff, Peter, but I wonder if what you’re talking about isn’t really self-consciousness, i.e. always being aware of what you and your company are doing, and why you’re doing it.

    In business – well, in anything, really – there are two beneficial modes: either we’re in a state of “flow” – we’ve lost our ego in the task we’re engaged on – or we’re in “meta” or self-conscious mode, standing back a bit and judging whether what we’re doing is actually the right thing to do, and, if it is, whether we’re going about it the right way.

    The problem is that flow is so seductive, so desirable, that leaders or bosses get their modes mixed up. If you take, say, a red-hot coder or TV producer and put them in charge of a team of coders or a TV production department, they need to be taught how to enjoy meta-mode as much as they enjoyed the flow mode they so easily achieved when they were writing code or making TV programmes. If they don’t grasp that what’s required of them has changed, they become miserable quite quickly – and a bigger salary and a company car won’t make up for that.

    Things go badly wrong when the miserable executive tries to achieve flow by pouring him or herself wholeheartedly into the project(s) they’re in charge of: they get stuck into the details, begin interfering with minutiae, work themselves into a frazzle trying to get back to their happy place – and drive everyone nuts. As they’re now in flow mode, rather than meta mode, they stop asking whether the project needs reframing or, indeed, scrapping. Now, they’re just obsessed with delivering the project as scoped.

    The paradigm shift you talk about – for me, at least – is moving from a mode where the aim is to lose self-consciousness to one where self-consciousness is vital.

    By the way, I’m really not sure about measuring happiness on a spreadsheet! But I agree that being aware of when you’re happy and of what makes you happy makes you happier.

    Anyway, good article!

  2. Yes, I am Scott.

    In fact, an earlier draft described changing levels as increasing awareness (or self-consciousness as you call it). As moving to a meta-level – where I watch my thoughts and my feelings.

    And awareness of the patterns of these thoughts and feelings over time. How they repeat, and how certain situations trigger predictable thoughts and feelings.

    I took that bit out because I feared it sounded a little trite, a bit too easy. Wouldn’t it be nice if just by watching our own thoughts and feelings we could suddenly attain a higher level of consciousness?

    I think awareness and meta-level thinking do help enormously. But I wanted to get across that for me at least making that jump is very hard.

    I think this is because while I do aspire to self-consciousness (awareness) I am also very ‘self-deceitful’.

    I ‘fool’ myself. I tell myself things. I convince myself black is blue, and blue is black. I am as slippery as soap when it comes to actually seeing reality – because of course I see the world through my own peculiar lens, a lens which has been conditioned and created from all my life experiences, and is constructed at least in part by the culture I inhabit.

    So, for me, jumps in consciousness are very hard won. The examples I gave may mean more to me than the reader. They really were times when something slipped or shifted in my consciousness – perhaps when my assumptions changed. And afterwards I really did see the world a little differently.

    But I think you are absolutely right – for a business executive a key forward step is learning that awareness is as valuable as ‘flow’. I am just not sure how easy it always is to really make that step.

  3. Pete,

    I think you are too hard on yourself. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if just by watching our own thoughts and feelings we could suddenly attain a higher level of consciousness?’ Well, yes, we can. Especially where we recognise that our thoughts and feelings live in the realm of ego, and that once observed we have the choice to let them go. Becoming detached from them is as easy as choosing to let them go and committing to that – and that represents a shift to a higher level of consciousness. Even the small steps are big ones. More awareness = more choice = more consciousness. It’s a continuum not a great big tsunami.

    By the way, I like the way you report consciousness in such practical terms. You seem to have the translation right for business.


  4. Pete as ever you have a lovely way with your perspective. Challenging our assumptions is core to raising our awareness. A bit like the Maslow /Humanistic theory that as we try to become more self actualised, part of achieving this is accepting that it’s aspirational not an ultimately achievable state.

    Reflective practice being part of the understanding that it’s a journey not a destination so ongoing analysis helps us increase consciousness around our business practice.

    The other aspect that I like is the aspect that we’ve got to go and experience life a bit to understand most of this and how to date we’ve accepted old business practice as some sort of incontrovertible intellectual truth even though deeper down a lot feels wrong. Top read.

  5. Hi Gina

    Many thanks for your comments.

    Yes, I think we can probably gain consciousness momentarily by watching our own thoughts and feelings. But primarily, I am interested in sustaining this, and particularly in organisations that can sustain increased consciousness.

    For me what happens is that I easily fall back again into old ways. That points to the importance of “practice” I guess.

    That is why I mention self-deceit – I think we can easily deceive ourselves into thinking we have made progress when we haven’t really. We label this ‘resistance’. And that is what makes the whole process more difficult than it might appear.

    That is an argument to say we should seek easier ways. But personally while I am still looking, and ever hopeful of finding an easier route, I am somewhat suspicious of “snake-oil”. There is a huge amount of it about – for centuries people have been flogging quick cures – just look at all those self-help books, NLP “master practitioner in-a-week” and the like.

    I like what you say about small steps and I agree – I just don’t want to give the impression of big progress with no effort.

    Oops, I’ll probably lose a few NLP friends there. Sorry!


    • Heheh…! As ever, your practical, realistic bent on this speaks the truth in the way I see it too. I think the realisation that we are all one and the same at our source, that we don’t really have to do anything or get anywhere etc – experiences of resting in the ground of being – can be just that, experiences, without the addition of practice. Practice plus insight, that seems to be the way. Disciplined practice, over time and without attachment to the results. Know I fall short of that! And while over time I see the cumulative effects of becoming ever more wakeful, I think it would definitely be accelerated with more effort to accelerate the progress.

  6. Good post, Pete. Got me thinking, and a couple of questions that come up for me that I will add to see where this might take us:

    1. What of the ‘social self’? There is increasing evidence (e.g. Alex Pentland at MIT being an example) that the notion of a ‘self’ in isolation and distinct from others may an illusion. We exist in relation to others, and make meaning through our interactions with one or more other people. Being conscious and aware of ‘self’, therefore, may be a form of delusion unless mediated through dialogue. Not sure whether i agree with that but that is what came to me as I typed.

    2. How might notions of consciousness and self relate to what Kahneman calls System 1 and System 2 thinking? Specifically, embedded in the process of consciousness and awareness and meaning creation is a decision making process. How does that connect?

    My head hurts now. Good night.


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