Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Becoming a Conscious Business

Fairly regularly I find myself trying to explain what a Conscious Business is.

I have answered this in terms of strategy before; and also in terms of what CB is not.

But this time I thought I’d try to answer a variant of the question: “What does a Conscious Business look like from the inside?”

At the core of a Conscious Business are people, of course. In my view, every business is simply a bunch of people, when you boil it down.

And in a Conscious Business these people are – well – conscious.

By that I mean self-aware. They reflect regularly. They assess themselves. With compassion for themselves – and with respect, empathy and congruence for others.

They’re also as open as they can be to change. They learn all the time, and a lot of that learning is about themselves.

And they work together in certain ways: for example, they challenge each other’s ideas, decisions, and behaviour. They’re open and honest – about strengths and failings.

They believe in possibility, not certainties. They’re humble. They have fun. They take responsibility – and are able to hold each other to account.

And they take joy in working with others – trying to create something valuable for themselves and others.

Having all this at the core means the business has a clear identity and is suffused with meaning and purpose. It is transparent and open to the outside world.

It is resilient and flexible, profitable, does less harm, offers truly valuable products and services, is highly attractive to customers, and is better able to attract and give a great home to key employees.

Of course, there are many businesses that are already like this. I’ve worked in some, and you may have too. (We’re not “inventing” anything new here. We’re just trying to help businesses as they grow and become more conscious.)

And a conscious business isn’t really a thing at all; it isn’t any of these things in a static sense. It’s a process – of growth and development – something that is always changing, always becoming.


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Manage yourself

Quora sent me a link to an interesting topic the other day: As first time entrepreneurs, what part of the process are people often completely blind to?

There are many good answers, but mine would be: Manage Yourself.

What I mean is look after yourself physically, mentally and emotionally.

I have seen entrepreneurs and other business people make themselves ill. And clearly if they are physically unfit, developing and growing a business becomes hard if not impossible.

I have seen entrepreneurs suffer much mental distress. They have made poor decisions, blamed other people, and failed to take the right action at the right time.

I have seen entrepreneurs stay unaware of their emotional selves. And in doing so they have often inadvertently pushed away those who would help them under other circumstances.

What’s more I have done all these things myself. And therefore I know that I was completely blind to these things at the time.

Hey ho. Onward and upward.


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Choose a ritual

There’s a great little summary here of a range of practices or rituals – things you can do every day, week, month or year – things that will help you become more positive, more aligned and more motivated.

Pretty much every religion in history includes ‘practice’ of some kind. I believe it is because, if your goal is happiness or something like it, rituals like these help. Therefore bringing them back into modern use is a great idea.

But the key ones for me are those that raise consciousness. These include journal writing, and various other kinds of reflection and self-assessment.

In my view, following rituals without consciousness or awareness is not enough. Without this awareness rituals can become empty repetitions of behaviour.

But simply ask yourself a question, or watch yourself as you do something, and things can change. Awareness or consciousness transforms our experience of ourselves and our relationships, leads to behaviour change, and ultimately to different results.


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Great leaders, great groups

A recent contact pointed me to a great little book on leadership by Steve Radcliffe.

It’s short, very clear, and very aligned with the way I understand leadership. I have written before about the need for us all to lead, but I only wish I could put it across so succinctly.

Of course, it’s only a book, and can’t really give a full sense of what it is like to live in a real life, or in a real group situation. But the central tenet – that we benefit by becoming more conscious of how we behave, what we think, and what we assume – is very dear to my heart.

The book also suggests this idea can be carried into teams, and again I completely agree. But borrowing from the great Ed Schein, I think there are even more fundamental things we need to build into our groups and teams, namely an understanding of:

  • Who am I? What is my role to be?
  • How much control/influence will I have?
  • Will my needs/goals be met?
  • What will the levels of intimacy be?

These are really great ways to access the dynamic of a group. If you are in a group and answers to these questions aren’t clear, then I’d suggest asking again, and again, until they are.

But why doesn’t every group automatically provide good, believable answers to these questions?

I believe it does indeed relate to leadership. Personal leadership. The responsibility of each of us to manage ourselves, our own emotions, our own impact.

To my way of thinking group culture is no more than the sum of how all the people in a group lead. That aggregate is what creates a situation, or maintains one, where we do – or don’t – get answers to those questions.

It is, ultimately, how we all lead that makes the difference.


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Embodied Conscious Business

What is the relationship between the body and value-led business? Why will the next generation of business work, not just cognitively but “below the tie”? How can increased body-awareness and self-management transform business practice, ethics and effectiveness? This is a guest blog post on the relationship between embodiment and conscious business, written by Mark Walsh of business training providers Integration Training (see fuller profile below).

In describing the two-way relationship between these fresh fields it pays to start with some working definitions. Conscious business is the idea that making money is not incompatible with doing good – looking after “people and planet” as well as profit and having a “values-led” or “multiple-bottom-line” approach. One might add that enjoyment and even personal growth through business is a part of this broad and not easily defined field.

Embodiment is a concern with the body as not just a piece of meat that carries our head around but as an integral aspect of ourselves. The field concerns the living subjective experience of having a body and has applications in the business world to such areas as leadership, stress management and team development.

Embodiment includes a concern for basic physical health and goes way beyond this into areas such as impact and presence, communication, emotional intelligence (a sub-set of embodied intelligence), bodily intuition and state management such as centring. Embodiment is not about athleticism but on being present to and as the body, so requires mindfulness and is about making full use of the body’s inherent capacities which industrial culture and business has largely ignored.

I have observed that doing embodied practices with business leaders increases their “circle of concern” and develops their interest in values other than money. Also that those emerging as conscious capitalists tend to become interested in embodiment. My conclusion is that causation works both ways. This makes sense given what is known about adult development which indicates that the post-modern value-set emerging in business is feeling orientated and therefore embodied.

This cultural shift in response to several hundred years of disembodied “hyper-rational” Western culture first emerged strongly in counter-culture in the sixties and has now worked its way into business, particularly in sectors such as high-tech industries which are not held-back by stagnant traditions. See, for example, the humanistic feel, and emphasis on well-being and personal sustainability in many Silicon Valley companies.

The move towards both (re)embodiment and conscious business may start with a vague sense that health is important and a company gym or similar may be needed so that employees are productive and don’t die of heart attacks. Emotions (note that the word “feeling” points to their physical nature – emotions are embodied) reemerge as aids to productive leadership and communication.

Both subjects of this post owe a debt of thanks to Daniel Goleman for legitimising being a human being at work again. EI and similar notions have provided a bridge to allowing first more effective and satisfying leadership and well-being, and then to the full embodied and spiritual aspects of being a person from nine-to-five. We are embodied, emotional values-led creatures and it pays to take account of that after all!

So ethics and the more developed perspective of conscious business have a physical foundation. Morality is as much bodily as it is rational – note that people tend to say “this FEELS” wrong, for example. And empathy is again largely bodily (feeling for others). Other capacities that remerge with embodiment are intuition (“gut” feeling) and creativity (all thinking, in fact, has been shown by embodied cognition research to be a full-body experience), giving embodied conscious businesses a competitive edge.

As the business paradigm shifts from organisation and body as machine, to organisation as living system, and body as core aspect of self, a new world of possibility emerges. What was once tolerable when one was disassociated from one’s natural empathic bodily response to suffering, ugliness and stupidity, becomes something in dire need of change.

Going beyond physical, emotional and ethical numbness business can be done in an entirely better way – in both senses of the word. A new generation are starting social enterprises and others are transforming big business from the inside. When we feel our bodies, a business that does not support us, others and our deepest values becomes an unattractive choice; and business that does will get the best and brightest. The soul of business is coming back embodied; conscious business is not just a theory: it is flesh and blood.

Mark Walsh leads business training providers Integration Training – based in Brighton, London and Birmingham UK. Specialising in working with emotions, the body and spirituality at work they help organisations get more done without going insane (time and stress management), coordinate action more effectively (team building and communication training) and help leaders build impact, influence and presence (leadership training). Clients include Virgin Atlantic, The Sierra Leonian Army and the University of Sussex. In his spare time Mark dances, meditates, practices aikido and enjoys being exploited by his niece and a mad cat. His life ambition is to make it normal to be a human being at work.


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And or but…

For some years many years ago I worked for a very successful US company, which is now part of HP. There was a popular saying in the company: “everything before but is bullshit”.

What this meant to me was that we should look out for the occasions when people might try to soften the impact of saying something tough by saying a list of positive things first. The saying drew awareness to a lack of directness and a tendency to evade.

I also remember reading somewhere that women use the word “and” at the beginning of sentences more than men do. Men engaged in a conversation will often start a sentence “But…”. Where women will respond “And…”.

The suggestion is that women are trying to build on what has just been said, where men are trying to knock it down.

Thinking about these words – “and” and “but” – puts me in mind of Conscious Business.

Conscious Businesses aim to put people and their development and growth first. And they aim to make very decent profits.

People who work in Conscious Business seek wealth. And health. And psychological well-being. And relationships.

Conscious Businesses seek to provide real value to employees. And to customers.

Today’s customers. And tomorrow’s. And people who might never be customers but who share the same planet with us.

Conscious business is also about communicating clearly, directly and congruently. It’s about less bullshit.

It’s also about taking action. Despite our fears that we might not get where we want to go. Getting past the excuses.

So not about buts. All about and.


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What is progress?

Out walking the other day I noticed that the skyline at Newhaven near where I live has now been split by the large (230ft?) chimney of a new incinerator.

A hundred years ago this might of been progress. Under the conditions then, it might have been appropriate. Like the building of our Victorian sewers, massive construction projects designed to improve public health or get rid of waste would presumably have been a good idea.

But today this sight makes my heart sink. Even ignoring the defiled view, to me, building that incinerator is not progress. It is a retrograde step.

This is a plant that will simply burn waste to produce further waste which then must be sent out in to the atmosphere or put in landfill.

And rather than a real dialogue with the people who live nearby, it seems to me many objections and suggestions were ignored. The idea of a zero waste strategy, for example – based on reducing waste at source and throughout the production cycle – doesn’t seem to have been taken very seriously by the “powers that be”.

By contrast, Ovesco, another local initiative, has been raising money for a community-owned solar power system. The idea is to put 544 photovoltaic panels on the roof of a large local building and generate renewable electricity. And, perhaps most interestingly, anyone with £250 to invest can join in and share in the returns from the project. An experiment in sustainability, and in the participation of local people.

The Ovesco project, for me, is progress.

Of course, these are very personal views. So, what makes me, personally, label one project “progress” and the other not?

Simply, for me, it is all about the vision I hold. My personal vision.

And what is vision? For me, vision is about what I see coming down the road towards me.

If I have no vision of the future, then I am interested only in what is happening to me right now.

With a negative vision, a future where the world is polluted, and a hard place to live in, then an incinerator makes perfect sense. It deals with a short-term problem. Creates some jobs in the short-term. Contributes a little to economic growth.

With a positive vision, a future where businesses and people work together in harmony to create a world where many of our energy needs are met through renewables, then the Ovesco project makes perfect sense. It allows us to experiment and learn – about renewables and how to work together as a community.

This suggests some questions: Do I need a vision? Can I choose a vision? And what should I choose: a negative or a positive vision?

Part of our nature as humans means that many of us are very present-focussed and are pretty unconcerned about the future. That is great in many ways – after all pleasure and happiness all occur in the present – not in the future.

But if we have no vision, I believe things may just happen to us, and we may miss an opportunity to influence them.

If we allow ourselves a negative vision, we create the conditions for that negative world to come about. That kind of view leads to acquiescence and a lack of action. And then we may just find ourselves getting something we don’t really want, deep down.

And, by contrast, if we learn to cultivate a positive vision perhaps we’ll start taking steps to bring it about.

By “cultivate” I really mean “learn to look”. As Shakespeare wrote, the world “is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so”. If we look carefully, consciously, we can see signs that indicate where things are heading. By selecting those that seem positive to us, and acting on them – finding allies, and taking simple, practical steps – I believe we can draw that world closer, and make it more likely to come about.

That, for me, is progress.


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Right or wrong?

I listened to an interesting talk by Paul Gilding at the RSA yesterday.

I often become defensive when I hear people strongly assert their views, so I liked it when later in the talk he disarmingly admits that actually he may be wrong. In fact, he says he’d be happy to be wrong.

I like that, because how can anybody know the future? The future hasn’t happened yet. And even if it is in some way pre-ordained, personally, I don’t believe it can be accurately predicted.

Gilding’s talk is based on his book, the Great Disruption. The message as I understand it is that the world is already at one and half times its carrying capacity. Our success means that what we consume already outstrips our planet’s ability to provide it, and we are only surviving because we are burning up our capital.

Anyone who has ever been involved in running a business understands how easy it is to burn through capital once expenditure exceeds income.

Economic and corporate growth have, so far, been mankind’s great, and only, solution to the problem of human development: so far defined as giving more people ever better standards of living.

The problem we now face is that the ratio of use compared to carrying capacity is going to grow rapidly as we apply that solution to the poorer people in the world. And from a humanitarian point of view, as well as politically, we just can’t avoid doing that.

Once we get to a point where the majority of the world’s population – already nearly 7 billion – has a reasonable standard of living, we will be at a much, much worse ratio. Somewhere around 3, 4 or even 5 times carrying capacity within the next 30 years or so.

So, according to Gilding, this is the end of our existing economic system – the one based on growth. That doesn’t mean it will be curtailed, or slowed down, or whatever; it simply means it won’t work. And it will end long before we reach 3, or 4, or 5 times carrying capacity.

Practically, and in the relatively short-term, food and oil prices will again rise dramatically – as our global oil and food production systems reach their natural limits. Political instability, oil and food prices, and climate are all inextricably linked: so we can expect even more unpredictable results. We’ve already seen the first signs of this: the need for a global financial bailout and even the recent Arab spring.

But “Mother Nature doesn’t do bailouts”. There is no “global government” that can throw additional resources at the problem. So whatever happens precisely, growth will stop. Clearly, an economic system based on growth doesn’t work when growth has stopped. And this will happen well before we reach the higher end of those use-to-capacity ratios.

Again, according to Gilding, fiddling around with population won’t help. Even if we could stop population growth today this ratio of use compared to carrying capacity will still grow massively as the standard of living of people already born rises.

Might technological advance, and, for example, limitless energy solve the problem? Possibly, but not for the next twenty years or so. We’re just not there yet technologically. Gilding’s prediction is that the current economic system will reach its limits well before we find technological solutions.

So, not a pretty vision. But ultimately he is mainly optimistic. For two main reasons.

Firstly, he believes that once we eventually notice that we are being boiled alive (like Charles Handy’s frog), then we will band together and deal with the crisis well.

Humanity, he says, is excellent at dealing with crises. It may be painful but we will do whatever it takes to solve the problems we have. A spirit similar to that of the second world war will emerge – community and mutual support will strengthen, and with a bit of luck we’ll get though it. Perhaps not as individuals. But at least as the human race.

And the other reason for hope is that as the current economic system collapses we’ll replace it with a much better one. A steady state economy which while it reduces that use/carrying capacity ratio to a sustainable level also has the huge benefit that it supports a much more holistic definition of wealth – where happiness, relationships, community, and mental and physical health sit alongside sufficient material prosperity.

All of the above is based on research done by some respected bodies and groups (such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Global Footprint Network). I suppose there’s always a question with this kind of thing: who do I, as a relatively uninformed citizen, trust?

Personally, what worries me about some economists is that they seem locked in to a paradigmatic view of the world which assumes growth is the only model. Where many environmental scientists, perhaps because of their more systemic world view, seem to be prepared to challenge their own assumptions. Perhaps.

But does it really matter if Gilding is right or wrong? If I am right or wrong? Or if anyone is right or wrong about this kind of thing?

In one sense yes. Gilding downplays the terrible human consequences if he does turn out to be right.

But in another sense perhaps not. Not in the sense of what we should be doing about it.

What does it mean for Conscious Business if he is right?

Well, for me, it means that Conscious Business is an excellent idea – because anything that prepares people for a world where happiness, relationships, mental and physical health sit alongside sufficient material prosperity is a good thing. Making the transition to that world easier seems, to me, a good and useful thing to do.

And what does it mean for Conscious Business if he is wrong?

Well, for me, it means that Conscious Business is an excellent idea – for exactly the same reasons. Creating that kind of world is a good thing in its own right, for all of us.

So take your pick: right or wrong? And then get on with becoming more conscious, and bringing more consciousness into your business.


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The power of models

My first job after leaving university required that I learn about (computer) operating systems. At the time (1979) the most important ones included MVS and VM from IBM, RSX and VMS from DEC, and UNIX: PCs were yet to really emerge.

For a while, books on operating systems were my bedside reading (yes, geeky, I know). I loved to understand the way these systems worked – scheduling work, handling resources and managing interactions with the computer terminals of hundreds of people – all at what seemed incredible speeds.

I learned to write programme code and played around a little with the internals of these complex beasts. But, really, I was much more interested in understanding the models involved. What fascinated me, I think, was how a few relatively simple constructs, when implemented rigourously, could create complex behaviour.

I’d studied psychology at university, not computer science. And thinking back I’m now clear that it was always models that interested me, not behaviour. I was mainly interested in mental models and particularly assumptions – about how people constructed the world.

Later I studied social, cultural, and other models. Throughout my life, this desire to understand how things work – through the lens of models – has been fairly constant. Today it is still human models, but also business and organisational models, that often gain my attention. For me, all these are systems, and worthy of understanding.

People sometimes say I am “conceptual”. And I guess it is true – my interest in models would support that idea.

But there’s another factor which I think leads to that conclusion. Sometimes I refuse to give specifics, to describe behaviour. That’s not because I don’t have a view. It’s because I want people to work it out for themselves. You see, I also deeply believe in distributed leadership – decisions being made independently by the people involved.

A model may set the limits within which behaviour occurs – but it doesn’t predict the behaviour in a deterministic way. I like that – and the freedom it implies.

Not everybody likes to think in terms of models. But one of the best explanations of the importance of models comes from Donella Meadows. The late environmental scientist and teacher wrote a brilliant list of the most valuable leverage points in systems which prompted an earlier post.

Wikipedia lists the twelve leverage points and I won’t repeat them here. The least powerful are the ones we most often think of, presumably because they are easy to grasp and grapple with: constants, parameters, and numbers. Often we rearrange these deck chairs while the ship is sinking.

The three most powerful (in Meadows’ view) are:

  • The goal of the system.
  • The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises.
  • The power to transcend paradigms.

Models are paradigms. And, like Meadows, I believe that understanding models sets me free.

I believe that if people understand the model they inhabit, they can choose it, or change it; and they can also choose their behaviour within it, rather than acting because of forces they don’t understand.

What does all this have to do with Conscious Business?

Models are everywhere. Business today operates within a model (a paradigm) – containing invisible assumptions about goals (make money), structure (me on top, you below), rules (you must do what I say) etc.

Businesses also contain models – we have business models, organisational models, rewards models, innovation models, skills development models and so on.

So, why not take the time to bring into your consciousness the models that drive or control your world? Set yourself free.


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Enough is enough

I came across a really neat little report today – “Enough is Enough” – that summarises in just ten pages the reasons why we need a steady state economy, and what we need to do to get started on creating such a thing.

It was produced by two British non-profit organisations: CASSE and Economic Justice for All, and is based on work at the first Steady State Economy Conference held in June last year.

The ten straightforward proposals seem very much aligned with what we are trying to do with Conscious Business. In fact, so much so, that I have added links to relevant past posts in the list below. The ten proposals include:

  • stabilising population – sensible in a finite world, but what a challenge to achieve and maintain this;
  • reforming the monetary system – if you thought stabilising population was difficult, imagine successfully reforming banks, bankers and all that;
  • changing the way we measure progress – something so deeply entrenched in establishment thinking, and in the education system itself;
  • improving global co-operation – vital to balance the needs of countries where growth is necessary with developed countries like ours, but an immense political challenge;
  • engaging politicians and the media – another daunting task; but there are always early adopters in these groups.

And five in particular standout as of specific relevance to business:

  • limiting resource use and waste production – this, to me, is the only sensible route in a finite world, and business as a huge user of resources and producer of waste clearly has an enormous role to play in this;
  • limiting inequality – lots of practical things we can do here and are already exploring – like limiting the gap between the highest and lowest paid; and introducing new models of business ownership;
  • securing full employment – this requires a change in the way we think about employment – for example, to allow us to reduce the working week. I have written before about the real, underlying challenges of this;
  • changing consumer behaviour – we have the technology, and probably the know-how; but do we, collectively, have the will: this means, ultimately, changing ourselves?
  • rethinking business and production – the key here for me is changing the primary goal of business towards developing the people in the business – helping them become more conscious and happier.

All of these things are difficult individually. And overall the list of 10 priorities can make the whole exercise seem overwhelmingly hard. But two things strike me:

  1. We are already some way down the track on many of these things. I know more about the business elements than the others but I know we have been experimenting – going around the loop of failure and success – for many years. Conscious Business itself is already a broad and growing church.
  2. What an exciting and amazing overall goal? A true Big Hairy Audacious Goal – something stimulating and exciting for a whole new generation of younger business people. Young people who in many cases aren’t held back by the attitudes and outlook of their older colleagues. People who are happy to shake up the status quo and challenge “Establishment” thinking.
Game on!