Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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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.


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What a week

What a week that was.

Momentous change in Egypt, people power in action – again. The process that Ghandi helped start in India in the 1920 to 40s, that continued in the U.S. Deep South in the 1950s and 60s, continues today. And, it seems, enabled by ever faster, more democratic media to be, if anything accelerating. Despite the fears of a surveillance culture, centralised control and so forth, we seem (at least to this optimist) to be moving slowly in the right direction.

And on another front it was pleasing to read and hear Michael Porter, the eminent business guru, apparently joining the bandwagon of “democratic business” (WorldBlu?), “social business” (Yunus?), “sustainable business” (Anderson?) and “conscious capitalism” (Mackey?) – all things related to what we might call Conscious Business.

Pleasing as it demonstrates how mainstream these ideas are becoming.

But beyond that it is also interesting to ask “how are we to ensure that this innovation, once underway, continues?”. Many, many forces are able to kill off good ideas long before they really get established. Indeed, does entering the mainstream always represent a good thing?

Two very familiar phenomena are backlash and whitewash.

Examples of backlash are all too common – everyone is watching Egypt with concern, for example. Will the “uprising” cause a backlash from the “system” that initially appears to allow it?

Whitewash, while less violent, is perhaps more worrying. And it is equally common when change “threatens”: for example, we all recognise “greenwash” in relation to the response of mainstream business to environmental concerns. As this new type of conscious business emerges, as my friend and colleague Tom Nixon asks: “how many of, say, the FTSE 100 or the Fortune 500 have made it real?”

In response, I’d like to quote Hunter Lovins: “Hypocrisy is the first step to real change.” His point is that once somebody says something, then we can hold them to account for it.

So let’s listen to what Porter and the gurus have to say. Then see whether corporate America and corporate UK actually change. Or if they just pretend to.

And then, personally, we need to hold the line. Hold on to our own beliefs and hold others to account for what they are saying. To make sure their actions follow their words.

Of course, that requires awareness, self-knowledge and, most of all, personal strength and courage. It’s all too easy to want throw in the towel when faced by force and threat or by duplicity and pretence. Easier to give in – especially when the power of the “establishment” seems overwhelming.

For me, overcoming those desires is what Conscious Business is really about – not the big trends, not what happens in the world, not what others say and do – but what goes on inside me, the choices I make, and what I do as a result. Exploring that, in the context of business, is “the road less travelled”. But also the route to momentous change.


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Taking charge

A recent news piece on BP’s behaviour in the Gulf of Mexico made me wonder about the use of the word ‘systemic’.

I know it’s probably not what was meant. But when I read this article, “systemic” started, to me, to sound like an excuse. A reason why BP and others didn’t do what they could have. Should have.

The first time I heard that word in relation to a disaster, or a scandal of some sort, it seemed to be properly used. Indicating that there are features of the system that make a problem likely to reoccur. That the problems are deeply entrenched in the design of the system, and that these conditions ensure that individuals often behave in certain ways. That we need to reform the system. Not just scape-goat individuals.

But now, and maybe it is me, it begins to sound as if the word is trotted out whenever a major disaster or scandal occurs to absolve any individual of responsibility.

“It’s the system’s fault, I couldn’t do anything!” comes the plaintive cry.

But as Margaret Mead said:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.

Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

And where does that small group of thoughtful, committed people start? It starts, of course, with the individual. One individual needs to take a risk, change their way of thinking, say something others daren’t.

An individual within a system is, I believe, the only thing that really can start to change a system. The individual is the catalyst for system-wide change. Somewhere, sometime, were there perhaps people in BP would could have said something and didn’t? Who went along with crowd-pressure and followed the herd mentality? When there was an opportunity to say or do something different?

What does this all have to do with you and your business?

Maybe you are in a business, running it or working at the front-line, and everyone blames everyone else? Maybe everyone is rubbish at their jobs. Maybe you don’t like the way the company is set-up or structured. Maybe your boss is an idiot. Maybe the reward systems are set-up to reward the wrong things. Maybe the company regularly does bad things, or allows poor quality work in the pursuit of short-term profit.

If any of those things is wrong with the system – please don’t blame others. Don’t blame “the system”. Take responsibility. Change yourself. Be the catalyst. Be the change.

Happy New Year.


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Changing our world

Over the last few weeks the subject of ‘internal’ and ‘external locus of control’ has popped up in conversation three or four times.

Apparently, there is a general trend in society towards an ‘external locus of control’ which should, if true, make policy makers sit up and take note.

Locus of control is about the extent to which people believe they are in control of their own future. Those of us with an ‘internal’ locus of control believe we can shape what happens to us and those with an ‘external’ locus of control believe life happens to them. If people don’t feel they can influence what happens to them, then surely they’re going to rely much more on the State and on the goodwill of others.

Stephen Covey, in his hugely successful book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ says:

“Be Proactive – Your life doesn’t just happen. Whether you know it or not, it is carefully designed by you. The choices, after all, are yours. You choose happiness. You choose sadness. You choose decisiveness. You choose ambivalence. You choose success. You choose failure. You choose courage. You choose fear. Just remember that every moment, every situation, provides a new choice. And in doing so, it gives you a perfect opportunity to do things differently to produce more positive results.”

It seems to me that:

At any given moment you have a choice. You either ‘want the world to change’ or you ‘want to change the world’.


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A shake – or a hug

Sometimes I want to give the people who run our government, banks and largest companies a shake.

Yesterday at a meeting of the MDHub in Brighton I listened to a fascinating presentation by Jeremy Beckwith of Kleinwort Benson about the state of our global economy. It was a story of how all governments since the last World War, aided and abetted by the banks and large corporations, have systematically grown our public debt to a point where our economy is in such a state that no one will lend us any money. Where we can’t borrow to spend our way out of our troubles. Where things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.

Other highlights:

  • nearly every country in the world is in dire financial state
  • there are many further backed-up economic problems to come
  • some countries will almost inevitably drop out of the Euro, causing untold disruption
  • 40 million Americans are receiving food stamps
  • if you’re relying on a state pension, you better make alternative plans
  • large private corporations are making record profits – based on population growth and a resulting unskilled global labour price of $2 a day
  • economic policy is out of control: we are entering a twilight zone of currency wars and other unknowns.

Oh, and the good news? Gold is at a record high. If you want to live somewhere with a reasonable economy, well you could move to New Zealand, Australia or Sweden. If they’ll have you.

So why do I want to shake them? These people who run our government, banks and largest companies? Because my first reaction is that they seem to be asleep. Asleep as they wave their children off to their private schools. As they play with their Blackberries and laptops. As they tramp from their cars and trains to their glass sky-scrapers.

Obviously these aren’t theoretical problems, in some economic text book. There are real people out there, millions and millions of them, suffering the indignity of relying on a government for benefit, having to leave home and hearth to chase that $2 a day, suffering the uncertainty of losing their home, their job, their income.

But the strange thing is I also know that many government leaders, and bankers, and the leaders of large corporations are, like all of us, trying to do the right thing. They want the best for themselves and their families, yes. But they also want the best for the rest of us too. Just as I do. Just as you do.

Of course, if asked, they’d also say that we sleep-walked too – the rest of us. And, I agree, it would be failing to acknowledge our share of the responsibility to suggest that we didn’t enjoy the good years. Why didn’t we ask those difficult questions – like how does the economy work, or why are we building up all that debt – when there was still time? Do we have so little self-responsibility we’ll just blame them for our current situation?

And I guess, if I think about it for a moment, that it hurts those government leaders, and bankers, and CEOs too – and especially it hurts them to know that all their brains and money and power and effort didn’t help them make things better.

To know that they failed.

So maybe what I really want to do is give them a hug.


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What are you accountable for?

I love clear roles and responsibilities.

I bang on about them endlessly. To the point of driving some of the people I work with crazy.

What do I mean by clear? I mean written down. I mean completely unambiguous. Completely focussed. Like a laser beam. Sharp, accurate and to the point.

A Format

The format I usually prefer is a Role Purpose statement – just one (or possibly two) simple statements that sum up the role.

Like “Make money for the company”. “Make sure we have the information we need to manage the business”. “Find us new customers”. “Ensure we have the best team on the planet”.

It must be only one or two things – more and people can’t hold them in their minds. Too many goals creates confusion – internally.

And then a list of Responsibilities. No more than 7 or 8 (one of the few papers I remember from my first degree was on the “magic number 7”).

Things that support the Purpose, like “Create the processes we need to supply accurate and timely information”, “Recruit and manage a team”, “Work with the other directors to grow the business”, etc.

Why am I so obsessed with this?

Why am I so obsessed by these single sheets of paper (I usually suggest we add in a few KPIs for good luck)?

Because they are one of the best ways I know to create an opportunity for real accountability in a company. If the role description is clear, then holding people to account is easy. If it is wooly – well, then anything can happen, and usually does.

I am also obsessed by empowerment. I believe deeply that people should be given, and take, all the responsibility they need. I don’t believe it works for people to tell other people what to do – except in exceptional circumstances.

So, a clear role is a complement to this. It’s the Yin to the Yang.

In my view, everyone in a conscious business needs an individual, clear and unambiguous role description that describes their Role Purpose and Responsibilities. Make no mistake, these can’t be imposed from above. They need to be agreed – that is, taken on by each individual, and “owned”.

They shouldn’t overlap – or we reintroduce ambiguity. And they need to fit together as a set – so that everything really important gets done.

Without them no one can hold anyone to account, we fail to get the collective results we need as a team, and we lose our focus on our business imperatives. The things that keep our businesses alive.

WIIFM

And whose responsibility is it to ensure that everyone has these? Mine. Yours. Everybody’s. All of us that want great results from our companies.

What’s in it for me? How does it help me, or anyone else, to define my own responsibilities? Well, my life becomes simpler. I can focus. I am clear what I need to do. Maybe more importantly, I am clear what I don’t. Doing less is the key to a life of sanity.

And truly, being held to account is a good thing – not a bad thing. We sometimes think that accountability benefits the person doing the holding to account. But I think there is even more benefit to the person being held to account: we learn.

Feedback on what we do and how we do it is perhaps the most useful gift we can get from others in life.

I feel really annoyed with myself when I let people off the hook on this. But, sadly, I do. Note to self: clarify my role.