Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Relationships – how much do they really matter?

After reading the ‘Get Started’ page of this site I was struck by how much the point “providing a safe place for human development and growth” resonated with me.

It’s probably not surprising as I’ve spent the best part of my career in learning and development but what drew me in was the term ‘a safe place’ and I thought it would be interesting to explore this a little further.

I would argue that feeling safe is a fundamental condition for optimal learning and development as it allows individuals and teams to explore their potential and try different approaches without fear of reprisal.

One of the key roles for great mentors, coaches and teachers is to create a feeling of safety that allows others to step outside of their comfort zones and try something new in order to develop and grow.

Sometimes, I worry about the trend to continually justify and measure improvement at both the individual and organisational level as this measurement in itself can result in the safety net disappearing.

For example, I remember a French teacher from school who was a stern character and ruled her pupils through fear. At the beginning of each lesson she would pick on a student to stand up in front of the class and test them on the vocabulary homework she had set the week before. This fear of being publicly humiliated in front of your peers meant that most of the time we did our homework well and when it came to exam time she got her results with nearly all the class passing.

A good result you may think. But unfortunately I have spoken to my classmates over the years and she has left a dread for French in all of us and I don’t know of one of us that went on to study the subject at A level.

So, all in all, not much of a legacy for a teacher.

This memory, for me, reinforces the idea that building safe, trusting relationships is probably the most important part of encouraging development and leaving a great legacy for the future.

Claire is a learning and development professional and runs Hove-based Learning Consultancy Partnership.


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Conscious Business Conversations that Enable Change

What are the important characteristics of a Conscious Business?  In July about 20 of us met in Brighton to discuss this and to develop ideas of how organisations, particularly those that are small and medium-sized, can practically become more conscious and to use this awareness to improve what they do and to share experience with others.

For large companies there are many audit tools, quality systems and awards to choose from.  From personal experience I know that they can be worthwhile, but they can be very time consuming, bureaucratic and take valuable resource out of the company.  They can have complex ways to examine and put a number on what people do in organisations (ie what people value and how they work with each other to bring about change).  Paradoxically the very act of putting a number on these interactions eclipses the essential quality of those interactions they seek to shine a light on.  The aim of the workshop was to develop something straightforward and meaningful that small and medium-sized organisations could use.

The general features were agreed, a Conscious Business is: respectful, transparent, is fair, is involved in its  community, is authentic, is humble, learns, makes a profit, is ethical, is honest, pays tax and is aware mindful of the full  impact it has.  All of these are important, but without context of what actually happens in practice they can lack meaning.

At the workshop these were further refined into the following distinct themes.

  • Conscious about Profit
  • Social Value
  • Transparency
  • Fairness
  • Have Generosity

In order to bring these themes to life in a practical way we worked on: 1) concrete and everyday examples: 2) what are the two or three question areas that bring these themes to life.  These now feature in our Changing Conscious Business Conversations Tool. There are no metrics or scoring mechanisms in the Tool.  The focus is on having conversations.  These are conversations that relate to what people do in their organisation and how they relate to their environment, suppliers and customers.  Meaningful conversations, particularly with people who you wouldn’t normally speak with, enable people to notice what has not been noticed before and to understand their importance.  A few conversations and a page or two of notes can form the basis of an action plan to bring about change.  These notes and the action plan can also form the basis of further conversations with other Conscious Businesses with the aim of sharing what works and avoiding what doesn’t.  It helps to raise the consciousness of conscious business within the community.

The tool can be found following the hyperlink here.

If you are inspired to use this in your organisation we would very much like to fear from you – what went well, what could be improved, and most importantly the difference it made.


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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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Systems Thinking and Conscious Business

Today one of my sons told me he had been trying out the text-to-speech option on the Kindle. He thought it funny it couldn’t speak properly – all it does is read the words with no intonation or sense of meaning.

This led to a discussion of the difference between a series of words and a sentence. The computer can read each word individually but has no sense of the bigger thing – the sentence. Nor of the next bigger thing, the paragraph. Nor the next – the chapter, or indeed of the whole book.

It is very clear that a book is much more than all the words in it added together.

Take a piece of paper and draw 5 boxes. Arrange them in the rough shape of a circle. You can see the boxes. You can also see the circle. But where exactly is the circle? It doesn’t really exist in one sense – there are no lines on the paper which make up a circle. The circle only exists as an emergent property of the individual boxes arranged in a particular way.

2 + 2 = 5. Or in this case, 1 + 1 + 1+ 1 + 1 = 6.

These examples illustrate something that is central to thinking about business in a “systems” way.

This has little to do with IT systems, by the way; nor systems in the sense of processes that are used to deal with issues methodically or “systematically”. We’re using a different meaning of the word – this is systemic not systematic thinking.

These examples illustrate that businesses are complex systems. They are made up of “just” the individuals that work in them, but they are also much more than that. They are all the relationships between the people as well. And the relationships externally too.

And they are even more than that. They are wholes, and also part of a bigger whole. They’re integrated and connected into that bigger whole in ways that may even be difficult for us to comprehend.

This may all sound rather ethereal.

But it has some very practical implications.

For example, when trying to improve profitability in a company managers are often tempted to play around with metrics or KPIs. Adjust a few simple things like how hard people work, and surely profitability will increase?

I’m afraid it just isn’t so. A business is a complex system, and playing with one low level metric is just as likely to make things worse as it is to make things better.

Much better to think systemically. I have blogged before about Donella Meadows and her (fairly) famous list of the best points to intervene in a complex system. Be it a business or any other system.

According to Meadows, 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.

Transparency – who sees which information – comes in at number six from the top.  Transparency is a core part of developing a conscious business. It does work to radically change behaviour – and is certainly much more powerful than changing low level metrics themselves.

But the really powerful levers (in Meadows’ view, and mine) are:

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

Consider that a business that chases short-term profitability has a different goal from one that is interested in profitability over the long-term.

Asking questions like “what is a business for?”, or “what does competition actually mean?” is the kind of activity that can lead to a shift of paradigm or mindset.

And realising that how we see things changes everything is the ultimate lever. That, of course, is what consciousness is all about.

PS To get started in systems thinking I’d really recommend the late Dana Meadows book Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Or try the Systems Thinking wiki. Or more recently I really enjoyed The Gardens of Democracy if you want to explore how (eco) systems thinking relates to areas beyond business.


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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.