Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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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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Conscious Walking

A beautiful day.  Thick snow on the ground with a sunny blue sky.  I dress warmly as the annoying quote “there’s no such thing as bad weather only inappropriate clothing” springs to mind.  I step out into the cold, aware and excited by child-like feelings and the novelty of my new surroundings.  One foot in front of the other, knowing where I’m going.  I sense a feeling of joy as I look around at the blanket of snow making the familiar seem new again.

But as I climb the icy path my focus shifts to the steps in front of me.  Breathless, like working in a recession, I am no longer aware of my surroundings or direction.  I have no capacity or will to lift my head – even to see a clearer way just beside me.

It’s not until I reach the top that I can pause to catch my breath and breathe a sigh of relief.  And in this stable place I can now stride forward looking up and down and around – reflecting on surviving the recent challenge and basking in the the success of where I’ve been, the path I’m taking and on where I’m going.

But, another ‘but’, as I start the descent.  It may have been a struggle on the way up but now it’s one careful step at a time with self preservation front of mind.  And no time to look around at the stunning views.  What a waste.  If I can’t look around whilst I’m going down at least I can stop on what was a grassy mound.  A thought: ice skaters don’t move forward step by step, they embrace the flow so why can’t I? And on this last stage I move faster, still gently and still in control, safely – being part of the way forward.

As I reach the foothills I hear the high pitched tweet of a bird enjoying the day.  “Sounds like a blackbird to me.  I will Google ‘birdsongs’ when I get home to check.”  “Or not.” I thought as I stopped at the hawthorn tree, causing the bird to silence.  I could see no source of the sound until as I waited the call started again.  And with my stillness, I saw a beautiful little bird with yellow and black markings.  Beautiful and serene – what a treat.

But what has this got to do with conscious walking or even conscious business ?  Everything I thought.


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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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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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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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Financial Freedom?

I have just finished reading the Real Deal, the autobiography of British entrepreneur James Caan.

I don’t usually read that kind of thing, but I have to say I really enjoyed it. It is well written and interesting, and at one or two points really pulled on the heart strings. There are several mentions of his great ability to find the best people to do things for him, so I guess those are hints that he also found a good ghost-writer. But he comes across as a pretty nice guy, who has done some amazing charitable work.

One thing that is very clear is that he measures his success in financial terms: he has a really strong need for financial success. Given the way the book describes his life, it would even be pretty easy to argue that this arises from his childhood experience, his relationship with his father, and so on.

And, wow, has he worked hard to meet that need. He describes many, many years of working long hours, and with great dedication, to give it satisfaction. And, naturally, given that very dedication, he has succeeded.

Realising this, I suddenly felt very free. I realised that, personally, I don’t have that kind of need. Maybe a little, but to nothing like the extent that James does. I like to be comfortable, but just don’t need that exact type of success.

James seems to have been unable to avoid filling that need, and this has driven his behaviour, his life, and pretty much everything he says and believes about himself. And having met that initial need, he now seems to be on a journey to continue to convince the world of his great personal value, building a school for his father, doing more and more charitable work, and on, and on.

Nothing wrong with any of this. He doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone to get his needs met.

But this also got me thinking about my needs, and how they drive my behaviour. One of my needs, for example, is to understand, and another to be understood.

Thus, I have made a career out of learning stuff, helping others understand complex things, and helping them put that knowledge to good use.

Or, at least, I have been trying to do that. Because as well as being a need, this is also one of my challenges – especially the latter part: being understood. I seem usually to understand complex things fairly easily, but, boy, do I struggle trying to explain them to others – for all sorts of reasons.

What irony. Isn’t life just perfect? Perfect as a “test” I mean…

Our biggest needs and our biggest gifts and our biggest weaknesses all come crashing together into one. And life tests us and challenges us as we work through those issues.

But what of freedom? This need to understand and be understood has clearly driven my behaviour, pretty much all my life. So although I may be free from the need to be very financial successful, am I really any freer than James?

I would like to be, I think. But I guess the only way to gain that freedom is to realise the extent to which that need drives me. Then, a little, I can perhaps choose to let it go.

What about you? What are your needs? What are they exactly?

And how do they drive you?