Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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The Sustainability Opportunity

The horrendous Jimmy Savile story has recently entered a new phase: towards criticism of the institutions – the BBC, the hospitals, the Department of Health – that allowed him to operate with such impunity.

All across those organisations I imagine people are now asking themselves how they let this happen. And I can hear the reply: “it was just how it was back then” or “I didn’t know what I could do” or “I just went along with it because it was the ‘culture’ of the day”.

This issue of conformity has come up before in this blog – reflecting similar examples from different fields: for example, institutional racism. The ability of any organisation – like the police, for example – to confuse itself, to collude amongst its members, to “sleep-walk”.

History provides, of course, many even worse examples of self-delusion amongst groups.

The Solomon Asch studies – video here – are shocking to watch. They demonstrate, to me at least, how powerful these effects are. I am pretty sure that if I was the young man in the second video, I too would have gone along.

I have also often seen this kind of sleep-walking in the businesses where I have worked.

In large and in small businesses alike I have seen management (and the staff) sleep-walk into a worse and worse situation. “Wake-up” I want to shout. Sometimes I do shout that 🙂 Sometimes it works. And sometimes not. The zombies sleep on. Walking over the cliff.

And I also worry that I am doing it right now.

Perhaps twenty years from now someone will finally blow the whistle on the biggest scandals of our generation, in a way that sticks. The things we know, but now ignore, will suddenly rise painfully into consciousness.

How, for example, at the beginning of the 21st century did we collectively dream our way through one of humanity’s greatest disasters – the completely avoidable deaths of millions and millions of people – through the wanton destruction of our environment, and by allowing starvation and curable disease to kill men, women and children at unbelievable rates?

Today, in case you were asleep, 30% of the world’s population don’t have access to essential medicines. 13% of people in the world are undernourished. (Source: Oxfam.)

That day, when we all wake up, I, like all of us, will probably try to justify my behaviour and say “it was just how it was back then” or “I didn’t know what I could do” or “I just went along with it because it was the ‘culture’ of the day”.

There is an argument that this is just part of the human condition. That our failure is inevitable – because we, as humans, are flawed.

But, personally, I think that is only one side of the argument. I do think it is important to accept that we are human and we do make these mistakes. All the time. We are weak.

But it is also, in my view, important to recognise that we are strong and able to do something about all this.

Of course, lots of people are doing things. I really like this recent approach by Oxfam – the doughnut – a simple, graphical model that allows us to contemplate the complexity of a world threatened by multiple environmental disasters and by multiple social and human ills.

I like the model because it is simple. But I also like what it doesn’t show: that as long as businesses operate within the doughnut there is huge scope for innovation and creativity of all kinds. For prosperity and a meeting of needs.

That to me is to the great opportunity presented to business in this sometimes difficult world.

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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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Hard, Harder, Hardest

Inspired by a good post by Steve Hearsum about Stephen Covey’s recent book, I felt the need to post my own personal comment.

Apparently Covey’s “…most recent book – The 3rd Alternative – is an articulation of how “soft stuff is the new hard stuff”. So says Douglas R. Covant in an introduction to an extract from the book on Strategy & Business:

In my 35-year corporate journey and my 60-year life journey, I have consistently found that the thorniest problems I face each day are soft stuff — problems of intention, understanding, communication, and interpersonal effectiveness — not hard stuff such as return on investment and other quantitative challenges…..The soft stuff will forever be the hard stuff, but leveraging 3rd Alternative thinking can make the soft stuff significantly easier to resolve productively.”

As a long time Covey fan and careful re-reader of his work this doesn’t seem to me to be such a big shift in Covey’s thinking. But I’d join with him in wanting to re-label the “soft” as the hard.

It is an unfortunate twist of fate I think that we call the “soft” stuff that because it is anything but.

ROI and other quantitative things are hard too, of course. If you think anything else you are kidding yourself.

But I’d go even further. There’s one bit of the so-called soft stuff that is even harder.

That is understanding that our own development is the real key to growth.

Not the ‘soft skills’ required to get other people to do things (which is, sadly, how many managers understand ‘soft skills’). But our own self-understanding and awareness.

So, how about a complete re-categorisation of all things to do with (conscious) business:

* hard – ROI and other quantitative things
* harder – ‘people skills’
* hardest – one’s own personal development and a relationship of growth with oneself


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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.