Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Putting People at the Heart of Business

The other day I read a great paper by Chris Rodgers. The paper was written for the Centre for Progressive Leadership and was then submitted to the All-Party Parliamentary Group Management Commission on the future of management and leadership.

What I liked most was how the paper makes clear the difference between the dominant discourse about leadership/management in our society and alternative views.

As someone who has been trying to stand up for a somewhat alternative view – conscious business – for some time, I found this greatly steadying.

Just to summarise quickly, Chris’s view is that we are part of the conversations that surround us: when we say something, another person responds, and we respond in turn. What we say – and what we hear – depend on the context, and this context is constantly emerging as we speak.

Chris also points out that it is easy to forget we are immersed in this ‘system’. If we mentally step outside of it and start to talk about it as something we can mend or improve we may be deluding ourselves.

I took the title of the paper – “Taking organisational complexity seriously” – to mean that we need to ‘believe’ in complexity and all that goes with it. One of the things that comes with complexity is a need to give up the idea that we can control outcomes. Complexity comes with unpredictability.

Now that is very hard for many managers and leaders to hear, as I pointed out recently. We’re asking them to give up control.

And that is perhaps why this remains the dominant discourse about leadership in our society. Nearly everything is built on the very male idea of ‘power-over’, and this includes the idea that we ought to be able to fix or change a system, be it a business, or a society.

If this still seems unclear, please take the time to read Chris’s well reasoned and well referenced piece.

But there are three practical take-aways I would like to leave with you.

The first is that there are serious implications of not adopting this more ‘immersive’ approach to leadership.

As Chris points out – using the example of the Francis report into the Mid Staffs NHS scandal and the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards (and I’d add another: Leveson) – we end up blaming individuals, or disempowering them by demanding improved systems and processes to guide and control their every move.

But there’s a danger we do this every time something scandalous happens: we scapegoat people, and we demand better processes and procedures. And yet these scandals – banking, health, media, education etc – keep coming.

So maybe, instead, as Chris suggests, we should focus on the ‘dedication and commitment’ of the people that work in organisations and businesses and encourage them to use their natural (systems?) intelligence.

This is what I think conscious business is really about – it’s about putting people at the heart of business and trusting and allowing them to be their most creative, most innovative selves.

Secondly, Chris gives a great list of some of the implications for leadership practice. These include:

  • helping managers ‘see’ better
  • focusing on enabling, rather than directing or delegating
  • acting – some would say stumbling – into the future, rather than planning

He suggests we need to move

  • from controlling to contributing
  • from certainty to curiosity
  • from diagnosis to dialogue
  • from colluding to confronting

and so on.

And mostly we need to recognise that leadership is not an activity for elites, nor should they get all the kudos or blame. It is something we all do, all the time. At least every time we enter a conversation consciously.

These are all things we believe in and are exploring in the conscious business community in the UK. I think we’re ‘positive deviants’, taking an alternative position outside the mainstream discourse, with the intent to improve things. So if, as Chris suggests, we can find ways to form coalitions with others who share similar views we may be able to make more progress, more quickly.

And finally, I’d just like to add something else that came to mind when I read Chris’ paper.

There’s a lot to do, and a probably a lot of resistance to come before these ideas are more widely adopted. In business we’re taught to find benefits, and build a case for things. So would it help to further explore some of the benefits of adopting this kind of approach?

That is tricky because benefits are usually promised, and then delivered in the future. They’re also usually defined by those who write the stories. For example, business people are heroes when their story is being written as a success. And they can be criminals when it is written as a failure.

So if we are to know we are making progress, we probably need to focus not on some distant ‘output’ but on something tangible, something that is here right here, right now.

I’d suggest the major benefit of the kind of approach that Chris proposes is being ‘in it’ – building the relationships, building the coalitions, being a member of a community of people who are trying to do something useful. Learning to get along, learning to stay in the conversation, and perhaps even having fun along the way.

Hopefully, that is also what it means to be involved in some way in conscious business – immersed in the process of ‘putting people at the heart of business’.


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The balance of power

Conscious Businesses are usually businesses that rely on the ‘full empowerment’ of the people who work in them.

By full empowerment I simply mean a situation where people are treated as free, autonomous, responsible human beings – able to decide everything for themselves, without being told what to do, or coerced in any way.

There are good business reasons for this:

  • people who are fully empowered are more motivated, and stay more motivated
  • this leads to more innovation, better products and services, and better quality

And there are good ethical reasons too: people in conscious businesses are treated as humans, and an important human right is to be free – to make one’s own choices and decisions.

Despite these obvious benefits, we find many managers are worried by the idea of fully empowered people. We regularly comes across two sets of interconnected fears:

  • The first is that a business where people are fully empowered will spiral into chaos. The fear is that nothing will get done, or if it does it will be happening randomly and not aligned with the ‘strategy’.
  • The second is more personal: that the manager will suffer personally if they lose status, control and power.

I’ll come to the second fear in a moment.

Dancing with freedom and structure

The answer to the first fear is to balance freedom with a minimal amount of supporting structure. By balance, I don’t mean having some of each, in a dead, static kind of way.

I mean choosing whichever is right, in the moment, depending on circumstance. Choosing freedom when it helps, and structure when it helps. Here’s an example:

Most traditional businesses already have some key documents like mission statements, sets of values, roles and responsibilities, KPIs, employment contracts and so on. These rather old ideas can be very useful in a Conscious Business, but only if they are understood in a new way.

The difficulty is that typically the content of these documents has been handed down from on high. Developed by senior management and cascaded throughout the organisation. The content is often driven by ‘what the owners/shareholders want’.

Conscious businesses rely on the notion that shareholders’ needs, and those of all the other stakeholders – customers, suppliers, employees and the public – will all be met better if everyone works together without coercion. Willingly creating value for each other.

So if you wish to get the benefits of empowering people, and avoid chaos, you need to ‘flip’ all of these key documents, and encourage people to write them themselves, and as if they really belong to them. To write them for themselves, not for someone else.

Suddenly you have a supportive framework that can be genuinely useful to each individual, and which will also provide some structure to contain chaos.

Role descriptions as traditionally written limit people. Role descriptions written based on personal purpose, what people are good at doing, and what they love doing will remind and give motivation, especially when things get tough.

KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) have a bad name in many businesses. But again, if written by the real owner – the person who is going to fulfil them – then they will guide and remind people to be themselves, to be their best.

A personal development plan (PDP) becomes a dream, something someone really aspires to, for themselves, and those who are important to them. It will inspire and allow people to get feedback that will feed into development and growth. And, after all, in a knowledge economy, and indeed in life, development and growth is very important.

An employment contract will tell everyone what an individual is responsible for. This is an ‘opt-in’ – it is voluntary – and it allows everyone including the individual to assess and check progress: creating real accountability.

And is everyone aligned?

And how will alignment be achieved in this kind of environment? How do we ensure that everyone is heading in (broadly) the same direction?

Corporate purpose in a fully empowered organisation emerges from, and is built on, the individual purposes of everyone involved – all the stakeholders including employees. That shared purpose is something everyone can stand behind and work towards – creating alignment. And generally people perform much better when their personal purpose and needs are aligned with what the group is trying to achieve.

And if some people really don’t fit in or agree with the purpose that the rest rely on to motivate them, then they’re likely to vote with their feet.

That is a good thing, because coercion just doesn’t work.

Challenge, mastery and making a difference are amongst the most important motivators, as people like Dan Pink have ably communicated.

Not the need for lots of money. And certainly not being told what to do.

Few modern organisations spend much time telling their people what to do directly. It’s inappropriate outside of a very small number of situations, such as when the building is on fire, and life is at risk.

But many organisations subtly coerce their employees by taking advantage of their needs. The need for money, or status, or power. Or the very common need to do what others want us to do – because we fear displeasing them.

The problem is that coercion is never going to help people deliver their best. So we really don’t want people in our organisations if they are being coerced in any way. If they are there only for the money.

That’s why Zappos (and now Amazon) famously paid people to quit during its selection process. Founder Tony Hsieh, who eventually sold Zappos to Amazon for around $1bn in 2009, said they didn’t want people who are there only for a paycheck, and they didn’t want people who feel they are trapped.

And for those who struggle to give up power?

By putting in place this minimal amount of ‘structure’ – through these key documents (roles/responsibilities, KPIs, employee contracts etc) – an organisation will maximise its innovation, collaboration, and quality. It’ll gain the best people, working together in the best way.

With this approach other elements of traditional structure like hierarchy or network might still be useful, but they will mean much less. Titles, for example, become less statements of position and power (“Senior Executive Vice President Marketing” ) and more informational (“Partner, Public Relations Department”).

So, what about those managers who fear losing their power, or status, or control along with their fancy titles?

This is very hard. Many people currently running organisations gained their positions because of their ability to use power over other people: control. Their ability to coerce others to get things done. The ‘best’ are subtle, and may get away with it for a (long) while. The worst already have bad reputations and are known for how they behave.

We spend some of our time trying to help people in that situation see that, like King Canute, they will never stop a rising tide.

Especially for a younger generation full empowerment is essential. Companies that fail to understand this will never attract the best people, and therefore lose the best advantage they have.

Letting go of control is a difficult journey of personal development. We’d all rather be right than happy, and changing the habits of a lifetime is never easy. And letting go often means facing our inner demons directly.

But letting go in that way – and becoming a ‘post-conventional’ leader who helps others develop and grow and be the best they can, for themselves, their organisations, and the broader set of stakeholders – can also be extremely rewarding.

 


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Conscious Business Strategy

We love helping people to build and implement their business strategy more consciously. What does that mean?

Like Conscious Business itself, Conscious Business Strategy is not a thing. It is a process. It is a way of approaching the world.

It has three stages. We call them Awareness, Agreement and Action.

Awareness

Awareness is often the first stage. Awareness means opening ourselves up to the situation in front of us. This means seeing it, understanding it, absorbing it.

That means realising that the world is out there – external. And in there – internal.

In business, the outer world is made up of people in all sorts of relationships – customers, colleagues, suppliers, investors, and other stakeholders. The products and services you offer.  Your supply chain. Your prospects and your sales pipeline. The market you operate in. Revenue, your profitability, and so on. Over time – past, present and future. Whole systems, not just patterns and events.

All these things – and many more – are connected. Opening up to the outer world means looking at it in all its glory – with all its complexity.  It is not one thing, it is a complex array of interactions and relationships. Awareness means starting to see all of that – not just one aspect of it. Seeing the whole system.

Awareness also means looking at the inner world. We know that what we see externally is moderated by how we are internally. Our perceptions are incomplete and often wrong. Thoughts, emotions, attitudes and beliefs all colour the world we see. So do our dreams and aspirations, states and moods. Our memories change to suit us.

So Awareness is also about looking at ourselves – being aware of what is going on inside us and how it affects everything – inside and out. Awareness – and self-awareness – mean waking up to that.

Aware of Purpose too

Awareness also means becoming aware of our purpose. There are lots of people out there trying to help us put our “deeper Purpose” (usually with a capital “P”) into words. This is probably a good thing. But purpose is complex too. We have many different purposes – not just one. Sometimes these are in conflict, sometimes aligned.

One way to understand purpose is simply to look at what we are doing. I am writing this blog post. Why? To communicate something? To get something out? To engage others in interesting dialogue? To while away some time on a Sunday morning? There are always many purposes, and many may also be invisible to me.

So Awareness also means looking to see what my purpose is. Using my self-awareness to understand what I am doing, and maybe why.

Agreement

We call the second stage of Conscious Business strategy Agreement.

Strategy isn’t necessarily about the long-term, but it is definitely about something that endures. Strategy is about following one course of action, sometimes despite the response from the world. That is why so many approaches to strategy refer to Principles, Policies, Precepts, Pillars etc. (For some reason they always seem to be words that start with the letter “P”).

These are all ideas or beliefs that we can hang our hats on. They endure even as we implement the strategy. We check back against them and use them to determine whether what we are doing is following or diverging from the strategy. They guide us. Following them allows us to implement the strategy consistently in a way that gives us the benefits we are seeking.

But we call this stage Agreement because it is essential to agree these Principles, Policies, Precepts and Pillars either with yourself or with other people. Once agreed, once we have committed to them, then we can hold ourselves and others to account.

Agreement means dialogue, and it means being congruent – authentic, transparent, choiceful. It means letting these ideas emerge, and then settling on them, agreeing them with oneself, or with others. Making a definite choice.

Once we have made these agreements, then we can say things like “We agreed we would hire a fair balance of men and women, and yet we are actually hiring more men than women. We are diverging from our hiring strategy. Why? And what are we going to do about it?”

Action

Finally, a conscious business strategy is really about Action.

If we do all that looking and agreeing, and then do nothing, we aren’t really implementing the strategy. It is only through action that we get to learn more and discover more. It is only through action that we get the chance to iterate and update the strategy. Strategy lives in operation.

We are always doing something. We are always acting. So acting strategically is to be conscious of those Principles, Policies, Precepts and Pillars. Making choices in the present but with awareness of those things we agreed. Reflecting as we go. This awareness affects our decisions, which affects our actions, which affects the results we get.

If we agreed our strategy is to hire men and women equally, then that is what we need to do. Our strategy affects how we advertise, how we interview, how we assess, how we speak and what we do. We change our behaviour and we get different results.

When you pick up a stick you get both ends. Decisions have consequences. It is often difficult or impossible to predict the consequences. Strategy isn’t about somehow forseeing the the future. No one can do that. It is about acting consistently over time, despite the immediate response, and thus eventually getting something that is more aligned with what we wanted in the first place.

Sometimes this stage is where we make a plan. Strategy is definitely not planning. But planning – building lists of actions, to be completed in a particular order, and at a particular time – sometimes flows from strategy.

But of course, we need to iterate, to pivot, to be agile and lean. Maybe we need to abandon our plans. So all the time as we take action, we look to see what response we are getting. We stay aware. And we choose whether to continue, or whether to update our Principles, Policies, Precepts and Pillars. So really Conscious Business Strategy is a cycle, not a linear thing.

Awareness, Agreement, Action. That’s it.

(If you want to read more about Conscious Business as a way of doing business, take a look at this).

 


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The Transition to Conscious Business…..

I am a management consultant who has always tried to do  ‘what is right’ rather than what is conventionally accepted and I treat people as I would want to be treated myself rather than as corporate entities. The moment I became aware of the Conscious Business concept, I immediately identified with it and wherever possible, incorporate it into my offering.

This is what Conscious Business means to me today. I am looking forward to better developing the meaning, understanding and application on the journey ahead.

A Conscious Business enshrines a series of core principles which allow it and its interactors at any level to prosper on a simple, rapid, enjoyable and mutually beneficial basis.

Sacrosanct core principles include being:

  • Conscious
  • Empathic
  • Engaging
  • Innovative
  • Ethical
  • Honest
  • Empowering
  • Transparent
  • Seamless
  • Fair

Interactors are:

  • Shareholders
  • Colleagues and their families
  • Clients  / End users of the product or service
  • Suppliers / Service Providers
  • Competitors
  • Local and wider community

The core principles are the building blocks at the foundation of any Conscious Business, regardless of its area of operation – if they are firmly in place in relation to all of the interactors, then the result is a highly successful, sustainable organisation that knows no boundary and can achieve literally anything.

By success, I mean:

  • Products / services judged as market leading by clients and peers
  • Happy and fulfilled colleagues
  • Perception and proof that the organisation is a force for good
  • Shareholders satisfied with their ROI
  • Surpassing of all interactor expectations
  • Long term sustainability

No need to include the ‘P’ word as it is an automatic by-product of Conscious Business!

So, what’s the catch?  How difficult or easy is it to make the transition to a Conscious Business? Well, it’s like anything worth achieving, it does take time and effort and is a continuous process. But there is nothing to fear.

The biggest challenge to established organisations is wholeheartedly committing to the principles, some of which can at first appear to contradict traditional business practices and personal behavior in the workplace.

Firstly, we have to talk the talk and then we have to walk the walk. Nothing to fear though, the tiny steps morph into long strides and it’s an entirely liberating process.  The result is a way of business and life that melds together far more then ever before. Participants feel good about themselves and their organisation. All interactors benefit.

One of the beauties of  the concept is that it is developing on a continuous basis and there is such scope for personalisation  – each business can achieve overall consciousness but with a unique personal twist.

Some companies make the decision from a position of equilibrium but others are prompted by some type of crisis, perhaps a massive downturn in their particular sphere of operation or a succession or strategy issue.

Ironically, it’s easier to persuade companies in crisis that a major structural change is the way to go as there are not so many alternatives. For those companies in equilibrium it’s about helping them to see that sustainable organisations are highly conscious of the changing world around them.

To make a successful transition, everyone within the organisation needs to commit to the principles but this will only happen if the organisational culture is seen and felt to be changing.  It can only change if the people currently in senior management roles understand and desire the transition but there will almost certainly be a few who are afraid and protective of their position.

(As the process unfolds, poor performing senior managers will lose the protection of any fake fortresses they have created and will either improve their performance or find new challenges elsewhere – more about that in a later blog post on Conscious HR.).

As a consultant, it is critical to work closely with the existing management team on an individual and group basis, to empathise and reduce fear together by discussing any elephants in the room.

Start with the core principles, the building blocks, and spend significant time exploring with the management team what the acceptance of these principles means in practical terms for themselves and their business.

This process will soon result in draft  mission, vision and values which can be applied to all aspects of the organisation.

There will be some funny looks at times but as the group discusses the concept from a perspective that all interactors will benefit then the light bulbs in peoples’ heads will start to come on.

It is now time to internally publicise the desire and reasons for becoming a Conscious Business. Involve everyone within the organisation, this time the management team working with their departments on an individual and group basis, in the same way that you worked with them.

The finalised and agreed versions of the mission, vision and values statements will be a truly joint effort and can now be lived by the entire team.

Yes, there may still be some skepticism by certain members of the workforce that good things will truly  happen but the basis is in place and it is now time to actually change the organisational  culture of the organisation, to become a truly Conscious Business.

In my follow-up posts, I am going to explore how Conscious HR and Conscious Sales benefit the equation.


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Conscious Business – A Strategy

I have lost count now of the number of times I have been asked what Conscious Business is.

And I have also lost count of the numerous ways I have explained it.

I suppose it is a bit like trying to describe a mountain. It all depends which face you climb. Or whether you are interested in geology and what’s underneath it.

But here’s one more go. An attempt to boil it down to something people can take away and use.

Conscious business is a strategy – for personal, business, and ‘planet-wide’ use.

As with all strategies we tend to be interested in the outcomes it produces. Are they good, bad or indifferent?

I think it’s a good strategy for personal use because it produces good outcomes:

  • it is more enjoyable – being based on authenticity and congruence;
  • it is more fulfilling – leading to better, more stimulating, and richer relationships;
  • it feels better – moment by moment, it leads away from disquiet towards more energy and peace.

It’s a good strategy for business because it produces good outcomes:

  • better short-term profits – through differentiation, reduced costs, more creativity and innovation;
  • better medium-term profits – through increased customer loyalty and lower staff turnover;
  • better long-term profits – through more resilience and flexibility in the face of market upheaval and change.

And it is a good strategy for the planet because it produces good outcomes:

  • it naturally leads to the creation of products and services that are less harmful and more beneficial;
  • it is more aligned with our deeper collective needs as humans – to collaborate, to support each other, and evolve in a positive direction;
  • it builds value for everybody, including future generations.

That’s it.