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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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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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Solving ourselves

I read a great blog post recently by Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project about giving and receiving feedback.

He uses the term ‘deconstructive’ – a term I have also seen used in the book ‘Seven Languages for Transformation‘ by Harvard Professors Kegan and Lahey to describe both feedback and conflict.

The idea is much older than that, of course, and runs as a theme through much work on dialogue – including that by Bill Isaacs (Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together – one of my favourite books), who refers back to David Bohm. It is also central to the ideas of Chris Argyris and many others. In fact, I am pretty sure the idea can be traced back and back, probably to ancient thought including Taoism and beyond.

So what does it mean? Putting it into a modern context, the starting point for me is how we perceive ourselves and our relationships.

If we see ourselves as unitary figures, each with our own problems and failures, and if we adopt a critical mindset, then deconstructive criticism doesn’t make much sense. Surely our aim is to point out the failings of others and fix their problems? To be constructive – in other words to help and support them as they “grow”.

Extend that a little, and add in a little sympathy for the human condition, or perhaps guilt at our own imperfection, and the idea is now that we need to find our own flaws and figure out how to eradicate them.

But take a different perspective. Start with the idea that everything is how it should be. That people as individuals and the relationships they inhabit are fine, just fine. In fact, they are perfect – in the sense that they are in balance, in a perfect homeostasis – like everything in nature.

Take a different perspective – that we are not unitary figures, but that we are all connected, that we are part of complex systems, in fact, part of a single complex system. Unboundaried parts involved in a complex interplay, perhaps one that cannot even be understood by us – not simply cogs in some giant machine.

Then what deconstructive means is to try to understand our own role in that system. To understand how what we say and do, and even what we think and feel, joins together with what others say and do, and think and feel, to create a particular result.

Deconstruction is about stepping away from blame, stepping away from a position of superiority, or, equally, of inferiority. Away from a position of condescension, or of false innocence. Of stepping away from knowing.

I am probably misinterpreting it but doesn’t the Bible say that knowledge is the root of all evil? I know for sure that my own tendency to think I know the answers is the biggest block to my understanding. It is only when I start to suspend my certainty in my own knowledge and beliefs that some sense may start to creep in.

As Tony Schwartz, and Kegan and Lahey, and all the others point out, giving feedback to others from a position of knowledge is fundamentally flawed.

What works better is to examine our own role in the systems we inhabit. How is what we are doing, thinking, feeling affecting the results we get?

This is how problems can be helpful – not because we can identify them, solve them, eradicate them. But because problems teach us something about how we are. I can learn how superior I can be. And that might just help me start the process of starting to solve myself.


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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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Empowered – or employed?

I just read a neat and good little book by Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler called Empowered.

It’s a kind of follow-up to Groundswell, and a very practical book packed with case-studies and charts and tools and ‘technical stuff’ about transforming your organisation into one where employees are your greatest asset – interacting with customers (using social media) to build loving relationships that propel you ever more quickly into profitability and revenue growth.

Nothing wrong with that.

But I do have one little problem with it. The use of the word employee. For example, there’s a chapter on IT security – in it one of the principles is to remember you’re an employee. The idea is that employees have certain responsibilities – presumably towards their employer. And that while freedom and empowerment are great things as they relate to dealing with customers, it is vital to always remember you are an employee.

This is clearly true in a legal sense for many people, including the authors of the book, who, it seems, are employed by Forrester Research. But that legal truth seems, to me, to come with an emotional burden and a much broader framing.

The emotional burden is one of duty and maybe even guilt. I ‘owe’ it to my employer to behave in certain ways. Presumably because they ‘gave’ me my job etc. They pay me. And they can take my job away. And like a good father he (I am sure it is a he) will look after me if I perform my responsibilities as an employee.

The broader framing is that my boss, and my company, hold power over me. I have willingly entered into this relationship with them, codified in my legal contract, and that means that while I can do certain things there are many things I must never do. Like question my contract. Or question who is boss.

I don’t want to labour this point. After all, this is perhaps an assumption that a huge number of employed people everywhere hold. I don’t know what Bernoff and Schadler really think, having never met them. And I don’t wish to offend anyone (well, only a little).

So let’s play a different game.

Imagine if rather than assuming that you are employed, and that your employer holds power over you, imagine it is the other way around. You’re the boss. You have the power.

To employ means to put to use. To put something to its natural use.

Imagine you have some needs, and are currently engaged in the process of putting everything else around you into use.

Your computer or ‘phone to read this words. Your chair to sit on. Actually you’re using your bottom to sit on, and in fact you’re using the rest of your body to good avail too. You’re using your body to breathe, see, hear, move, think etc.

And everyone around you is at your command. The organisation you work in is at your command – to do what you want it to do. Your friends and colleagues are also at your command.

Of course, they may not always like it. Like every element of the world you now inhabit they operate according to certain rules that you may only vaguely understand.

You pick up a pen and drop it and it will fall. You pick up a phone, press some buttons, and you may or may not be able to speak to the person you want to speak to. You ask someone to do something and it may nor may not happen.

But despite these natural consequences, consequences that are built into the nature of the world that we interact with, we are at the centre of our worlds, and we are using it. We are employing it. We collaborate within it, we work with other parts of it, to get what we want to be done, done.

This is what I mean by empowered. I usually call it deep empowerment but until I read Bernoff and Schadler’s book I hadn’t really understood why I add the word deep. I now know it is to distinguish it from their kind of empowerment. Which I read as empowerment within limits.

Deep empowerment is a point of view, a framing where you are in charge, and you can question anything. Including what you want your “organisation” to do. What you want your life and your relationships to be like. Even what you are in charge of. Everything.

Sometimes I call this distributed leadership. For me, it is the same thing. The whole idea of centralised leadership – special individuals leading a mass of supposedly unconscious people in one direction or another – deeply offends me. For me, everyone is a leader.

It is a moment-by-moment thing. It is a feeling. It is a framing – a way of looking at the world.

So go on. Take the power. Be the leader. Be the employer. Be deeply empowered.