Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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What a week

What a week that was.

Momentous change in Egypt, people power in action – again. The process that Ghandi helped start in India in the 1920 to 40s, that continued in the U.S. Deep South in the 1950s and 60s, continues today. And, it seems, enabled by ever faster, more democratic media to be, if anything accelerating. Despite the fears of a surveillance culture, centralised control and so forth, we seem (at least to this optimist) to be moving slowly in the right direction.

And on another front it was pleasing to read and hear Michael Porter, the eminent business guru, apparently joining the bandwagon of “democratic business” (WorldBlu?), “social business” (Yunus?), “sustainable business” (Anderson?) and “conscious capitalism” (Mackey?) – all things related to what we might call Conscious Business.

Pleasing as it demonstrates how mainstream these ideas are becoming.

But beyond that it is also interesting to ask “how are we to ensure that this innovation, once underway, continues?”. Many, many forces are able to kill off good ideas long before they really get established. Indeed, does entering the mainstream always represent a good thing?

Two very familiar phenomena are backlash and whitewash.

Examples of backlash are all too common – everyone is watching Egypt with concern, for example. Will the “uprising” cause a backlash from the “system” that initially appears to allow it?

Whitewash, while less violent, is perhaps more worrying. And it is equally common when change “threatens”: for example, we all recognise “greenwash” in relation to the response of mainstream business to environmental concerns. As this new type of conscious business emerges, as my friend and colleague Tom Nixon asks: “how many of, say, the FTSE 100 or the Fortune 500 have made it real?”

In response, I’d like to quote Hunter Lovins: “Hypocrisy is the first step to real change.” His point is that once somebody says something, then we can hold them to account for it.

So let’s listen to what Porter and the gurus have to say. Then see whether corporate America and corporate UK actually change. Or if they just pretend to.

And then, personally, we need to hold the line. Hold on to our own beliefs and hold others to account for what they are saying. To make sure their actions follow their words.

Of course, that requires awareness, self-knowledge and, most of all, personal strength and courage. It’s all too easy to want throw in the towel when faced by force and threat or by duplicity and pretence. Easier to give in – especially when the power of the “establishment” seems overwhelming.

For me, overcoming those desires is what Conscious Business is really about – not the big trends, not what happens in the world, not what others say and do – but what goes on inside me, the choices I make, and what I do as a result. Exploring that, in the context of business, is “the road less travelled”. But also the route to momentous change.


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Taking charge

A recent news piece on BP’s behaviour in the Gulf of Mexico made me wonder about the use of the word ‘systemic’.

I know it’s probably not what was meant. But when I read this article, “systemic” started, to me, to sound like an excuse. A reason why BP and others didn’t do what they could have. Should have.

The first time I heard that word in relation to a disaster, or a scandal of some sort, it seemed to be properly used. Indicating that there are features of the system that make a problem likely to reoccur. That the problems are deeply entrenched in the design of the system, and that these conditions ensure that individuals often behave in certain ways. That we need to reform the system. Not just scape-goat individuals.

But now, and maybe it is me, it begins to sound as if the word is trotted out whenever a major disaster or scandal occurs to absolve any individual of responsibility.

“It’s the system’s fault, I couldn’t do anything!” comes the plaintive cry.

But as Margaret Mead said:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.

Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

And where does that small group of thoughtful, committed people start? It starts, of course, with the individual. One individual needs to take a risk, change their way of thinking, say something others daren’t.

An individual within a system is, I believe, the only thing that really can start to change a system. The individual is the catalyst for system-wide change. Somewhere, sometime, were there perhaps people in BP would could have said something and didn’t? Who went along with crowd-pressure and followed the herd mentality? When there was an opportunity to say or do something different?

What does this all have to do with you and your business?

Maybe you are in a business, running it or working at the front-line, and everyone blames everyone else? Maybe everyone is rubbish at their jobs. Maybe you don’t like the way the company is set-up or structured. Maybe your boss is an idiot. Maybe the reward systems are set-up to reward the wrong things. Maybe the company regularly does bad things, or allows poor quality work in the pursuit of short-term profit.

If any of those things is wrong with the system – please don’t blame others. Don’t blame “the system”. Take responsibility. Change yourself. Be the catalyst. Be the change.

Happy New Year.


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Chicken and Egg

Climb that wall

Business is a complex system. If you don’t believe me, notice how many times the words “chicken and egg” come up in board room conversations.

Shall we hire some new people? Yes, when the sales are there. But hold on, we can’t make the sales until we have the people. Let’s wait until we have the sales – then let’s hire the people. But hold on…

If you’re not familiar with systems theory, it suggests that we like to imagine things happening largely in linear and cause/effect kinds of ways. But that a better model is that many things we encounter in life, including business, are the result of circular feedback loops and conditions as well as causes. This makes things more unpredictable, and sometimes, leads to that ‘chicken and egg’ state.

So how might we break out of these loops? How do we resolve the impasse of hiring versus selling?

Firstly, be conscious of them.

Study how systems operate. Learn from experience the subtlety of emergent properties – how unexpected results emerge as the result of changes we sometimes unwittingly make to systems. Picture them, draw them, get a feel for them. Some systems theory seems mathematical but I always think of it as more as an art than a science.

And secondly, throw your hat over the wall. There’s a story I remember from long ago about George Washington. Apparently when he was a youth he and his friends (for some reason I imagine them in the top hats and tails) used to wander around the gardens near his home, looking to steal apples, cut down trees and generally make mischief.

Sometimes they’d come up to a wall. A really high, unclimbable, dangerous-looking wall.

That’s kind of ‘chicken and egg’ isn’t it? In front of it you’re stuck. You can’t resolve the impasse – you can’t go forward.

So what happened? Well, one of them would take off his hat and throw it over the wall. That did it.

You see then they were committed – they had to retrieve the hat, so that meant they had to climb the wall. They had to go forward. And they did.

By the way I have read several introductions to systems theory but by far the best in my opinion is the late Donella Meadows book: “Thinking in Systems“.


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Let it be

In my working life I quite often hear people make a distinction between life-style and ‘growth’ businesses.

‘Growth’, at least from the entrepreneur’s point of view, really means exit.

The idea is to build fast and create a lot of value in the company – in the eyes of prospective purchasers – so that the business can be sold.

Naturally, this also creates a lot of uncertainty for employees, and other stakeholders. And often it creates a lot of uncertainty for the entrepreneur.

Maybe they sell. But then they have to endure an earn-out, and disrupted relationships with all those around them. And at the end – well, often they’re back at the beginning, needing to find the next opportunity to express whatever they feel the need to express.

So-called life-style businesses on the other hand provide the owners with a steady income over many years, provide steady employment and can lead to strong, resilient relationships with staff, customers and investors.

I guess this distinction can be a useful way of getting someone to think about their values: about what is important to them.

I nearly said goals, but goals as opposed to values are perhaps part of the problem.

“Growth” businesses are all about long-term goals. They’re about imagining a particular future (e.g. making a lot of money; lying on a beach) and working single-mindedly towards that goal. They’re sometimes about control: making sure that the actual future matches that imagined future.

Short-term goals can be useful, especially as a measurement tool. But long-term goals, don’t make as much sense, as I don’t think we can control our lives. Whatever we plan, something else will usually happen. We plan to lie on a beach and end up starting another business.

Ever so often, our lives evolve outside of our conscious control and something unexpected happens. Particularly over time, few of us can predict the detail of what will happen to us.

Of course, being the kind of creatures we are, we do make sense of it – after the event. We’re excellent at dreaming up good explanations. So we can very easily fool ourselves into thinking we are in control.

But if it’s an illusion, and we can’t control the future, what should we do? Well, I’d say relax and let the future come. It will.

And if that doesn’t satisfy the need to control the external world, what about transferring that need to your internal world?

Why not start with yourself? Try and understand yourself first, and if you wish, make a choice to be different, to be more conscious and self-aware.

Make a choice to communicate better/differently. Make a choice to build better relationships, ones that last and give you something that no amount of money can.

Make a choice to build a team around you that works in a very special way – a team that is supportive, creative, fun and challenging. And one that gets things done.

Make a choice to learn new business skills – and to learn about the world outside and explore what is really out there.

Do those things and let the rest happen. Life-style or growth. Whatever will be, will be.


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Hey ho hey ho it’s off to work we go

Many people seem to agree that part of the path to success is hard work.

That begs a big question, of course. What is success? I don’t want to go into that here. It’s a big topic. So let’s just assume, at least for the time being, that we are talking about some combination of health, wealth and happiness.

So what about the hard work part?

I guess the most common definition of hard work is working long hours. At times I have believed, and maybe I still do on occasion, that if I work longer hours than others I will gain success.

My head tells me that isn’t true.

I know the feeling of working in an office and wanting to go home, but wondering if I can, wondering what others will think if I leave before … when? … the allotted time? a reasonable time? those other people?

My sense that I can’t actually define the issue properly is perhaps a clue to some faulty thinking?

I also know that working late at the office isn’t going to help me meet some of my other success goals. How will I have time to exercise to gain that health that is a part of my desired success package? Or be able to spend “quality time” with my family?

I also know from experience that working long hours and producing great volumes of stuff doesn’t lead anywhere close to wealth. Several times in my fairly long career I have lived through the night of the long pens, only to discover that whatever I produced languished unnoticed, or had no result whatsoever, other than keeping a paper mill rumbling a little longer.

I know also from when I have paid people to do things for me that I care little about the hours they work. I am interested in the results they achieve, and the pleasure our relationship gives me as it develops and grows.

Of course, sometimes working late or at odd hours is necessary. But I just can’t see the logic of extra hours equating to hard work.

So what is hard work?

Some work, of course, isn’t hard. Those Seven Dwarves didn’t seem to be finding their grueling shift down the diamond mine hard work at all. In fact, they seemed rather happy (or grumpy, or sleepy, or …). We know about flow – and many Disney cartoon characters seem to exemplify it.

But I still believe that in order to succeed it is necessary to work hard.

I think hard work is work that is hard.

Some work is easy, as the Dwarves made it seem. But although they laboured at the mine they were stuck in a timeless, fantasy world where nothing changed, nothing improved, nothing decayed.

That’s not the real world. The real world, or at least the one I inhabit, changes constantly, growing and decaying; and I, as a human part of that world, change constantly too.

Going along with that flow of change is, for me, the only sensible way to proceed. To fight against the stream is madness. Nature grows and decays. People grow and decay. I cannot change that. I would be a fool to try.

So all that is left is me. And how I am in that flow.

I change, but I can also change myself. That, to me, is to be human. To change myself I can change my beliefs. I can change my attitudes – the very paradigms through which I see the world. I can change my habitual behaviours – those things I say and do that reinforce my beliefs and attitudes, just as much as they are driven by them.

Those attitudes I hold, and those behaviours I express in work, in my business dealings, in relation to money, wealth, health and yes, even happiness.

Changing those, for me, is hard work.


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A natural high?

Just finished reading the excellent Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt.

It starts slowly and to my mind doesn’t say much about happiness as such – unless it’s addressed to the less conscious “elephant” in his “rider and elephant” model. There’s a lot of stuff (reciprocity, bias etc) that you may have read elsewhere.

But as he gets on to the ground he’s passionate about, morality and ethics, it really takes off.

And what I liked so much is the way he helped me reframe debates that have long interested me. Left vs. right. Religion vs. spirituality. Autonomy vs. shared values.

I, like Haidt, loved the story of Flatland (by the marvelously named Edwin Abbott Abbott).  It demonstrates so clearly how our own perceptions limit our ability to see the world as others see it. And the joy that comes from integrating two previously irreconcilable viewpoints.

(By the way a modern version of much the same story is The Planiverse, by A. K. Dudeney.)

For me, I am sure one of the reasons I pursue an increase in consciousness is to get the hit from just those ah-ha moments.


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What Conscious Business is not

Tonight’s the night when many people think of, and maybe even make, resolutions.

About what they will do in the year ahead. Or maybe stop doing.

And there are plenty of people giving advice to follow. Things to do that will make your business stronger, better, fitter. And you a richer, better, wiser person.

But I want to make it clear that, for me, conscious business is not about doing anything. Or giving anything up. (Except maybe doing stuff).

The best known form of the Serenity Prayer is probably:

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things that I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.

I read this to mean that, rather than doing stuff, we can simply accept what is.

And, the joke is, we can even accept that, as humans, in a living world, we and everything around us changes all the time. Anyway. Without our puny efforts.

So why stress ourselves doing stuff? Why strive to change and improve things?

So (and here comes the advice) don’t fix or change your business. Simply accept it. Let it change and grow.

Simply become conscious of what it is. Reflect on it. Let it be.

Happy New Year.


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Doing Business Consciously

Conscious business. Now there’s a term to conjure with.

We’ve had conscious consumerism. So why not something for the other side of the producer/consumer coin: conscious business?

What is it?

What does it mean exactly? Lots of things depending on where you sit.

If you read the wikipedia definition some people are talking about conscious business as if it is a type of business. That is, some businesses are conscious and others aren’t. Just like some businesses are profitable and others aren’t. Or good or bad.

I prefer a more personal approach. I think of it in terms of whether someone who is engaged in business is conscious or not.

Doing business (or anything) consciously is about being aware of what is happening as you do it. Being aware of your thoughts, feelings, needs and motivations. And being aware of what is happening around you too – in other people, and in the world.

(This isn’t “flow“. In flow, as I understand it, consciousness comes and goes. You can be so deeply in flow, so focussed on the task hand that you lose consciousness of what is happening around you.)

What’s it got to do with business?

I am told that many people operate from day-to-day with limited consciousness. And popular business role models seem to encourage this. “Successful” business people are portrayed in the media as single-minded – focussed on only one thing (often money) at the expense of other things (or people).

Intellectual prowess is also much celebrated – at the expense of emotional awareness, for example, although this is starting to change. And the goal is often seen to be more important that the process of achieving it.

For me the process we go through is all important. After all there can be joy, pleasure and learning in the process, as much or more than in the outcome.

Immanuel Kant wrote “Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.” For me, people, and their development, are the purpose.

All we achieve in business is worth little if we destroy people along the way. Turn that around completely and suddenly business is a powerful means to develop and grow people. And to improve the world we live in. A real force for good.

Sure we need money – it’s fuel. But it’s not an end in itself.

Conscious or Conscience?

Is doing business consciously the same as operating with a conscience? It depends if you believe that people have a conscience.

If you do, then increasing your conciousness means you are likely to become more aware of your conscience.

That doesn’t mean you have to act on it, of course. That’s still your choice. Of course, you’ll be more conscious of that choice too. (No one said it was easy!).

How do we do business more consciously?

Sometimes we are more conscious than at other times. So the aim is to be more conscious more of the time. This means becoming more aware of what is happening to us internally and externally.

  • Internally: thoughts, beliefs, feelings, sensations, needs, desires, drives, motivations and so on.
  • Externally: other people, our interactions with them (relationships), our physical environment – near and far, physical objects, the results and changes we create, the big-picture and the small, local picture too.

How do we become more conscious?

  • By spending time reflecting on these things more ourselves, by inquiring internally, and with help from others, to get a clearer view of our patterns of thought, our feelings, our needs and so on.
  • By spending time discussing these things and trying to understand others’ perceptions and views too. Others can help us by giving feedback on what they see and hear – we can understand our own behaviour better and make guesses about what is going on for us internally.

To become more conscious we spend time on these activities; and we ensure we avoid the distractions that stop us seeing, listening and feeling clearly: other people’s noise (TV news?!), habits and addictions of many kinds, and our own fears.

Why bother?

It’s a personal view but my bet is that doing business more consciously will mean:

  • you’ll enjoy it more
  • you’ll build better, stronger relationships
  • you’ll get better results – in personal and in business terms
  • the business you own, run or work in will reduce the harm it does, and even increase its positive impact on the world.

What next?

We’ve set up a wiki here to gather material to support discussion and enquiry into doing business consciously. Please feel free to read more there, and please join in.


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What more needs to be said?

Great TED talk by Ray Anderson (from May 2009).

Watch it if you have any doubts about a) our responsibility as business people b) our possibilities (as people who can change ourselves and our impact on the world).

I also love his “impact” formula. It’s worth careful inspection.

As he says, adopting this formula, believing it, following it, would reframe civilisation itself.

Ray Anderson Formula

Ray Anderson Formula

It’s remarkable (to me at least) how a small change in how we assume the world (and economies, businesses) work could have such a remarkable effect.


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What's so good about growth?

It occurs to me that sometimes we confuse growth and development.

I have been reading Donella Meadows’ excellent book “Thinking in Systems“. In it she tells the tale of Jay Forrester, one of the early proponents of systems thinking, who when asked by the Club of Rome in the early 1970s to show how major problems of poverty and hunger, environmental destruction, resource depletion, urban deterioration and unemployment might be solved, alighted on a clear leverage point: growth.

Not just population growth, but economic growth. Growth clearly is the solution to many of these problems. What Forrester revealed was not that world leaders didn’t understand that growth was important. The problem was that they were pushing it in the wrong direction.

As has now become much more obvious than it was then there are limits to our resources, and growth has costs as well as benefits. For example, economic growth has led to increased CO2 emissions, and therefore risk to the climate.

So this raises a major question. Why in the face of knowledge about the dangers of rampant growth do we continue to push this lever in the wrong direction? Why are we so obsessed by getting back to rapid economic growth?

I’ll suggest a few reasons; you can probably offer more:

  • It has worked in the past. Economic growth has helped us reach the standard of living we now have in the developed world, and is helping raise living standards in the developing world. And, of course, we tend to think that if something has worked in the past that it must still be a good strategy.
  • Growth impresses us. When we see a sunflower shoot up or a child suddenly grow long legs it is impressive, and it does feel good. There’s something attractive about that power. We’re temporarily in awe.
  • We’re told again and again that we benefit from growth, and, of course, sometimes we do. Growth does have benefits.

But we need to be careful. Growth can mean a lot of different things. As Nassim Taleb has said there is something not quite right when growth leads to extreme imbalances – for example, in wealth. For example, randomly gathering 1000 people then adding the heaviest person on the planet would only add perhaps 0.3% to the total weight of the group.

But doing the same thing according to wealth and adding the richest person would lead to much great variance. The richest person would be worth some 50 billion dollars versus a total of 1 to 2 million for all the others put together. As Taleb suggests, and recents events seem to have shown, these imbalances can greatly affect us.

So we need a clearer a definition of growth. And different types of growth: slower growth. No growth. Negative growth. Progress towards goals that matter, rather than just growth for growth’s sake. Development, in the sense of gaining maturity, not growth.

Conscious growth?