Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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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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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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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.