Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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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 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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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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Coherence and decision-making

On January 16th Professor Ben (C) Fletcher and I launch our new book:
Flex: Do Something Different.

How to use the other 9/10ths of your personality.

Here’s an extract on the topic of personal coherence, a concept that’s critical to conscious business.

Many people go through life saying one thing and doing another. Living one life but wishing for something else. Personal coherence is the mark of someone who has all parts of their life aligned. What they do and what they say are connected.  They are not held back by habits or personal limitations, and are totally at ease with themselves and their world.

Nonetheless, incoherence seems to be part of the human condition and the hallmark of the incoherent person is doing one thing and saying another. Here are a few everyday examples:

  • Craig chooses a foreign holiday but is upset when he can’t get his favourite beer and there are olives in the salad.
  • Pauline says she hates living in a mess but watches TV instead of doing the housework and is permanently untidy.
  • Julie was desperate for children but now that she has them she constantly complains about them and secretly prefers it when they’re not around.
  • Roger wears a safety helmet when cycling – then stops and has a cigarette.
  • The obese Simons family wear the latest sports clothing but never exercise.
  • Marty is obsessive about recycling but flies long-haul.
  • Almost 50% of the UK population buy fresh fruit and then throw it away.
  • Jim has renewed his wedding vows and is sleeping with his secretary.
  • Kath always tries to park as close as possible to the gym where she is going to an exercise class.
  • Sally and Richard worry about their children’s health but feed them a diet of junk food.

When people are incoherent there will always be some fallout or damage. Either to the individual or to others around them. Some of the examples above may seem rather flippant, but you get the message.

In reality people’s incoherencies can run far deeper than just a few surface behaviours. One consequence of a lack of personal coherence is that it leads to poor decisions and choices. The reasons for this include:

  1. Emotions. Emotions cloud logic and judgements. Reasoning powers seem to go out of the window for some people when the subject matter or conclusions involve emotionally laden outcomes. Emotions can also account for many of the flaws in thinking and reasoning that humans show.
  2. Habit. Inertia predisposes people to make the same choices they have made before instead of questioning their own choices. People may also have a stock of excuses to justify their decisions and behaviours.
  3. A narrow behavioural repertoire means a person will be insufficiently flexible and lack essential behaviours,and so is more likely to be distracted by the wrong options.
  4. Worrying about doing the right thing.  Being over-concerned about the reactions of others, or the ramifications a decision, can cloud judgment and make for poor choices.
  5. Fantasies of thinking. Some people live in a world of fantasy about themselves, their capabilities and how they behave. Fantasies obscure the best choices because they replace real information and insight with pretence. There are various kinds of fantasy that can get in the way of proper choices including:
  • The pretend-only fantasy. This happens when the person is not really 100% committed to a goal, decision or behaviour that is necessary to obtain the optimal outcome. Their words are empty and devoid of action. So the personal incoherence is compounded.
  • The commitment-without-expectation fantasy. A person might show all the signs of being fully committed, but does not really believe or expect to be successful. Their low expectations are usually met.
  • The hidden-effort fantasy. This is a very common cause of incoherence. It is the failure to fully consider the actual effort required to reach the goal. It is a failure to  take account of all the consequences of decision. Many people will apparently commit to a goal because they do not consider the unseen costs. So the person might commit to and expect to realise a goal but is not realistic about all that is going to be necessary to achieve it.
  • The others’-effort fantasy. This is a tendency to make a decision contingent upon other people instead of yourself. It is requiring others to do things to make something happen. This fantasy is very common with people who have low levels of self-responsibility.

Choices and decisions become easier and more obvious the more coherent you become. Coherence is about knowing all aspects of yourself – and having them all in harmony.  Our behaviour change technique, do something different, helps the harmonisation process and improves our choices. Decision-making is much easier, because it is only a lack of personal coherence that obscures the right choice.

 

 

 


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Right or wrong?

I listened to an interesting talk by Paul Gilding at the RSA yesterday.

I often become defensive when I hear people strongly assert their views, so I liked it when later in the talk he disarmingly admits that actually he may be wrong. In fact, he says he’d be happy to be wrong.

I like that, because how can anybody know the future? The future hasn’t happened yet. And even if it is in some way pre-ordained, personally, I don’t believe it can be accurately predicted.

Gilding’s talk is based on his book, the Great Disruption. The message as I understand it is that the world is already at one and half times its carrying capacity. Our success means that what we consume already outstrips our planet’s ability to provide it, and we are only surviving because we are burning up our capital.

Anyone who has ever been involved in running a business understands how easy it is to burn through capital once expenditure exceeds income.

Economic and corporate growth have, so far, been mankind’s great, and only, solution to the problem of human development: so far defined as giving more people ever better standards of living.

The problem we now face is that the ratio of use compared to carrying capacity is going to grow rapidly as we apply that solution to the poorer people in the world. And from a humanitarian point of view, as well as politically, we just can’t avoid doing that.

Once we get to a point where the majority of the world’s population – already nearly 7 billion – has a reasonable standard of living, we will be at a much, much worse ratio. Somewhere around 3, 4 or even 5 times carrying capacity within the next 30 years or so.

So, according to Gilding, this is the end of our existing economic system – the one based on growth. That doesn’t mean it will be curtailed, or slowed down, or whatever; it simply means it won’t work. And it will end long before we reach 3, or 4, or 5 times carrying capacity.

Practically, and in the relatively short-term, food and oil prices will again rise dramatically – as our global oil and food production systems reach their natural limits. Political instability, oil and food prices, and climate are all inextricably linked: so we can expect even more unpredictable results. We’ve already seen the first signs of this: the need for a global financial bailout and even the recent Arab spring.

But “Mother Nature doesn’t do bailouts”. There is no “global government” that can throw additional resources at the problem. So whatever happens precisely, growth will stop. Clearly, an economic system based on growth doesn’t work when growth has stopped. And this will happen well before we reach the higher end of those use-to-capacity ratios.

Again, according to Gilding, fiddling around with population won’t help. Even if we could stop population growth today this ratio of use compared to carrying capacity will still grow massively as the standard of living of people already born rises.

Might technological advance, and, for example, limitless energy solve the problem? Possibly, but not for the next twenty years or so. We’re just not there yet technologically. Gilding’s prediction is that the current economic system will reach its limits well before we find technological solutions.

So, not a pretty vision. But ultimately he is mainly optimistic. For two main reasons.

Firstly, he believes that once we eventually notice that we are being boiled alive (like Charles Handy’s frog), then we will band together and deal with the crisis well.

Humanity, he says, is excellent at dealing with crises. It may be painful but we will do whatever it takes to solve the problems we have. A spirit similar to that of the second world war will emerge – community and mutual support will strengthen, and with a bit of luck we’ll get though it. Perhaps not as individuals. But at least as the human race.

And the other reason for hope is that as the current economic system collapses we’ll replace it with a much better one. A steady state economy which while it reduces that use/carrying capacity ratio to a sustainable level also has the huge benefit that it supports a much more holistic definition of wealth – where happiness, relationships, community, and mental and physical health sit alongside sufficient material prosperity.

All of the above is based on research done by some respected bodies and groups (such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Global Footprint Network). I suppose there’s always a question with this kind of thing: who do I, as a relatively uninformed citizen, trust?

Personally, what worries me about some economists is that they seem locked in to a paradigmatic view of the world which assumes growth is the only model. Where many environmental scientists, perhaps because of their more systemic world view, seem to be prepared to challenge their own assumptions. Perhaps.

But does it really matter if Gilding is right or wrong? If I am right or wrong? Or if anyone is right or wrong about this kind of thing?

In one sense yes. Gilding downplays the terrible human consequences if he does turn out to be right.

But in another sense perhaps not. Not in the sense of what we should be doing about it.

What does it mean for Conscious Business if he is right?

Well, for me, it means that Conscious Business is an excellent idea – because anything that prepares people for a world where happiness, relationships, mental and physical health sit alongside sufficient material prosperity is a good thing. Making the transition to that world easier seems, to me, a good and useful thing to do.

And what does it mean for Conscious Business if he is wrong?

Well, for me, it means that Conscious Business is an excellent idea – for exactly the same reasons. Creating that kind of world is a good thing in its own right, for all of us.

So take your pick: right or wrong? And then get on with becoming more conscious, and bringing more consciousness into your business.


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Financial Freedom?

I have just finished reading the Real Deal, the autobiography of British entrepreneur James Caan.

I don’t usually read that kind of thing, but I have to say I really enjoyed it. It is well written and interesting, and at one or two points really pulled on the heart strings. There are several mentions of his great ability to find the best people to do things for him, so I guess those are hints that he also found a good ghost-writer. But he comes across as a pretty nice guy, who has done some amazing charitable work.

One thing that is very clear is that he measures his success in financial terms: he has a really strong need for financial success. Given the way the book describes his life, it would even be pretty easy to argue that this arises from his childhood experience, his relationship with his father, and so on.

And, wow, has he worked hard to meet that need. He describes many, many years of working long hours, and with great dedication, to give it satisfaction. And, naturally, given that very dedication, he has succeeded.

Realising this, I suddenly felt very free. I realised that, personally, I don’t have that kind of need. Maybe a little, but to nothing like the extent that James does. I like to be comfortable, but just don’t need that exact type of success.

James seems to have been unable to avoid filling that need, and this has driven his behaviour, his life, and pretty much everything he says and believes about himself. And having met that initial need, he now seems to be on a journey to continue to convince the world of his great personal value, building a school for his father, doing more and more charitable work, and on, and on.

Nothing wrong with any of this. He doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone to get his needs met.

But this also got me thinking about my needs, and how they drive my behaviour. One of my needs, for example, is to understand, and another to be understood.

Thus, I have made a career out of learning stuff, helping others understand complex things, and helping them put that knowledge to good use.

Or, at least, I have been trying to do that. Because as well as being a need, this is also one of my challenges – especially the latter part: being understood. I seem usually to understand complex things fairly easily, but, boy, do I struggle trying to explain them to others – for all sorts of reasons.

What irony. Isn’t life just perfect? Perfect as a “test” I mean…

Our biggest needs and our biggest gifts and our biggest weaknesses all come crashing together into one. And life tests us and challenges us as we work through those issues.

But what of freedom? This need to understand and be understood has clearly driven my behaviour, pretty much all my life. So although I may be free from the need to be very financial successful, am I really any freer than James?

I would like to be, I think. But I guess the only way to gain that freedom is to realise the extent to which that need drives me. Then, a little, I can perhaps choose to let it go.

What about you? What are your needs? What are they exactly?

And how do they drive you?


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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.