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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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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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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.


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How to become the home of smartphones (or anything else)

Someone from a large mobile phone company asked the following question the other day: “What would make Vodafone the home of smartphones?” It’s a question I hear pretty often – I heard it as: “how do we become leaders in such-and-such new technology”?

I posted this reply. I thought you might enjoy it:

Hi Tom, here’s an answer:

Step 1 – Radically redefine the purpose of your company. Maximising stake-holder value is never going to work – because it will never inspire the company’s employees. And to become a leader a company has to have inspired employees. Replace that purpose with another one – to serve your customers and increase the well-being of the employees.

[I used the words stakeholder-value and then half-regretted it. I really meant shareholder-value, because “stakeholders” often will already include customers and staff. I only half-regret it though because I also think that stakeholder-value is often really code for shareholder-value. What is needed is a real re-think of purpose and a change of emphasis – not just fancy word-smithing.]

Step 2 – Change the way the company is structured. Employees will never be happy or inspired in a workplace where a few people at the top wield all the power and earn 20 times more than the customer-facing employees.

In the old days power was concentrated in the hands of the unions and the “bosses”. Nowadays it’s usually just the “bosses”.

Employees, like all of us, need fairness, transparency and a sense of being able to make a difference through what they do. They need to feel they have a fair share of the power.

Step 3 – Change the focus of the company so that it is focussed on what customers want, not what shareholders, or even just the employees, want.

You’re looking for a win-win – a solution where customers get what they want, and employees get what they want – but more as a by-product of pleasing customers.

To find this everyone in the company needs to learn new skills – to learn how to talk to customers in new ways, to really listen and understand them.

Then, having understood what customers want, change the company so that it gives customers what they want.

Customers, for example, don’t want to be shuffled around from department to department. They want to speak to someone who is knowledgeable and can help them with all the problems they may have: billing, contracts, hardware, software, network issues and so on.

This may require reorganising into different groups that stick with clients for a long-time. Customers want personal and meaningful relationships – not call-centre queues.

Giving clients what they want isn’t rocket-science. Once you realise that what they want isn’t rocket-science either. Customers want what all human beings want: respect, honesty, trusting relationships and so on.

This approach will, I believe, lead to leadership and success for your company – in smart phones and anything else you turn your hands to. Customers will become happier and more loyal, revenues and profitability will rise, the company will be able to pay everyone better, and train and support everyone better.

Is this vision hopelessly naïve? Well, there are companies out there doing this already if you look, which suggests that even if I am assuming things can get better, I am not the only one; there are others out there who believe it and are proving it every day.

The biggest problem that these successful progressive companies seem to have is being killed off by their success. They get good at all of the above, and other bigger companies buy them and destroy them and their culture.

So if you embark on this journey a fourth step (or maybe it should be step zero) is to choose a set of managers who really buy into all this and won’t sell you down the river later on. I’d recommend exploring employee share ownership as a way of ensuring you can hang on to your rights.

And, finally, what do you do if you are the single employee in a corporation of a hundred thousand who reads this and believes it? How on earth can you start to make this happen, alone?

The answer is simple actually: start with you.

Firstly, think or feel your way into this stuff – is it better than what you have right now?

Secondly, if so, decide to make it happen. Commit to not giving up at the first hurdle.

Thirdly, seek allies – in your company or else where. Use social networks – that’s what they’re for.

Fourthly, learn those new skills of communication and start doing the customer service bit with your existing customers. This will prove to the cynics and skeptics that this can work. That customer happiness and loyalty rise.

By the way, this probably won’t lead immediately to better profitability because your company structure may still be wrong – remember all those powerful, top-level high-earning employees for example?

Fifthly, keep going, just for the hell of it. Keep flexible, adapt when you need to.

At the very least, you can trust that this approach will:

  • make you happier
  • earn you allies
  • build your reputation

It may attract better offers and opportunities.

And remember that this is an unstoppable trend anyway. Wherever you look you’ll see these kinds of changes taking place as our economies mature. As this trend rolls out, you’ll be caught up in it anyway.

So why not take the first step yourself?


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What if…?

You’ve probably guessed by now that I am obsessed by the big questions. Questions like “what’s it all for?”, “why are we doing this?” and so on.

I came across a great paper the other day by the late Donella Meadows on leverage points for changing real world systems. I’d heartily recommend it – you can find it here on the Force for Good website. It suggests that one of the best ways to effect change is to focus on the paradigm – the set of assumptions – out of which the system and its goals emerges.

Our basic human paradigms seem to include fear and love – either we fear for ourselves and close down our efforts to help others. Or we put others ahead of ourselves and give as much as we can to them. There are other important assumptions I am sure, but thinking like this made me wonder again what the basic purpose of business is.

What if….?

What if our purpose individually, and in groups, and even in whole generations was different from how it sometimes seems to be?

What if our purpose was quite simple and pure, and simply expressed: what if each of us, in each generation, made it our goal to leave a better world for the next generation?

We can debate that, but I’d rather just list some of the things that I think we would then do if we made that our goal. Sometimes I find it easier to accept a goal if I understand what I’d have to do to achieve it.

So if each of us, each business, each society and each generation had as our primary goal leaving the world a bit better for the next generation, then:

  • First and foremost, we’d work to get our own physical and psychological needs met. I think it’s helpful to distinguish between the two – yes, we all need food, shelter and good relationships. But do we all need a fancy lifestyle to prove our inherent worth? In this new world, that is what education would be for – teaching individuals to get their own needs met.
  • We’d seek to understand the world we live in and what is good and not so good about it. We’d try and understand how it worked and what the results created are. Clear vision would show a mixed bag, I think. Plenty of joy, happiness, hope and inspiration. But also much unnecessary pain and grief, and, of course, threats to our very survival from climate change, poverty, and various forms of careless destruction.
  • We’d seek to understand our own gifts and contribution and apply them. And we’d seek out, promote and support leaders who had the skills and vision to move us as a whole generation towards creating a better world for our children.
  • We’d all work together to reduce local and global problems, and make things better – critically, in sustainable ways. We’d seek to understand the leverage points – the best ways to make positive changes happen with as little effort as possible. And we’d make sure the improvements we make are here to last – after all we won’t always be around to keep things on track.
  • We’d celebrate our successes and reward individuals and groups that achieved things that helped move us towards this eventual goal.
  • We’d have to keep on learning as we did all this. Because the world doesn’t stay still. We’d need to be always open to new ways of doing things, and we’d innovate constantly. And we’d find ways to argue with each other constructively about the best solutions, avoiding the petty debates that slow us down and make us ineffective.

Our businesses would be designed to help us create this better world. We’d build strong businesses that were profitable and met our current needs. But we’d give up a little of our selfishness. And instead we’d all live and work in the knowledge that everything we did was helping those people who have yet to come.


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Why some people are more equal than others

I have recently been reading a great little book: The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

The title explains a lot of it. People living in more equal societies (they don’t say “equal”) do better on a number of important measures. And this is not just for poor people, which I guess is what a lot of us would imagine. It’s apparently true in general, including for the wealthier people amongst us.

We’re talking about rich countries here – ranging from the least equal: the US, the UK, Portugal and Singapore to the most equal, such as Japan, the Scandinavian countries, Belgium, Austria, Germany and so on.

The measures, and a big part of the book is the statistics and other evidence to support the case, include those on physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, violence, teenage-births, and child well-being.

I guess these are all things, all of us, including the wealthy, would like to improve.

You can read more and join the campaign for change at the Equality Trust website. But something else that really interested was the link to climate change.

The authors suggest that in order to make climate change policies stick, it’s probably also essential that we increase levels of equality in our societies.

The logic of this is that inequality leads to envy and envy drives consumption. It’s a scary thought that even if heavier carbon taxes are introduced and we deploy ever more efficient energy technology, envy amongst individuals may still drive increasing consumption.

Keeping up with the Joneses could still make us go and buy that new car, or go for that ever flashier holiday, whatever the environmental cost.

But what could I do personally to help reduce inequality?

Well, one simple idea is to give your money away. Philosopher Peter Singer’s suggestion on a percentage that we all give away to the developing world seems very reasonable. It’s a sliding scale – the wealthier your are – the more you give.

This has a benefit to the developing world, and, if you are one of the wealthier ones in the country you live in, will also help to reduce the inequality gap.

And secondly, promoting employee ownership seems a very good idea. This clearly helps with inequality, reducing the differential between highly paid “top team” employees and those on the front-line. And in my view, will also help with company performance as more people take more responsibility for the results they generate.


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So what's it all for?

I heard someone ask me today what all this conscious business stuff is about. So here goes.

Business is great. It’s a very powerful force. It’s great at harnessing creativity and innovation, but mainly it’s good at getting things done. While governments and non-governmental agencies alike plan and develop policy, business has usually finished the first activity and is on to the next one.

And we are in a hurry. We have a lot of problems in the world. Poverty. Hunger. Disease. Climate change. Loss of bio-diversity. Desertification. War. Nuclear proliferation.

All of these threats are coming closer. And many are getting worse as, for example, population grows.

Business can’t solve all those problems but it can contribute to solutions for many. Especially when we need new, radical solutions that haven’t been tried before, the unique structure of business allows their creation and rapid deployment on a large scale.

Even small business can seed changes elsewhere, by setting an example or by being a catalyst.

The problem with business is that for too long the people running it have had the wrong goals. If your goal is financial, and you work at it hard enough, and diligently enough, you are likely to achieve a financial goal. While neglecting other more useful goals – such as addressing the threats listed above.

So, the question is: “How do we get at least some of the people running business to adopt other, more beneficial goals?”

Forcing them won’t work. These are very independent-minded people.

Luckily, however,  I believe people evolved with a set of values that are constructive not destructive. The natural state for people is to select goals that will put back good things into the world, for all of humanity.

All that has to happen is for us all to become more conscious.

More conscious of more than just our material drives – in fact, conscious of what drives us mind, body and soul. As we become more conscious of our deeper values, then we will start to work towards them.

More conscious of our individual contribution to the results we create.

Many of us don’t believe that we have much influence on what happens in the world. So then it’s rational to let it just go to hell. But we all do have that influence, and once we realise that then the sky’s the limit.

Many of us believe that others need to be told what to do. And we don’t understand that this approach itself creates unsustainable solutions. Nothing that is enforced will last. The only things that last are those that are created together by those who benefit.

And more conscious of what holds us back and limits our influence. Many of us are ‘hungry ghosts’ – we carry around past emotional pain that makes us greedy, envious, jealous, addicted, obsessed, and compulsive.

Becoming more conscious of this pain, while usually a painful process in itself, is a good way to reduce or even remove its power.

So, as we become more conscious, we do more of the right things, more often. And that’s what all of us need. Now in and in the future.

Simple as that really.


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Shared aims and desires

How can you tell whether an investment is a good investment?

It seems we can’t always trust watchdogs like the Securities and Exchange Commission.  A lot of people seem rather upset that the SEC missed signs that Bernard Madoff’s scheme wasn’t all it was promised to be.

Madoff was apparently a former head of the Nasdaq stock market, so had great credentials. And I am sure if I had met him he would have seemed very respectable and would have charmed me like he did so many others.

Would I trust a bank? Perhaps not as much as  I might have a few years ago. Does a glossy shop-front, impressive numbers, shiny badges or powerful technology mean that our money is in safe hands? None of these things seems to have stopped some of our banks fumbling the ball.

So maybe it’s better to assume the worst. Human nature being what it is, most of us at one time or another fall victim to greed, or other unhelpful motivations. And it only takes a moment for something to start going horribly wrong.

Past history isn’t always a good predictor of how things will go in the future. My track record helps but it really doesn’t say that much about what I will do tomorrow.

Working together in a community is one way to combat these all too natural human failings. If the community creates, agrees and implements the right checks and balances, then any momentary lapse is much less likely.

And another good indicator seems to me to ensure your motivations are aligned with those in whom you put your trust. If your goal is to look after the planet, and so is mine, then we surely can expect that some of our behaviours will be aligned too.

That seems to me to be a huge and global opportunity. The more we share motivation with others the more likely we are to be able to trust each other. This is good because, simply put, people who trust each other get more done more quickly.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all shared the motivation of making the world a better place. We’d get a lot more done, more quickly, partly because we’d trust each other more. What a lovely, though perhaps impossibly naive, thought.

If it can’t work globally, perhaps it would work locally. And to find out whether we share motivation, we often simply have to ask. I don’t always find it easy to say what my motivations are, probably because they are quite complex. But if you give me time, I’ll certainly give it a go.

And I find people who are honest and open, and who tell me the full and complete story, however much grey there is, much easier to trust.  That’s where I’ll always invest my time, and the little money I have.


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Realising opportunities

Let’s get practical. If you’re convinced there’s a opportunity around sustainability, what do you do? One way forward is to come up with ideas. Here’s a great little book by James Young – A Technique for Producing Ideas. In brief, it suggests there are five important stages to developing ideas:

  • gather raw material;
  • digest that material;
  • let your subconscious go to work;
  • let ideas appear;
  • refine and filter.

Then what? Personally I believe in collaboration as the key to making anything worthwhile happen. Another great book is Organising Genius by Warren Bennis (the leadership guru). The book tells the story of some amazing collaborative projects, including those at Disney, PARC and the Manhattan Project, and draws out lessons on what made them successful (its subtitle is “the secrets of creative collaboration”).

I won’t list them all – but these are some I really agree with, partly based on my own experience in “great groups”. Great groups:

  • Know that talent is key – great groups quite simply contain great people.
  • Value and nurture leadership – great leaders grow great groups, but great groups grow great leaders too.
  • Have passion, and mission. They believe they are “on a mission from God”.
  • Are isolated, yet connected too. This is why, for me, the “skunk works” idea works so well.
  • Believe they are underdogs, and usually have an “enemy”. When I worked with BBC News Online the group demonised and respected CNN.
  • Are optimistic. I prefer to say realistic – along the lines of the Stockdale Paradox. But basically I agree with the great man Bennis.
  • Put people in the right role.
  • Enable people – people are given what they need and freed from what they don’t.
  • Are focussed on concrete results – practical outputs.
  • Value work as its own reward.

Easy really.


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The drivers of innovation

I have been struggling today to write something on innovation. I know it is a hugely important topic for this blog – and I was stimulated by reading Charles Leadbeater’s rather good pamphlet – The Ten Habits Of Mass Innovation.

I like his idea of every citizen becoming an innovator. And I agree there are many improvements to our society that would support this. Not least more tolerance, better dialogue, and a re-thought educational system.

But at heart I fear that, as my friend Duncan says, solutions will still be created “according to power, greed, selfishness, and perceptions of worth”.

This is what troubles me. Can we overcome these very human frailities and truly learn to collaborate, to innovate together? Will I, personally, stick my neck out, and create and innovate in some way that is beyond power, greed, selfishness and perceptions of worth?

I don’t have the answer – perhaps you do?


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Is it just about winning?

For a little distraction today, I went to a NESTA funded conference in London on innovation. Bob Geldof was there and was really cogent and inspiring. I suspect he always is but I hadn’t seen him speak before.

Gordon Brown seemed a little less in touch with the mood of the conference, I felt. He suggested (rightly) that innovation is about people; but I think he missed the point when he suggested that innovation was all about success for Britain in a very competitive global market place.

I suppose as Prime Minister, you’d expect him to frame the problem that way. But if his advisors had been listening a bit more deeply they’d have heard several people in the audience, and on stage, say that this was a global problem, shared by all of us living on the planet. Not simply a national issue. Tim Berners-Lee (by video-link from CERN or somewhere), for example, was passionate about global cooperation and collaboration. So was just about everyone else I heard.

Competition clearly plays a role in business. But most of the time I think collaboration is just as important – if not more so. Creativity in business requires collaboration. So does implementation of anything more complex than making a cup of tea.

In the afternoon I went to a break-out group about climate change, etc, hosted by the very, very reasonable David King (ex Government Chief Scientifc Advisor). On the panel were David Puttnam (a bit less reasonable, and therefore to me, more fun), Fiona Harvey (Environment Correspondent at the FT), Jeremy Leggett (CEO, Solar Century) and Juliet Davenport (CEO, Good Energy).

All good stuff. Including the now standard question about “shall we just get started now and turn off the air-con?” (I have a lot of sympathy with this question). Lots of talk about World War II and how we had better gird our loins.

Perhaps it was watching the PM doing his very polished turn. Watching him tell his highly practised jokes. Being the entertainer. But I was left wondering something about all the speakers (including Sir Bob), and hence probably really about myself. Am I really more co-operative or really more competitive? Is my personal view of this different from what I say it is (when facilitating, coaching etc). Don’t I really just want to be the best?

And if I am not alone, how do we square this? The desperate need to collaborate when we are also desperately competitive creatures.