Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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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.


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So what are the opportunities?

I just finished reading Stuart Hart’s Capitalism at the Crossroads.

I took from it a few pointers about what the business opportunities might be for bigger corporations. His argument is that the 4 billion people at the “bottom of the pyramid” (“BOP”) is an amazing new market. Of the six billion on the planet, these are the poorer people mainly of the developing world.

It’s a market that can’t be addressed in the same way as the developed world markets we are used to. And the best bit of the book for me was how businesses need to change the ways they work with and understand people in order to create relevant, insipiring and above all sustainable products and services.

Another book along these lines is Natural Capitalism (by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins). Again the authors show how capitalism can be adjusted to become part of the solution.

But what about small and medium-sized businesses? It seems to me that the opportunities fall into several obvious categories.

  • SMEs can create B2B products and services for large and small companies who are both “greening” themselves and also addressing the BOP market.
  • SMEs can create products and services for government and other agencies that are influencing the market.
  • And SMEs can create B2C products and services for non-BOP consumers who are greening themselves. Most SMEs don’t have the reach to address the BOP market, without partnering with bigger corporations.

Creating B2C products can be done on a global, national or importantly on a local scale. Another important shift at the moment is relocalisation (or relocalization depending on where you live), driven by the twin needs of reducing carbon emissions and reducing our dependence on non-renewable forms of energy, such as oil.

What does this mean in terms of business ambition, I wonder? Will our definitions of growth and life-style businesses have to change in this new world? How do we match a business owner’s ambitions to grow their business to this new landscape? It’s a challenge.