Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Learn-Learn

I have always liked, and disliked, the term “win-win”.

I guess I heard it first from Stephen Covey, or at least that was when I first ‘got’ it. The concept appears widely in both popular and serious business books. I have been known to bandy it around myself with clients – and even use it at home with the kids (much to their amusement).

The term has developed, of course. The most recent version I have seen is from John Mackey’s and Raj Sisodia’s great book on Conscious Capitalism – Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business.

Raj and John use the term Win6 – they use a superscript 6 to signify the 6 different stakeholders of a business.

They mean a refusal by a business person to accept a trade-off (or a “win-lose”) in every one of 6 domains:

  • with customers
  • with employees
  • with suppliers
  • with investors
  • with communities
  • and with the environment

I particularly like the idea that any business person has a choice (Covey made the same point, I think) to either seek a win-lose, or seek a win-win. In fact, I think we may face that choice many times a day.

Hopefully, we choose the win-win. Even though, as Raj and John seem to suggest, seeking a win-win, or a win-win-win, or even a Win6, may be harder work in the short-term. Finding solutions that help more than one stakeholder may require much creativity and innovation.

I guess most of us involved in Conscious Business buy in to the idea that in the long-term that effort will be amply rewarded.

In fact, I think many business people, especially people running smaller and medium-sized businesses, do take a win-win approach.

Raj and John are simply suggesting we expand that approach – to multiple stakeholders.

But back to my dislike.

I suppose it is partly because win-win has been so well parodied over the years, in comical take-offs of business people. The husband in the brilliant “Little Miss Sunshine” comes to mind.

But maybe it is also partly to do with my approach to life? I am definitely more comfortable with learn-learn. That is an easier choice for me – to promote learning, amongst colleagues, and clients.

Although, now of course, I need to promote that to Learn6.

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Institutional corruption?

Remember institutional racism?  This term was coined in the 1960s in the US and widely adopted in the UK in the 1970s to describe a situation where an entire organisation, rather than just one or two individuals within it, collectively fail a particular group of people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. In the UK the term was used to describe the police after a number of high-profile events such those at the Brixton riots, Broadwater Farm and so on.

The idea is that, at least to some extent, the inappropriate behaviours and attitudes of individuals are so widely adopted within the group that they become social norms. Because they are so prevalent, no one questions them. Of if they do question them, their questions fall on deaf ears.

I guess it’s another example of group conformity in action.

Sometimes I wonder whether some organisations today suffer a form of institutional corruption. We all know the extreme examples: Enron, BCCI, Satyam, and so on. Companies where, ultimately, criminal behavior crashed the companies to the ground.

But isn’t corruption sometimes more subtle, and more pervasive?

A while ago, and this is going to begin to sound like an episode from Money Box, my insurance company sent me a renewal notice for my household insurance. Something made me check – and I discovered that they had increased the premium by 30% compared to last year.

When I called them, as soon as they heard the problem was “price”, they put me on to their “loyalty team”. When the salesman (sorry “loyalty consultant”) heard the price he quickly recomputed it and said they could offer the same service for a 0% increase instead.

Now my guess is that probably quite a few customers can’t be bothered to check what last year’s premium was and just renew automatically. Personally, I think that is pretty dubious behaviour for a business. Imagine how I might feel if I went into a shop and they tried to short-change me by 30%?

Wouldn’t I right to be aggrieved? Might it even be fraudulent or criminal?

When I enter into a relationship with a company I expect to be dealt with honestly – I want to trust that company and have them reward my trust. Would the shopkeeper who short-changed me by 30% retain my trust?

So going back to the idea of institutionalised behaviour, is it possible, then, that an entire company can be institutionally corrupt?

Is it possible that the salesman thinks of his role as an upstanding member of the “loyalty” team – when actually he’s in the “covering up our corruption” team?

That his managers and others in the company think that this kind of behaviour is so normal that it’s “commercial best practice”?

Is it possible that even the senior management and the CEO are so institutionally blind that they believe it right and proper to accept favourable compensation packages even while their employees are behaving in ways that are dubious or verge on the criminal?

Could this institutional corruption extend beyond the company to the whole industry? To other companies? To its regulators? To the media? Sometimes there’s not a critical voice to be heard, anywhere, of what some might think are corrupt practices – “this is just the way it is in this industry, it is just the norm”.

When the UK police were accused of institutional racism I can still remember the confused, questioning voices from their representatives: “You can’t be talking about us? We’re not racist”. It took a long, long time to really sink in.

The irony, is, of course, that as with the police force, or any other organisation, the public recognise this institutional racism, or corruption, or whatever it is, much sooner than those inside the organisation.

It feels wrong. But often the fact that everyone else is telling you its right makes it harder to put a name to it. It requires bravery to stand up and make that kind of statement.

Consciousness, even?

But businesses that are institutionally corrupt will lose customer loyalty in the long-run. My insurance company has already lost mine.


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Systems Thinking and Conscious Business

Today one of my sons told me he had been trying out the text-to-speech option on the Kindle. He thought it funny it couldn’t speak properly – all it does is read the words with no intonation or sense of meaning.

This led to a discussion of the difference between a series of words and a sentence. The computer can read each word individually but has no sense of the bigger thing – the sentence. Nor of the next bigger thing, the paragraph. Nor the next – the chapter, or indeed of the whole book.

It is very clear that a book is much more than all the words in it added together.

Take a piece of paper and draw 5 boxes. Arrange them in the rough shape of a circle. You can see the boxes. You can also see the circle. But where exactly is the circle? It doesn’t really exist in one sense – there are no lines on the paper which make up a circle. The circle only exists as an emergent property of the individual boxes arranged in a particular way.

2 + 2 = 5. Or in this case, 1 + 1 + 1+ 1 + 1 = 6.

These examples illustrate something that is central to thinking about business in a “systems” way.

This has little to do with IT systems, by the way; nor systems in the sense of processes that are used to deal with issues methodically or “systematically”. We’re using a different meaning of the word – this is systemic not systematic thinking.

These examples illustrate that businesses are complex systems. They are made up of “just” the individuals that work in them, but they are also much more than that. They are all the relationships between the people as well. And the relationships externally too.

And they are even more than that. They are wholes, and also part of a bigger whole. They’re integrated and connected into that bigger whole in ways that may even be difficult for us to comprehend.

This may all sound rather ethereal.

But it has some very practical implications.

For example, when trying to improve profitability in a company managers are often tempted to play around with metrics or KPIs. Adjust a few simple things like how hard people work, and surely profitability will increase?

I’m afraid it just isn’t so. A business is a complex system, and playing with one low level metric is just as likely to make things worse as it is to make things better.

Much better to think systemically. I have blogged before about Donella Meadows and her (fairly) famous list of the best points to intervene in a complex system. Be it a business or any other system.

According to Meadows, 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.

Transparency – who sees which information – comes in at number six from the top.  Transparency is a core part of developing a conscious business. It does work to radically change behaviour – and is certainly much more powerful than changing low level metrics themselves.

But the really powerful levers (in Meadows’ view, and mine) are:

  • The goal(s) of the system.
  • The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises.
  • The power to transcend paradigms.

Consider that a business that chases short-term profitability has a different goal from one that is interested in profitability over the long-term.

Asking questions like “what is a business for?”, or “what does competition actually mean?” is the kind of activity that can lead to a shift of paradigm or mindset.

And realising that how we see things changes everything is the ultimate lever. That, of course, is what consciousness is all about.

PS To get started in systems thinking I’d really recommend the late Dana Meadows book Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Or try the Systems Thinking wiki. Or more recently I really enjoyed The Gardens of Democracy if you want to explore how (eco) systems thinking relates to areas beyond business.


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Business as war?

I just read this wonderful statement by Sam Keen about questions – “Your question is the quest you’re on. No questions — no journey. Timid questions — timid trips. Radical questions — an expedition to the root of your being. Bon voyage.”

That touches me deeply. Asking really good questions is very dear to me.

I looked Sam Keen up because I came across another quote from him “Business is just warfare in slow motion.” What an abomination. I was shocked to read this. But an abomination that I guess that many people, including myself, sign up to. Not always, and perhaps not consciously. But sometimes I do think in terms of “the competition”. How can we beat them? How can we outwit them?

Even if I am not the most outwardly agressive person, I admit I do sometimes think of business as war. Or at the very least, as a zero-sum game – where there must be a winner and a loser. I start to believe there isn’t enough to go around. I belittle and blame others for their own suffering – it must be their own fault they’re unable to find their way out of whatever problems they face. And, if I look inwardly, I am shocked to discover a core belief that others are somehow separate from me, disconnected, that we are not all part of a whole.

As Keen says elsewhere “we have to stop pretending that we can make a living at something that is trivial or destructive and still have sense of legitimate self-worth”. Destructive livings are bad for self-worth; they’re also bad for the world.

So what’s the alternative? There is a new world out there. It’s coming soon. A world where a different type of business exists. A world where co-operation and the win-win game are the only game in town. Where we all recognise that we are all connected, that we all share this one world.

How does business operate in that new world? For me, it’s beyond democracy. It’s even beyond caring. It’s about giving. And business is just a framework, a way of working, that gives real results to the people it serves. All of us.


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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.