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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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What are you accountable for?

I love clear roles and responsibilities.

I bang on about them endlessly. To the point of driving some of the people I work with crazy.

What do I mean by clear? I mean written down. I mean completely unambiguous. Completely focussed. Like a laser beam. Sharp, accurate and to the point.

A Format

The format I usually prefer is a Role Purpose statement – just one (or possibly two) simple statements that sum up the role.

Like “Make money for the company”. “Make sure we have the information we need to manage the business”. “Find us new customers”. “Ensure we have the best team on the planet”.

It must be only one or two things – more and people can’t hold them in their minds. Too many goals creates confusion – internally.

And then a list of Responsibilities. No more than 7 or 8 (one of the few papers I remember from my first degree was on the “magic number 7”).

Things that support the Purpose, like “Create the processes we need to supply accurate and timely information”, “Recruit and manage a team”, “Work with the other directors to grow the business”, etc.

Why am I so obsessed with this?

Why am I so obsessed by these single sheets of paper (I usually suggest we add in a few KPIs for good luck)?

Because they are one of the best ways I know to create an opportunity for real accountability in a company. If the role description is clear, then holding people to account is easy. If it is wooly – well, then anything can happen, and usually does.

I am also obsessed by empowerment. I believe deeply that people should be given, and take, all the responsibility they need. I don’t believe it works for people to tell other people what to do – except in exceptional circumstances.

So, a clear role is a complement to this. It’s the Yin to the Yang.

In my view, everyone in a conscious business needs an individual, clear and unambiguous role description that describes their Role Purpose and Responsibilities. Make no mistake, these can’t be imposed from above. They need to be agreed – that is, taken on by each individual, and “owned”.

They shouldn’t overlap – or we reintroduce ambiguity. And they need to fit together as a set – so that everything really important gets done.

Without them no one can hold anyone to account, we fail to get the collective results we need as a team, and we lose our focus on our business imperatives. The things that keep our businesses alive.

WIIFM

And whose responsibility is it to ensure that everyone has these? Mine. Yours. Everybody’s. All of us that want great results from our companies.

What’s in it for me? How does it help me, or anyone else, to define my own responsibilities? Well, my life becomes simpler. I can focus. I am clear what I need to do. Maybe more importantly, I am clear what I don’t. Doing less is the key to a life of sanity.

And truly, being held to account is a good thing – not a bad thing. We sometimes think that accountability benefits the person doing the holding to account. But I think there is even more benefit to the person being held to account: we learn.

Feedback on what we do and how we do it is perhaps the most useful gift we can get from others in life.

I feel really annoyed with myself when I let people off the hook on this. But, sadly, I do. Note to self: clarify my role.


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Hey ho hey ho it’s off to work we go

Many people seem to agree that part of the path to success is hard work.

That begs a big question, of course. What is success? I don’t want to go into that here. It’s a big topic. So let’s just assume, at least for the time being, that we are talking about some combination of health, wealth and happiness.

So what about the hard work part?

I guess the most common definition of hard work is working long hours. At times I have believed, and maybe I still do on occasion, that if I work longer hours than others I will gain success.

My head tells me that isn’t true.

I know the feeling of working in an office and wanting to go home, but wondering if I can, wondering what others will think if I leave before … when? … the allotted time? a reasonable time? those other people?

My sense that I can’t actually define the issue properly is perhaps a clue to some faulty thinking?

I also know that working late at the office isn’t going to help me meet some of my other success goals. How will I have time to exercise to gain that health that is a part of my desired success package? Or be able to spend “quality time” with my family?

I also know from experience that working long hours and producing great volumes of stuff doesn’t lead anywhere close to wealth. Several times in my fairly long career I have lived through the night of the long pens, only to discover that whatever I produced languished unnoticed, or had no result whatsoever, other than keeping a paper mill rumbling a little longer.

I know also from when I have paid people to do things for me that I care little about the hours they work. I am interested in the results they achieve, and the pleasure our relationship gives me as it develops and grows.

Of course, sometimes working late or at odd hours is necessary. But I just can’t see the logic of extra hours equating to hard work.

So what is hard work?

Some work, of course, isn’t hard. Those Seven Dwarves didn’t seem to be finding their grueling shift down the diamond mine hard work at all. In fact, they seemed rather happy (or grumpy, or sleepy, or …). We know about flow – and many Disney cartoon characters seem to exemplify it.

But I still believe that in order to succeed it is necessary to work hard.

I think hard work is work that is hard.

Some work is easy, as the Dwarves made it seem. But although they laboured at the mine they were stuck in a timeless, fantasy world where nothing changed, nothing improved, nothing decayed.

That’s not the real world. The real world, or at least the one I inhabit, changes constantly, growing and decaying; and I, as a human part of that world, change constantly too.

Going along with that flow of change is, for me, the only sensible way to proceed. To fight against the stream is madness. Nature grows and decays. People grow and decay. I cannot change that. I would be a fool to try.

So all that is left is me. And how I am in that flow.

I change, but I can also change myself. That, to me, is to be human. To change myself I can change my beliefs. I can change my attitudes – the very paradigms through which I see the world. I can change my habitual behaviours – those things I say and do that reinforce my beliefs and attitudes, just as much as they are driven by them.

Those attitudes I hold, and those behaviours I express in work, in my business dealings, in relation to money, wealth, health and yes, even happiness.

Changing those, for me, is hard work.


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Doing Business Consciously

Conscious business. Now there’s a term to conjure with.

We’ve had conscious consumerism. So why not something for the other side of the producer/consumer coin: conscious business?

What is it?

What does it mean exactly? Lots of things depending on where you sit.

If you read the wikipedia definition some people are talking about conscious business as if it is a type of business. That is, some businesses are conscious and others aren’t. Just like some businesses are profitable and others aren’t. Or good or bad.

I prefer a more personal approach. I think of it in terms of whether someone who is engaged in business is conscious or not.

Doing business (or anything) consciously is about being aware of what is happening as you do it. Being aware of your thoughts, feelings, needs and motivations. And being aware of what is happening around you too – in other people, and in the world.

(This isn’t “flow“. In flow, as I understand it, consciousness comes and goes. You can be so deeply in flow, so focussed on the task hand that you lose consciousness of what is happening around you.)

What’s it got to do with business?

I am told that many people operate from day-to-day with limited consciousness. And popular business role models seem to encourage this. “Successful” business people are portrayed in the media as single-minded – focussed on only one thing (often money) at the expense of other things (or people).

Intellectual prowess is also much celebrated – at the expense of emotional awareness, for example, although this is starting to change. And the goal is often seen to be more important that the process of achieving it.

For me the process we go through is all important. After all there can be joy, pleasure and learning in the process, as much or more than in the outcome.

Immanuel Kant wrote “Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.” For me, people, and their development, are the purpose.

All we achieve in business is worth little if we destroy people along the way. Turn that around completely and suddenly business is a powerful means to develop and grow people. And to improve the world we live in. A real force for good.

Sure we need money – it’s fuel. But it’s not an end in itself.

Conscious or Conscience?

Is doing business consciously the same as operating with a conscience? It depends if you believe that people have a conscience.

If you do, then increasing your conciousness means you are likely to become more aware of your conscience.

That doesn’t mean you have to act on it, of course. That’s still your choice. Of course, you’ll be more conscious of that choice too. (No one said it was easy!).

How do we do business more consciously?

Sometimes we are more conscious than at other times. So the aim is to be more conscious more of the time. This means becoming more aware of what is happening to us internally and externally.

  • Internally: thoughts, beliefs, feelings, sensations, needs, desires, drives, motivations and so on.
  • Externally: other people, our interactions with them (relationships), our physical environment – near and far, physical objects, the results and changes we create, the big-picture and the small, local picture too.

How do we become more conscious?

  • By spending time reflecting on these things more ourselves, by inquiring internally, and with help from others, to get a clearer view of our patterns of thought, our feelings, our needs and so on.
  • By spending time discussing these things and trying to understand others’ perceptions and views too. Others can help us by giving feedback on what they see and hear – we can understand our own behaviour better and make guesses about what is going on for us internally.

To become more conscious we spend time on these activities; and we ensure we avoid the distractions that stop us seeing, listening and feeling clearly: other people’s noise (TV news?!), habits and addictions of many kinds, and our own fears.

Why bother?

It’s a personal view but my bet is that doing business more consciously will mean:

  • you’ll enjoy it more
  • you’ll build better, stronger relationships
  • you’ll get better results – in personal and in business terms
  • the business you own, run or work in will reduce the harm it does, and even increase its positive impact on the world.

What next?

We’ve set up a wiki here to gather material to support discussion and enquiry into doing business consciously. Please feel free to read more there, and please join in.


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Rivers and lakes

I posted the other day that I was thinking of changing the name of this blog to “Happiness is over-rated”.

The reason for the change was that I was getting fed up with the focus on happiness – just about everywhere I look everyone seems to be talking about it.

I have probably read more books on happiness than most sane people (something to do with being burdened with a negative outlook). I agree that it’s a worthy topic. But there’s something about the word that annoys me.

Don’t get me wrong. I am overjoyed that the discipline of positive psychology now exists. When I was at Uni it all seemed to be just a big battle over whether rats had minds.

But life is complicated. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad.

Happiness, by contrast, seems to me to mean a “state” (a way of being) that is just good. Happiness is something we admire, something that is better than what we have. Something to strive for.

And all that striving after getting better can be exhausting.

As a friend said the other day, it’s important to distinguish between lakes and rivers. Surely life is more like a river than a lake?

I am not talking about flow, as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Flow sometimes seems even harder to attain. Great if you’re a top athlete or top musician. But what about me?

I just mean living life, with all its ups and downs. From beginning to end. Through the rapids, the eddies and the calmer bits too.

Accepting the rough with the smooth seems, to me, a better route.


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The meaning of money?

I was mildly amused by a comment overheard on twitter the other day. One G20 protestor to another “How do we know which ones are the bankers?” Answer: “They’re the ones wearing jeans”.

This reminded me of a minor turning point in my life some years ago: coming out of Temple tube station on a visit to London I was struck by the fact that all the men seemed to be wearing ties. All around me, men (and some women) in black shoes, smart suits and ties.

I was suddenly transported back to my school days – the men suddenly seemed like school boys, pouring and up and down the staircases, carrying their homework home in their briefcases.

Off to the next lesson. Eager to please.

Semioticians would probably talk of the meaning behind these symbols and others that appear in central business districts the world over, such as the architecture of the buildings themselves. What do the sharp creases in trousers and buildings alike signify? Why is it all so shiny?

They might also ask what it means when someone reportedly waves a £10 note out of a bank window at marchers. Just what did that mean?


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Opening Minds

I wrote the other day of the dangers of over-confidence and not knowing what I didn’t know.

Knowing what we know and what we don’t know seems to me a core competency. How else can we start to move forward and explore and learn?

So I was very encouraged to come across the RSA‘s Opening Minds programme.

The programme has been running some years, and is now being used by more than 200 schools. It’s aim is to encourage schools to teach “real world” skills including Learning, Relating to People, Citizenship, Managing Situations, and Managing Information.

The framework includes a focus on, for example:

  • “how to learn”, “to enjoy and love learning for its own sake and as part of understanding themselves” (Learning)
  • “how to develop other people”, “managing personal and emotional relationships” (Relating to People)
  • “how society, government and business work”, “an understanding of ethics and values” (Citizenship)
  • “how to manage risk and uncertainty” (Managing Situations)
  • “the importance of reflecting and applying critical judgement” (Managing Information).

The last few don’t seem to have been taught at any of the schools that our bankers went to.

And they all would help with running most businesses, I believe. So all power to the RSA for this programme. You can read about how to get involved here.


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The elements of passion

A colleague, Mick Landmann, introduced me to the great Ken Robinson, a very funny speaker and holder of strong views on education. Last night, I watched him talk about his latest book, the Element, which is about the importance of having a passion for what you do in life.

If we follow our passions, Robinson argues, we are so much more motivated to do our work, are so much better at it, and we can achieve, much, much more.

He also made very clear the link between the problems we face in running up against resource constraints (land, water, oil etc) and the importance of following that passion. His suggestion is that for us, as a society, to find a way out of these problems it’s essential that all of us do what we are most passionate about.

The logic, I guess, is that these problems are so difficult that they require all of our individual and collective power to overcome them. Only by fully tapping into our passions can we access that power.

For me, this is where business comes in. I have been asking myself again recently, thanks to Simon Conroy, what business is. For me, business, when all is said and done, is a sandpit, a place to experiment, that allows people to be their best. To tap into that passion.

Sure, business can generate money. It provides employment. But much more importantly it clearly identifies problems and opportunities. Such problems, opportunities and the resulting solutions are meat and potatoes to someone with passion.

With passion people will work the long days, take the risks, and overcome the fears (facing conflict, for example) needed to solve the most difficult of problems, tackle the most inspiring of opportunities, and come up with the most creative solutions.

And through that work, become whatever they can become.

“Win-win” is a rather over-used term. But if at the same time as developing ourselves, we solve some of our hardest and most challenging problems, I can’t help thinking that is a real win-win.


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The politics of business

One of the programmes I most hate on the radio is Any Questions on BBC Radio 4.  Of course, I don’t really hate it. I hate it only in the sense that I enjoy listening to it so that I get many opportunities to loudly prounounce “What an idiot!”.

The brilliant idea of bringing together people into a setting where whatever they say is bound to cause offence to other participants or those in the audience pre-dates reality TV by many, many years of course. And it’s really entertaining in a true sense: it’s diverting and holds my attention.

Yesterday’s episode was set in Londonderry, Northern Ireland and inevitably some of the discussion was about the political situation. In particular the recent comments by Martin McGuinness describing dissident republicans as “traitors” came up.

Someone made the point that language is important, and so it is. And so is the context in which language is spoken.

The word traitor sits in a historical, political and broader context. Just as dissident does. Just as Ireland does. Or any other term we use.

That context affects the way meaning is drawn from the word.

I know little about Northern Ireland. But it seemed positive to me that the speakers seemed to be agreeing that, in 2009, the context has changed.

And that probably as a result of the “peace process” there is a new way of looking at the world which is held by the majority of people. In that context, the words traitor and dissident and even terrorist mean quite different things from what they did in the past.

Agreement amongst the participants of a panel show perhaps doesn’t create quite the kind of entertainment the editors are seeking. So the conversation moved on.

But I was struck by how much business in 2009 needs a new context. Our  language needs updating, of course. But for me, meaning is what counts. And it is often context that determines meaning.

I commented on an Umair Haque post on the Harvard Business site earlier in the week. Umair seemed frustrated that some people are just disguising old (really old) business models in the language of the new. He’s quite right of course. Just changing the words and calling it “Business 2.0” doesn’t change anything.

The shift to Business 2.0, or whatever you want to call it, is a contextual shift. It’s a change in the way we look at the world. A shift in the principles that underpin why we do business, what it is for. These are things we don’t often talk about in business – we’re usually far too busy discussing the how.

But to achieve the kind of seismic shift that has been achieved in Northern Ireland’s politics, we’ll surely need as deep and as far reaching a discussion as has been held there. And with all that is going on in the economy and the wider world isn’t it just a brilliant time to be having this discussion?

Umair is just one of the many people showing the way; all strength to him. I’d love to hear of more like him.


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Value of role models

Another good post from Rosabeth Moss Kanter. She says it much better than I can where big companies are concerned.

Now let’s try to find some SME examples. Which small and medium-sized companies have been investing in getting their Mission straight and have benefitted from it – even in this downturn?

Who beyond the usual suspects  has been trying to add real value. Here’s last year’s FastCompany list. I wonder who will make it this year?


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Fear of the unknown?

The failure of the social bookmarking company Ma.gnolia because of database corruption made me think about the dangers of reinventing the wheel.

This won’t be the first business (or the last) to fail because of lost data.

The video of Larry Halff (the founder) explaining what happened shows plenty of contrition. Larry admits he made mistakes and I admire the focus he places on the lessons he has learned.

But maybe the biggest lesson might be to be more open to things that other people have already learnt – in this case over 50 or more years of IT and software development. The primary mistake the company made seems to have been very basic – not testing a backup worked before it was needed.

Larry seems a very bright guy. But I wonder, if I had made the same mistake, what would have stopped me getting the help I needed? Over-confidence and thinking I knew what I was doing, probably. And more specifically, not knowing what I didn’t know.

And, perhaps, being afraid to find out.

Formal education doesn’t seem to do much to encourage us to admit what we don’t know. Assessment, for example, is all about proving what do know, not learning our limitations. But especially in uncertain times revealing the extent of our knowledge, however limited, is surely a powerful thing to do.