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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Chicken and Egg

Climb that wall

Business is a complex system. If you don’t believe me, notice how many times the words “chicken and egg” come up in board room conversations.

Shall we hire some new people? Yes, when the sales are there. But hold on, we can’t make the sales until we have the people. Let’s wait until we have the sales – then let’s hire the people. But hold on…

If you’re not familiar with systems theory, it suggests that we like to imagine things happening largely in linear and cause/effect kinds of ways. But that a better model is that many things we encounter in life, including business, are the result of circular feedback loops and conditions as well as causes. This makes things more unpredictable, and sometimes, leads to that ‘chicken and egg’ state.

So how might we break out of these loops? How do we resolve the impasse of hiring versus selling?

Firstly, be conscious of them.

Study how systems operate. Learn from experience the subtlety of emergent properties – how unexpected results emerge as the result of changes we sometimes unwittingly make to systems. Picture them, draw them, get a feel for them. Some systems theory seems mathematical but I always think of it as more as an art than a science.

And secondly, throw your hat over the wall. There’s a story I remember from long ago about George Washington. Apparently when he was a youth he and his friends (for some reason I imagine them in the top hats and tails) used to wander around the gardens near his home, looking to steal apples, cut down trees and generally make mischief.

Sometimes they’d come up to a wall. A really high, unclimbable, dangerous-looking wall.

That’s kind of ‘chicken and egg’ isn’t it? In front of it you’re stuck. You can’t resolve the impasse – you can’t go forward.

So what happened? Well, one of them would take off his hat and throw it over the wall. That did it.

You see then they were committed – they had to retrieve the hat, so that meant they had to climb the wall. They had to go forward. And they did.

By the way I have read several introductions to systems theory but by far the best in my opinion is the late Donella Meadows book: “Thinking in Systems“.

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Go for it

Confidence, and self-confidence, are very important issues in the organisations where I work.

Lack of confidence can lead to all kinds of problems: sometimes it can freeze us  – we find ourselves completely unable to enter new territory. A simple example: having the confidence to sell a new type of product or service to a new type of client.

I think it was in a book by Jesper Juul that I first saw the distinction made between self-confidence and self-esteem.

Self-esteem, the way I read it, is about how I feel about myself, regardless of my skills or abilities.

Self-confidence, by contrast, relates to my view of my skills, my abilities, and my behaviours. If I think I am good at things I do – then I am self-confident.

Following this approach I can, if my self-esteem is good enough, feel good about myself even if I am demonstrably rubbish at something. And if I unfreeze and take the necessary steps, then I’ll learn and build the skills I need – growing my self-confidence.

Children, of course, learn new skills like sponges, and only at a certain age start to worry about their skills and abilities. By the time we are adults, many of us seem to be depending on our skills and abilities to maintain our self-esteem.

So that’s the theory. But how can I ‘operationalise’ this? (I love that word). What can I actually do that will help me become more fearless and act as if I have high self-esteem, even when I have zero self-confidence in a certain domain?

Three things come to mind:

  • Tell the truth. Maybe I am the only one, but a lot of my fears and worries are fears of being ‘found out’. Fear leads to inaction. Without action I cannot develop the self-confidence I need. So to avoid ever being put in a position where I will be ‘found out’ I find it useful to always tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

When I was younger, if someone said something I didn’t understand I might try to bluff my way through it. You can imagine the results. Anxiety and tension that only escalates as the situation gets more complicated because of my failure to understand a key point. Then scurrying away afterwards to research what I didn’t know.

A big waste of time. Today, if I don’t know I’ll say. That way I can put my energy into doing whatever I should be doing (like really listening) instead of wasting time watching my back.

  • Work as a team. Drop the commonly held expectation that you are somehow ‘serving’ the other person, in the sense of being inferior to them. I do believe in one sense that we always serve others. But often the worst way to serve another is to act as if they have some kind of hold over us and to pander to their demands.

Much better to treat other people as peers. The easiest way to do this is to change the language you use. If someone asks you a question, don’t always jump to answer it. Instead, use language that assumes you are working together in a team. Say “we”. Say “that’s an interesting question, I wonder what the answer is. Shall we work it out together?”

  • And finally, stay in the moment. Handle what’s in front of you “one step at a time”. Stop planning ahead. A year. A month. A day. Even a few minutes.

Instead, focus on your breath. On your body. Tap into your emotion. Feel the earth (the seat) beneath your feet (bottom). Look around. Listen carefully. Extremely carefully – to what is being said. And what your body is saying.

And respond to that, what ever it is. Don’t worry about what might happen – in the future. Bring your focus back to the present and respond to that. OK, so you don’t know the answer. What does that feel like? What’s happening to the other person? When you have an answer, respond. Take the next step.

Rinse and repeat.


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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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All hail the leader

Is it just me, or is it generally assumed that leadership is something that other people do?

For example, we generally deem leaders to be special people. They get extra attention. They need to be studied. Leaders have “strengths”.

Those strengths are nearly always positive: leaders are thought to be articulate, wise, empathic and so on. And with just a little more effort, a little more diligence, they could go from being “good” to being “excellent”.

Ordinary people seem more likely to have weaknesses. We just are. We get on with the boring day-to-day activities while the leaders lead – somewhere up there in the stratosphere. We’re simply not in the same league.

This is starting to sound dangerously like a self-esteem problem – in me. If only I was a bit more self-confident, self-aware, talented and above all hard working and diligent then I too could become a “leader”. And oh how happy I would be, if I could only share in some of what those special people have.

But what if leadership isn’t an attribute to be conferred on only the annointed? What if leadership is a set of behaviours that is available to every one of us?

What if it’s a personal thing? Something we can all do, even the lowly and the least talented? What then?

And what if leadership isn’t really as complicated as some experts would have us believe? What if it’s simply being clear, at least to ourselves, who we are and what is important to us; and then living in that way, consistently, to reach our highest ideals?

Of course, if that was the case, and we all led in a personal sense, would we need the other sort of leader? Those at the top of the pile?

There are reasons why we wouldn’t want to even consider this, of course.

Not being one of the leaders makes it’s  easier for me to blame them for my condition. Whether it’s politicians, corporate and financial leaders, or even religious leaders – they’re the ones who are really responsible for my troubles.

And I’m not saying it’s easy to lead. Maybe it’s easier to let others take the lead? Maybe that’s why we need to leave it to the “special” people?

But there’s a problem with letting others lead.

For one, it doesn’t seem to have got us to such a good place. The economy’s in collapse. Politicians are besmirched. The planet’s being destroyed. The poverty gap is growing. Our livelihoods are at risk.

Letting others lead us towards their goals seems dangerous.

Surely we do need leaders don’t we? Where would we be without any leaders to rescue us, to save us?

That seems to me a little like saying “where would we be without economic growth?” That’s a paradigm that we have adopted blindly for years. And look where it has got us.

Maybe now’s the time to reconsider our system of leadership.  Not just how we select leaders, and who they are, but who we call a leader.


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Did Ghandi blog?

A rather random thought: how would Ghandi have used blogging (and Twitter, and all the other social media tools) had they been available in his day?

I’m a bit limited here because I don’t really know much about the man. Other than a few random sayings that I much admire, what I have read on Wikipedia and from the Richard Attenborough film.

Maybe others know more and can correct me. But it seems to me that Ghandi’s tools of non-cooperation, non-violence and peaceful resistance could work well in a world enabled by social media.

I suppose first off, Ghandi would have blogged. He was a teacher amongst other things, and I guess would have used blogging to share his teachings. Each post might have been written around a saying such as  “live simply, so that others can simply live”: expounding the value of vegetarianism and a simple life.

He would have encouraged dialogue, rather than preaching, of course. It would have been as important to him to learn from the discussion as to teach. Comments on his posts would have been remarkable and many.

Twitter might have been a daily source of wisdom. Something to inspire us and move us to mindfulness: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

One a day perhaps: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”; “A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes”; and “Honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress.”

These would have been personal meditations. Not written to appear smart. But as least as much to help him learn.

And most importantly he’d have been on Facebook and LinkedIn. With Meetup.com working overtime. There would have been hundreds if not thousands of groups and communities – organising boycotts, strikes, marches and so on. Groups for people who committed publicly to non-violence and peaceful resistance.

The public demonstration, and thus solidarity, often being as important as the action itself.

Finally, in terms of style I feel sure he’d have used wry humour much of the time, to soften the blow of accurate words.

When asked what he thought of Western civilisation he reportedly said “I think it would be a good idea.”

Isn’t it great how the good ones last?


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Elvis was right

This post is to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Cluetrain Manifesto.

I listened recently to philosopher Peter Singer talking at the RSA. The talk was all about boundaries. At the end I must admit I thought “wasn’t that all just common sense?”.

It took a little time for the power of his words to settle in.

He spoke about the boundaries we create in our lives – between other people and ourselves, even between animals and ourselves. He linked three much discussed issues: global poverty, animal rights, and climate change together, pointing out that each was really about boundaries. Boundaries between us and others far away, us and animals, and us and future inhabitants of the earth.

His suggestion, as I understood it, is that sometimes these boundaries are false or over-estimated. And sometimes they turn into barriers. And that these barriers can cause us to act irrationally – for example, to fail to transfer even a small amount of our income to solve problems of poverty; to treat animals in sometimes appalling ways; and to continue to destroy the planet with obvious disregard for those who follow us.

Another potentially dangerous boundary, I’d suggest, and one that often becomes a barrier,  is the one between customers and companies.

When we allow it to become a barrier we create products and services that harm the planet. And we cut ourselves off from the value and joy we could be giving to each other through exchange,  innovation and commerce.

Thesis 29 of the Cluetrain Manifesto runs as follows: Elvis said it best: “We can’t go on together with suspicious minds.”

Surely, suspicious minds are at the root of the thinking that turns a boundary into a barrier?

We fear what we don’t know. We fear what might happen. We lack trust. And the truth is we often don’t take the steps needed to build that trust.

I am not sure that we can ever completely remove suspicion. It serves a biological purpose, I am fairly sure. But we can become more conscious of it. We can take actions to reduce it. To develop and grow its antidote: trust in others.

  • We can become more conscious of it by looking for examples of media, both old and new, that stereotype. We can challenge or avoid them.
  • We can watch the stereotyping, and labelling and judging behaviour, in ourselves. How often, when confronted by someone who says something we disagree with, do we label that person: “he’s a jerk”; “he’s stupid”; or, simply, “he’s weak”?
  • We can feel our fear – simply by focussing on an emotion, sometimes we can reduce it’s power.
  • We can challenge our beliefs. We can get out there and meet and talk to people. Even people we wouldn’t ordinarily talk to. To prove to ourselves how our stereotypes and suspicions are so often wrong.

It’s one of the great things about new media and the Internet – it has the potential to break down barriers between people, between creator and audience, and between customers and companies.

But to make that potential real we need to see more clearly, and to act, to take steps, to overcome our suspicion.

PS Next in the list is Kevin MacKenzie, at mack-musings.blogspot.com. You can see the full list of posts in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Cluetrain Manifesto here.


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Asking the right questions

A friend of mine asked me the other day “What is strategy?”.

It’s a great question. It’s a question I remember asking one of my mentors over 20 years ago. We were working for a consultancy and together we had just completed a fairly significant strategy exercise for our client, one of the big six accounting firms. We were in the pub having a quiet drink to celebrate. Perhaps I was asking the question a little late?

And I admit now I didn’t understand his answer. Maybe I just wasn’t ready.

Now, twenty years later, I think I understand what he said. I think he was saying that strategy is in three parts:

  1. finding direction – developing vision, and mission, that sort of thing;
  2. choosing the route you are going to use to get there, and steering;
  3. doing it – implementing the strategy.

The first and last are relatively easy to understand, even if they are not easy to do. But the middle one is, in my opinion, the really tricky one.

Tricky because it requires different skills. Skills of analysis, connecting things, and seeing the big picture, to name but a few.

And even if you have access to these skills it requires something else, something that is sometimes in short supply in organisations: courage and confidence.

Courage and confidence to trust one’s instincts and ask what strategy is. Know that what other people call strategy probably isn’t. It may be tactics. It may mean simply blindly following a vision, without making any difficult choices.

Courage and confidence to stop whatever habitual busyness you have, and take a long cool look at yourself, your world and what is happening in it.

Courage and confidence to see clearly, despite the pressure that social systems put on us to conform and ignore reality.

Courage and confidence  to work with others and trust others, in such a way that a shared choice can emerge. The world is so complicated I really doubt whether strategy can be done alone.

Courage and confidence to go it alone. Effective strategy is usually a lonely path. You (and your colleagues) won’t be following the crowd.

Courage and confidence.

Setting direction takes courage and confidence too. It’s not easy to be what we most want to be.

Implementing your strategy takes courage and confidence too. To take the first steps. And the next steps, and the next. This requires tremendous effort – to overcome the inertia and resistance that exists in organisations of any size.

So maybe that is what strategy really is: courage and confidence?