Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Conscious Business Strategy

We love helping people to build and implement their business strategy more consciously. What does that mean?

Like Conscious Business itself, Conscious Business Strategy is not a thing. It is a process. It is a way of approaching the world.

It has three stages. We call them Awareness, Agreement and Action.

Awareness

Awareness is often the first stage. Awareness means opening ourselves up to the situation in front of us. This means seeing it, understanding it, absorbing it.

That means realising that the world is out there – external. And in there – internal.

In business, the outer world is made up of people in all sorts of relationships – customers, colleagues, suppliers, investors, and other stakeholders. The products and services you offer.  Your supply chain. Your prospects and your sales pipeline. The market you operate in. Revenue, your profitability, and so on. Over time – past, present and future. Whole systems, not just patterns and events.

All these things – and many more – are connected. Opening up to the outer world means looking at it in all its glory – with all its complexity.  It is not one thing, it is a complex array of interactions and relationships. Awareness means starting to see all of that – not just one aspect of it. Seeing the whole system.

Awareness also means looking at the inner world. We know that what we see externally is moderated by how we are internally. Our perceptions are incomplete and often wrong. Thoughts, emotions, attitudes and beliefs all colour the world we see. So do our dreams and aspirations, states and moods. Our memories change to suit us.

So Awareness is also about looking at ourselves – being aware of what is going on inside us and how it affects everything – inside and out. Awareness – and self-awareness – mean waking up to that.

Aware of Purpose too

Awareness also means becoming aware of our purpose. There are lots of people out there trying to help us put our “deeper Purpose” (usually with a capital “P”) into words. This is probably a good thing. But purpose is complex too. We have many different purposes – not just one. Sometimes these are in conflict, sometimes aligned.

One way to understand purpose is simply to look at what we are doing. I am writing this blog post. Why? To communicate something? To get something out? To engage others in interesting dialogue? To while away some time on a Sunday morning? There are always many purposes, and many may also be invisible to me.

So Awareness also means looking to see what my purpose is. Using my self-awareness to understand what I am doing, and maybe why.

Agreement

We call the second stage of Conscious Business strategy Agreement.

Strategy isn’t necessarily about the long-term, but it is definitely about something that endures. Strategy is about following one course of action, sometimes despite the response from the world. That is why so many approaches to strategy refer to Principles, Policies, Precepts, Pillars etc. (For some reason they always seem to be words that start with the letter “P”).

These are all ideas or beliefs that we can hang our hats on. They endure even as we implement the strategy. We check back against them and use them to determine whether what we are doing is following or diverging from the strategy. They guide us. Following them allows us to implement the strategy consistently in a way that gives us the benefits we are seeking.

But we call this stage Agreement because it is essential to agree these Principles, Policies, Precepts and Pillars either with yourself or with other people. Once agreed, once we have committed to them, then we can hold ourselves and others to account.

Agreement means dialogue, and it means being congruent – authentic, transparent, choiceful. It means letting these ideas emerge, and then settling on them, agreeing them with oneself, or with others. Making a definite choice.

Once we have made these agreements, then we can say things like “We agreed we would hire a fair balance of men and women, and yet we are actually hiring more men than women. We are diverging from our hiring strategy. Why? And what are we going to do about it?”

Action

Finally, a conscious business strategy is really about Action.

If we do all that looking and agreeing, and then do nothing, we aren’t really implementing the strategy. It is only through action that we get to learn more and discover more. It is only through action that we get the chance to iterate and update the strategy. Strategy lives in operation.

We are always doing something. We are always acting. So acting strategically is to be conscious of those Principles, Policies, Precepts and Pillars. Making choices in the present but with awareness of those things we agreed. Reflecting as we go. This awareness affects our decisions, which affects our actions, which affects the results we get.

If we agreed our strategy is to hire men and women equally, then that is what we need to do. Our strategy affects how we advertise, how we interview, how we assess, how we speak and what we do. We change our behaviour and we get different results.

When you pick up a stick you get both ends. Decisions have consequences. It is often difficult or impossible to predict the consequences. Strategy isn’t about somehow forseeing the the future. No one can do that. It is about acting consistently over time, despite the immediate response, and thus eventually getting something that is more aligned with what we wanted in the first place.

Sometimes this stage is where we make a plan. Strategy is definitely not planning. But planning – building lists of actions, to be completed in a particular order, and at a particular time – sometimes flows from strategy.

But of course, we need to iterate, to pivot, to be agile and lean. Maybe we need to abandon our plans. So all the time as we take action, we look to see what response we are getting. We stay aware. And we choose whether to continue, or whether to update our Principles, Policies, Precepts and Pillars. So really Conscious Business Strategy is a cycle, not a linear thing.

Awareness, Agreement, Action. That’s it.

(If you want to read more about Conscious Business as a way of doing business, take a look at this).

 

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Is truthfulness a competency?

As human beings, we tend to ignore the elephant in the room because we fear the consequences. Truth is a time bomb; the fuse is lit, and when it goes off we’ll all get blown to bits. Really?… It could just be that when it blows there’s nothing more than a lovely colourful (and perfectly harmless) foam fountain. Why do we fear the worst?

Duncan Brodie, a former NHS Director I interviewed for Undiscussables.com a while ago, questioned the logic of a health service that effectively works a Monday to Friday schedule when those who depend on it (i.e. require medical treatment) typically do not conform to an office hours only schedule when falling ill. I’ve also talked before about the notion that what is undiscussable in an organisation is, in and of itself, often undiscussable, and idea that stems from the work of Chris Argyris.

Reading a pointed (as ever) and thought-provoking post by Roy Lilley at NHSManagers.net recently, what struck me is that the two states of undiscussability that Arygris describes may need defining separately.

The undiscussable undiscussable

A subject that is taboo and has yet to reach the stage that it can even be alluded to.

Sexual and physical abuse, whether that alleged to have taken place by Jimmy Saville or within the Catholic Church, often seems to fall into this category. The difficulty that those who have been abused have in having their stories heard, let alone believed, might suggest that this pattern is particularly difficult to break. In organisational/work contexts, they can arise also.

The discussable undiscussable

The taboo alluded to, hinted at, ‘known’, tantalisingly out of reach

Writing that heading I question my logic momentarily, and it is this category that Roy Lilley describes powerfully in another post re mortality rates in the NHS. Analysis of three years of data and four million patient outcomes have revealed a statistically significant increase in mortality rates the nearer to the end of a working week you have elective (i.e. non-emergency) surgery.

It’s a bit like ‘Area 51’, the US Military…. It’s an open secret. Everyone knows it’s there but the US Government pretends it isn’t. Just like MI5. Everyone knew about it but it took the British government until 1994 to admit it existed. And, The Stig, BBC’s Top Gear test driver; apparently everyone knows who she is.

Elephant in the Room, Open Secret.

This is the ‘classic’ elephant: the thing we all know is there but do not want to acknowledge and/or discuss, yet there is tacit agreement that it exists. The undiscussable undiscussable is different: there is no agreement, tacit or otherwise, of existence because the consequences of doing so are too high for some of those involved. Or because those who witness what is happening cannot bear the consequences of even acknowledging it (the bystander effect)?….

There is no easy answer, although I am drawn to two suggestions, both sparked by Lilley.

Data, data, data… Give me more data

The mortality rate issue above was revealed and discussed in sharper terms because not only was there data available, it has been used to make sense of complexity to reveal an underlying pattern. With data, you get to a conversation that takes you closer to a decision based on reality rather than the shifting sand of opinion.

Truthfulness is a competency

In the post on mortality rates, Lilley laid out a challenge for leadership in and around the NHS, in the context of the recommendations in the Francis Report calling for a new approach to leadership practice.

Truthfulness emerges as a key competence when an organisation is faced with the unachievable. Soldiering-on, to protect reputations and careers, not confronting the real issues leads to an environment fertile for fraud, fictions and fabrications. Obsfucation, cover-ups and smokescreens disguise the actualite and defer the inevitable.

Relative to the NHS, and given my own experience working with people within the UK health sector, I would agree. What is more, I am not aware of any psychometric tests, competency frameworks or similar that explicitly seek to inquire into the capacity of individuals in organisations to speak the(ir) truth, relative to role and context (suggestions welcome if there are). And…

A challenge to leaders and leadership development practitioners

My experience of working with(in) organisations and with leadership teams is that the desire for simple answers and certainty undermines those who make the case for slowing down to seek more data in order to establish what is real and not real, what is fact and not opinion. This desire for simple answers and certainty, delivered in as short a time as possible, places a primacy on an illusory form of truth. ‘Directness’ and ‘honesty’ are not the same as truthfulness, the essence of which is grounding in fact or reality, and means you are exposed to the possibility that reality may not be how you imagine it. So a couple of questions, relative to the taboos and challenges in your organisation:

  • To what extent do you know what is true (real), and based on what data?
  • To what extent are you prepared for the truth, whatever it is, or to speak a truth?
  • To what extent is your organisation ready for the truth?
  • What are the consequences, all of them, of speaking out and not speaking out?

Your move.

(Ed: This post was initially published on Undiscussables.com)


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It’s no good being conscious in your business if some topics are un-discussable…

Being conscious in business, or life in general, involves taking risks, and it is surprising how common it is for us to shy away from those conversations that, whilst hairy, may be exactly what is needed.

I spent last weekend in Phoenix, Arizona (niiiiice), where I met up with 25 other practitioners who take a complexity-based approach to organisational change and development. All of us are certified Human Systems Dynamics Practitioners, which a) lets us use extra letters after our names, and b) gives us more long words to bamboozle and confuse clients with if we don’t watch it. The purpose of the conference was to help the group develop more tightly coupled relationships in order to grow our practice, and foster collaborative working. Overall it was a success, and I walked away having both learned stuff (good), met some top people (excellent), and added a number of things to my ‘to do’ list (not so good).


One moment stands out for me as being the point at which the conversation shifted from being useful to generative. Or to put it another way, when we shifted from being polite to each other and got down to what mattered…

Playing with similarity & difference

At the heart of all relationships is a dance between sameness and difference: the more similar we are, the better the ‘fit’ and the greater likelihood we want to  work or play together; the greater the number of differences, chances are we move apart and/or end up in conflict. So far so obvious. What is less obvious, yet typical of what happens in many relationships, particularly in organisations, is what is left unsaid, unspoken, unnamed and ultimately becomes un-discussable. I have touched on this theme before (Intent(ion): the missing link?…, Is Gordon Brown’s ‘bullying’ behaviour a symptom, not the problem?, Collaboration: 10 tips for success, with a relational bias), and the un-discussable is not something that is easy to bring up. To suggest to anyone, particularly in a group context, that there may be something that they are avoiding talking about can evoke fear, anger, shame or simply plain discomfort. It requires, as a minimum, courage and curiosity on the part of the person raising the question, and a level of trust that can hold the impact of that intervention and any resulting. The rewards are huge if you can go there, and here’s why.

About an hour into the conference, we were invited to go into small groups to explore how we were same and different, and what this might mean for the relationships in the room and the weekend as a whole. My group of three contained some meaty differences, which we explored, and it led to one person noticing that she wasn’t sure how safe it was to share aspects of her self and her values that marked her out, in her view, as different to the majority. Whether this was true or not is not the point.  The discovery and potential rich learning lay in the (shared) realization that the group felt somehow un-safe and that some topics felt taboo.

Pick a door, any door…

This moment was a beautiful decision point for us. Many groups/organisations face these without realizing it, and, I believe, more often than not opt for safety. I can understand why, but we didn’t. Back in the big group, our feedback was framed around a central question:

“What is un-discussable in this group?”


Heart in mouth, I illustrated this by sharing how I felt (feared) my (Brighton, UK, liberal) values might mark me out as different from my US hosts, and how our relationship would change the more I revealed those differences.

Nothing is un-discussable, the only thing that changes is consequences…

From that initial risk-taking, something amazing happened. Person after person revealed questions/thoughts that they hold been holding back. In our case – and it will not be the same for every group or context – the territory we ended up exploring was primarily the questions and issues people felt unsure about raising in the context of the work we were there to do. There was some talk about how we were different individually, but as a group our focus was on the work. The trust in the room, and relational awareness of the people involved, was such that we held our differences lightly, and respected them. This particular exchange set the tone for the weekend, and got us quicker to where we wanted to go than would have been possible otherwise, in my opinion and it is important to say that.

Do I believe there were places we didn’t go, questions that were not raised? Yes, I suspect there were, if for no other reason than I get curious when a group of people spend so much time together without getting into any decent arguments! And that may say more about me than the group.

So the question for you is …

What are you not discussing in your organisation, team, group, board? How are your similarities and differences driving the conversation, and what is stopping you from saying what is really on your mind and gets in the way of work? For me, a relational approach leavened with models and methods from complexity works wonders. What works for you?


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Solving ourselves

I read a great blog post recently by Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project about giving and receiving feedback.

He uses the term ‘deconstructive’ – a term I have also seen used in the book ‘Seven Languages for Transformation‘ by Harvard Professors Kegan and Lahey to describe both feedback and conflict.

The idea is much older than that, of course, and runs as a theme through much work on dialogue – including that by Bill Isaacs (Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together – one of my favourite books), who refers back to David Bohm. It is also central to the ideas of Chris Argyris and many others. In fact, I am pretty sure the idea can be traced back and back, probably to ancient thought including Taoism and beyond.

So what does it mean? Putting it into a modern context, the starting point for me is how we perceive ourselves and our relationships.

If we see ourselves as unitary figures, each with our own problems and failures, and if we adopt a critical mindset, then deconstructive criticism doesn’t make much sense. Surely our aim is to point out the failings of others and fix their problems? To be constructive – in other words to help and support them as they “grow”.

Extend that a little, and add in a little sympathy for the human condition, or perhaps guilt at our own imperfection, and the idea is now that we need to find our own flaws and figure out how to eradicate them.

But take a different perspective. Start with the idea that everything is how it should be. That people as individuals and the relationships they inhabit are fine, just fine. In fact, they are perfect – in the sense that they are in balance, in a perfect homeostasis – like everything in nature.

Take a different perspective – that we are not unitary figures, but that we are all connected, that we are part of complex systems, in fact, part of a single complex system. Unboundaried parts involved in a complex interplay, perhaps one that cannot even be understood by us – not simply cogs in some giant machine.

Then what deconstructive means is to try to understand our own role in that system. To understand how what we say and do, and even what we think and feel, joins together with what others say and do, and think and feel, to create a particular result.

Deconstruction is about stepping away from blame, stepping away from a position of superiority, or, equally, of inferiority. Away from a position of condescension, or of false innocence. Of stepping away from knowing.

I am probably misinterpreting it but doesn’t the Bible say that knowledge is the root of all evil? I know for sure that my own tendency to think I know the answers is the biggest block to my understanding. It is only when I start to suspend my certainty in my own knowledge and beliefs that some sense may start to creep in.

As Tony Schwartz, and Kegan and Lahey, and all the others point out, giving feedback to others from a position of knowledge is fundamentally flawed.

What works better is to examine our own role in the systems we inhabit. How is what we are doing, thinking, feeling affecting the results we get?

This is how problems can be helpful – not because we can identify them, solve them, eradicate them. But because problems teach us something about how we are. I can learn how superior I can be. And that might just help me start the process of starting to solve myself.


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Becoming a Conscious Business

Fairly regularly I find myself trying to explain what a Conscious Business is.

I have answered this in terms of strategy before; and also in terms of what CB is not.

But this time I thought I’d try to answer a variant of the question: “What does a Conscious Business look like from the inside?”

At the core of a Conscious Business are people, of course. In my view, every business is simply a bunch of people, when you boil it down.

And in a Conscious Business these people are – well – conscious.

By that I mean self-aware. They reflect regularly. They assess themselves. With compassion for themselves – and with respect, empathy and congruence for others.

They’re also as open as they can be to change. They learn all the time, and a lot of that learning is about themselves.

And they work together in certain ways: for example, they challenge each other’s ideas, decisions, and behaviour. They’re open and honest – about strengths and failings.

They believe in possibility, not certainties. They’re humble. They have fun. They take responsibility – and are able to hold each other to account.

And they take joy in working with others – trying to create something valuable for themselves and others.

Having all this at the core means the business has a clear identity and is suffused with meaning and purpose. It is transparent and open to the outside world.

It is resilient and flexible, profitable, does less harm, offers truly valuable products and services, is highly attractive to customers, and is better able to attract and give a great home to key employees.

Of course, there are many businesses that are already like this. I’ve worked in some, and you may have too. (We’re not “inventing” anything new here. We’re just trying to help businesses as they grow and become more conscious.)

And a conscious business isn’t really a thing at all; it isn’t any of these things in a static sense. It’s a process – of growth and development – something that is always changing, always becoming.


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Business for personal growth?

I said in my last post that business was a powerful means to develop and grow people. I have been mulling this a lot lately, and have been wondering what it would mean if that was the entire purpose of business?

I can certainly see my own experience in that way. Working in business has brought me more challenges than pretty much anything else in my life. Firstly, the challenge of making a living. Secondly, learning to interact with all sorts of different types of people. Thirdly, doing all sorts of things I never would have imagined myself capable of.

Maybe that shows what a sheltered life I have led; but it truly has been challenging. Even balancing the demands of work with the rest of my life has stretched me physically, mentally and emotionally.

And yet at the same time it’s been a very safe place to learn. Scary at times, yes, but ultimately there has been little threat to life and limb.

Along the way I have also come to very much admire the people who run small and medium-sized businesses. It seems to me that they take more real risks than those in big business. In a well-salaried, very senior position in a large corporation, yes, you can learn a lot. And yes, you can lose your job. But you are unlikely to lose your house, or your personal reputation. You’re just too well cushioned by salary, savings and a network that protects its own.

Small business owners by contrast sometimes do lose everything, including their reputations with friends and family, and have to start again. There are few golden parachutes in the small business world.

But back to the purpose of business. I know what I am suggesting is not for everybody. Some people do simply want to make money out of business. Others want to do something really, really worthwhile. But for others, including myself, I think the goal is actually personal development and growth.

That may seem rather selfish. But I guess life ultimately belongs to each and every one of us. And we each have a choice to make, between what psychologists call hedonic and eudonic goals.

With the former we choose to make pleasure and joy our aim; and we avoid pain.

I understand the latter to be more about achieving a sense of fulfilment: a life well led, with real purpose and meaning, good relationships, good self-esteem and feelings of competence and self-control.

If this is your life goal, then why not make small business your training ground?

It will stretch you. You will need to learn new skills. You’ll need to become a specialist and a generalist – good enough at all things to be able to tell if you are wasting your own time and money.

You’ll need to be an expert in human relations. Money won’t always pave your way. So you’ll need to develop and rely on much more human strengths: passion, persistence, and the ability to persevere when others would give up.

You’ll need to learn new ways to lead – to help others discover their purpose and turn it into reality – often without recourse to coercive power.

And most of all it will force you to be really honest, to really be yourself; it’s hard to survive and thrive in small business if you adopt and hide behind a role. When things get tough you simply have to reveal yourself if you want to gain and build trust. Only honesty and trust will get you through the difficult times, and help you create something truly sustainable.

From this honesty and self-inspection you’ll also gain self-knowledge and self-esteem, and ultimately a sense of self-control and personal power.

Surely that’s worth shooting for?


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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.