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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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We’ve come a long way baby

In its short history, the human race has achieved some magnificent things. But together we’ve also created a host of complex, and very serious, social and environmental problems.

Of the three powerful forces in society – business, the public/charitable sector, and politics/religion/media – I believe it is only business which has the power and the flexibility to address these problems.

Power because of its reach – the ability to touch many lives, even from a small base.

Flexibility because only business seems to be currently capable of transforming itself – reinventing itself. Away from greed and personal profit and towards really addressing those broader, much more important problems. Above all, business listens, and people are crying out for change.

But change alone isn’t enough. Too often change just means small improvements to delivering the status quo. We need ‘step-change’ – real transformation. Transformation is beyond change – it means adopting a new purpose, and a completely new way of operating, with new energy.

I am reminded of the story of one visitor to Ray Anderson’s visionary company Interface. A fork-lift truck driver, working for a company that makes office carpets, after helping her all he can, tells the visitor he must get on, because he’s “busy saving the planet”.

That is the new kind of energy we need in business people. Energy released by belief in a new kind of purpose.

How do we get there? As the author Jeanette Winterson said in her New Year resolution: “It is important to work out what is important. Living consciously has never mattered more.”

Individually and collectively we need to raise our consciousness. To become part of the group who are trying to transform things, systemically, radically – at the root.

We need to become more aware of what matters, why it matters, and what we can do, and are doing, about it.

And often are not doing. We need to become aware of our habits and the other things that hold us back. Conscious of our failings, as well as our successes. That means internal, personal work. As much as putting our heads above the parapet.

There are many, many people on this journey. It is not my place to tell you what you should do. But I can tell you what we are doing.

We are building a business – Conscious Business People – that helps leaders discover a more important purpose, a transformational purpose for themselves and their businesses.

Then we help those leaders develop transformational strategy, structure and culture – to create businesses that are part of the solution. Businesses with positive purpose, and radically better behaviours, and much higher levels of awareness.

We help businesses and the people in them become more conscious, and stay that way.

Many will say this is foolhardy, it will never succeed. That mixing business with purpose is simply wrong and doomed to failure. But I think it’s the only game in town. The only game worth playing.

I’d love to know what you think, what you’re doing to “save the planet”.

Happy New Year.


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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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The Sustainability Opportunity

The horrendous Jimmy Savile story has recently entered a new phase: towards criticism of the institutions – the BBC, the hospitals, the Department of Health – that allowed him to operate with such impunity.

All across those organisations I imagine people are now asking themselves how they let this happen. And I can hear the reply: “it was just how it was back then” or “I didn’t know what I could do” or “I just went along with it because it was the ‘culture’ of the day”.

This issue of conformity has come up before in this blog – reflecting similar examples from different fields: for example, institutional racism. The ability of any organisation – like the police, for example – to confuse itself, to collude amongst its members, to “sleep-walk”.

History provides, of course, many even worse examples of self-delusion amongst groups.

The Solomon Asch studies – video here – are shocking to watch. They demonstrate, to me at least, how powerful these effects are. I am pretty sure that if I was the young man in the second video, I too would have gone along.

I have also often seen this kind of sleep-walking in the businesses where I have worked.

In large and in small businesses alike I have seen management (and the staff) sleep-walk into a worse and worse situation. “Wake-up” I want to shout. Sometimes I do shout that 🙂 Sometimes it works. And sometimes not. The zombies sleep on. Walking over the cliff.

And I also worry that I am doing it right now.

Perhaps twenty years from now someone will finally blow the whistle on the biggest scandals of our generation, in a way that sticks. The things we know, but now ignore, will suddenly rise painfully into consciousness.

How, for example, at the beginning of the 21st century did we collectively dream our way through one of humanity’s greatest disasters – the completely avoidable deaths of millions and millions of people – through the wanton destruction of our environment, and by allowing starvation and curable disease to kill men, women and children at unbelievable rates?

Today, in case you were asleep, 30% of the world’s population don’t have access to essential medicines. 13% of people in the world are undernourished. (Source: Oxfam.)

That day, when we all wake up, I, like all of us, will probably try to justify my behaviour and say “it was just how it was back then” or “I didn’t know what I could do” or “I just went along with it because it was the ‘culture’ of the day”.

There is an argument that this is just part of the human condition. That our failure is inevitable – because we, as humans, are flawed.

But, personally, I think that is only one side of the argument. I do think it is important to accept that we are human and we do make these mistakes. All the time. We are weak.

But it is also, in my view, important to recognise that we are strong and able to do something about all this.

Of course, lots of people are doing things. I really like this recent approach by Oxfam – the doughnut – a simple, graphical model that allows us to contemplate the complexity of a world threatened by multiple environmental disasters and by multiple social and human ills.

I like the model because it is simple. But I also like what it doesn’t show: that as long as businesses operate within the doughnut there is huge scope for innovation and creativity of all kinds. For prosperity and a meeting of needs.

That to me is to the great opportunity presented to business in this sometimes difficult world.


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What is progress?

Out walking the other day I noticed that the skyline at Newhaven near where I live has now been split by the large (230ft?) chimney of a new incinerator.

A hundred years ago this might of been progress. Under the conditions then, it might have been appropriate. Like the building of our Victorian sewers, massive construction projects designed to improve public health or get rid of waste would presumably have been a good idea.

But today this sight makes my heart sink. Even ignoring the defiled view, to me, building that incinerator is not progress. It is a retrograde step.

This is a plant that will simply burn waste to produce further waste which then must be sent out in to the atmosphere or put in landfill.

And rather than a real dialogue with the people who live nearby, it seems to me many objections and suggestions were ignored. The idea of a zero waste strategy, for example – based on reducing waste at source and throughout the production cycle – doesn’t seem to have been taken very seriously by the “powers that be”.

By contrast, Ovesco, another local initiative, has been raising money for a community-owned solar power system. The idea is to put 544 photovoltaic panels on the roof of a large local building and generate renewable electricity. And, perhaps most interestingly, anyone with £250 to invest can join in and share in the returns from the project. An experiment in sustainability, and in the participation of local people.

The Ovesco project, for me, is progress.

Of course, these are very personal views. So, what makes me, personally, label one project “progress” and the other not?

Simply, for me, it is all about the vision I hold. My personal vision.

And what is vision? For me, vision is about what I see coming down the road towards me.

If I have no vision of the future, then I am interested only in what is happening to me right now.

With a negative vision, a future where the world is polluted, and a hard place to live in, then an incinerator makes perfect sense. It deals with a short-term problem. Creates some jobs in the short-term. Contributes a little to economic growth.

With a positive vision, a future where businesses and people work together in harmony to create a world where many of our energy needs are met through renewables, then the Ovesco project makes perfect sense. It allows us to experiment and learn – about renewables and how to work together as a community.

This suggests some questions: Do I need a vision? Can I choose a vision? And what should I choose: a negative or a positive vision?

Part of our nature as humans means that many of us are very present-focussed and are pretty unconcerned about the future. That is great in many ways – after all pleasure and happiness all occur in the present – not in the future.

But if we have no vision, I believe things may just happen to us, and we may miss an opportunity to influence them.

If we allow ourselves a negative vision, we create the conditions for that negative world to come about. That kind of view leads to acquiescence and a lack of action. And then we may just find ourselves getting something we don’t really want, deep down.

And, by contrast, if we learn to cultivate a positive vision perhaps we’ll start taking steps to bring it about.

By “cultivate” I really mean “learn to look”. As Shakespeare wrote, the world “is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so”. If we look carefully, consciously, we can see signs that indicate where things are heading. By selecting those that seem positive to us, and acting on them – finding allies, and taking simple, practical steps – I believe we can draw that world closer, and make it more likely to come about.

That, for me, is progress.


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Enough is enough

I came across a really neat little report today – “Enough is Enough” – that summarises in just ten pages the reasons why we need a steady state economy, and what we need to do to get started on creating such a thing.

It was produced by two British non-profit organisations: CASSE and Economic Justice for All, and is based on work at the first Steady State Economy Conference held in June last year.

The ten straightforward proposals seem very much aligned with what we are trying to do with Conscious Business. In fact, so much so, that I have added links to relevant past posts in the list below. The ten proposals include:

  • stabilising population – sensible in a finite world, but what a challenge to achieve and maintain this;
  • reforming the monetary system – if you thought stabilising population was difficult, imagine successfully reforming banks, bankers and all that;
  • changing the way we measure progress – something so deeply entrenched in establishment thinking, and in the education system itself;
  • improving global co-operation – vital to balance the needs of countries where growth is necessary with developed countries like ours, but an immense political challenge;
  • engaging politicians and the media – another daunting task; but there are always early adopters in these groups.

And five in particular standout as of specific relevance to business:

  • limiting resource use and waste production – this, to me, is the only sensible route in a finite world, and business as a huge user of resources and producer of waste clearly has an enormous role to play in this;
  • limiting inequality – lots of practical things we can do here and are already exploring – like limiting the gap between the highest and lowest paid; and introducing new models of business ownership;
  • securing full employment – this requires a change in the way we think about employment – for example, to allow us to reduce the working week. I have written before about the real, underlying challenges of this;
  • changing consumer behaviour – we have the technology, and probably the know-how; but do we, collectively, have the will: this means, ultimately, changing ourselves?
  • rethinking business and production – the key here for me is changing the primary goal of business towards developing the people in the business – helping them become more conscious and happier.

All of these things are difficult individually. And overall the list of 10 priorities can make the whole exercise seem overwhelmingly hard. But two things strike me:

  1. We are already some way down the track on many of these things. I know more about the business elements than the others but I know we have been experimenting – going around the loop of failure and success – for many years. Conscious Business itself is already a broad and growing church.
  2. What an exciting and amazing overall goal? A true Big Hairy Audacious Goal – something stimulating and exciting for a whole new generation of younger business people. Young people who in many cases aren’t held back by the attitudes and outlook of their older colleagues. People who are happy to shake up the status quo and challenge “Establishment” thinking.
Game on!


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Taking charge

A recent news piece on BP’s behaviour in the Gulf of Mexico made me wonder about the use of the word ‘systemic’.

I know it’s probably not what was meant. But when I read this article, “systemic” started, to me, to sound like an excuse. A reason why BP and others didn’t do what they could have. Should have.

The first time I heard that word in relation to a disaster, or a scandal of some sort, it seemed to be properly used. Indicating that there are features of the system that make a problem likely to reoccur. That the problems are deeply entrenched in the design of the system, and that these conditions ensure that individuals often behave in certain ways. That we need to reform the system. Not just scape-goat individuals.

But now, and maybe it is me, it begins to sound as if the word is trotted out whenever a major disaster or scandal occurs to absolve any individual of responsibility.

“It’s the system’s fault, I couldn’t do anything!” comes the plaintive cry.

But as Margaret Mead said:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.

Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

And where does that small group of thoughtful, committed people start? It starts, of course, with the individual. One individual needs to take a risk, change their way of thinking, say something others daren’t.

An individual within a system is, I believe, the only thing that really can start to change a system. The individual is the catalyst for system-wide change. Somewhere, sometime, were there perhaps people in BP would could have said something and didn’t? Who went along with crowd-pressure and followed the herd mentality? When there was an opportunity to say or do something different?

What does this all have to do with you and your business?

Maybe you are in a business, running it or working at the front-line, and everyone blames everyone else? Maybe everyone is rubbish at their jobs. Maybe you don’t like the way the company is set-up or structured. Maybe your boss is an idiot. Maybe the reward systems are set-up to reward the wrong things. Maybe the company regularly does bad things, or allows poor quality work in the pursuit of short-term profit.

If any of those things is wrong with the system – please don’t blame others. Don’t blame “the system”. Take responsibility. Change yourself. Be the catalyst. Be the change.

Happy New Year.


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Because we can

A really nice talk by Bruce Mau, of Bruce Mau Design, on society’s response to environmental degradation, and specifically what we should do about oil.

Maybe I only like it because he seems to agree with me – here’s a post I wrote a couple of years ago making much the same argument: we should build a more sustainable, a more beautiful world because we can.

And I especially like his idea of removing guilt and angst from the situation around oil.

But I guess I might not use the word “remove”. Accepting our guilt might be more powerful? After all guilt can be useful, if it galvanises us to more positive action.

I think Bruce understands this. He also suggests that another emotion, embarrassment, can drive us in a positive direction. We “should” be creating a better, and better designed, world because we “ought to be” embarrassed if we don’t.

Everything we do, we do for a feeling. Harnessing those feelings in a positive direction seems, to me, to be a perfectly rational thing to do.


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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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Begin at the bottom

Lewes, where I live, is a Transition Town. The Transition movement led by Rob Hopkins and Ben Brangwyn and based in Totnes in the UK  is a very interesting movement.

It’s different from some environmentally focussed groups in that it’s not a protest group – it’s not against anything. Rather it’s focussed on creating positive solutions in response to climate change and “peak oil“.

It’s different because it’s local too, and is really more about community, and community resilience, rather than looking at the world top-down or from a global perspective. Instead, it’s a truly bottom-up way of looking at the world.

In fact, I’d argue it operates from the real bottom – me. My perspective and my behaviours as a member are the first and most important place where things can change.

I also like the way the Transition network is structured. It is a network not a hierarchical organisation. Each Transition Town, Village or City can choose how it operates locally, as long as it at least considers following the network’s broad principles.

Being involved leads to some interesting local debates, which I believe have resonance with the broader world too.

Firstly, we have debated whether it’s better to take a positive or negative view of global trends, particularly climate change and peak oil. Is changing our lives as a result of these things bad or good? I, for one, think a world with less oil where we care for the planet more could be a lot better, and in lots of ways.

Secondly, there’s an argument about resilience in the face of change. Who is more resilient, us in wealthy surburban Britain? Or people in developing countries who haven’t forgotten how to live simply. I realise there are shades of grey in this debate, but still can’t help wondering what all the real fuss is about for us more wealthy folk.

Thirdly, there is an argument about hysteria, about getting people into a state of panic. Plenty of the rich world’s population appear the opposite – almost frozen and immobile – in the face of the things that are happening to us. Ecosystems in collapse, species (including our own) under threat, and we continue to shop, drive and so on. As if there was no tomorrow.

I am sure there is a place for hysteria in getting people to sit up and take notice. For jogging people out of their comfort zones. But ultimately I think, as the story of the boy who cried wolf suggests, it’s really not constructive.

The world is simply too unpredictable. Anyone who uses hysteria to garner action risks becoming simply unbelievable.

So, what other strategies might there be to shake people from their immobility? A psychologist, and friend of mine,  Ben Fletcher, has a suggestion: Do Something Different.

Ben’s suggestion is that people stay the same largely because of habits. Because of habits people behave incongruently with what they believe. For example, we know we should recycle more but we don’t because it’s not our habit.

So randomly and consistently breaking habits should allow us to behave more congruently.

Then all the publicity and knowledge and “facts” which fly around about the environment should properly drive us to take corrective action.

Does it work? Yes, I think so, from having tried one of the DSD programmes. It seems to have the same kind of results as behavioural disputing – where our actions can prove that thoughts we hold to very dearly aren’t actually correct.

Changing our thoughts, beliefs and attitudes allows us to move on – to change our behaviour and create the world anew. That’s a bottom-up change. Something transition is all about.


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What IS a sustainable business?

So what is a sustainable business exactly? Surely we must know by now.

  • Is it a green business?
  • Is it a business that is good at environmental management? That follows an ISO standard?
  • Is it a business that’s good at CSR? At accountability? With a good human rights record?

I have a more simple definition. A sustainable business is one that lasts for ever.

OK, you’ll jump on me now and say that simply lasting for ever isn’t the right definition. Some of the companies on the list of the oldest companies in the world aren’t really green and they may not be specifically concerned about their impact on human rights.

And they almost certainly don’t conform to ISO 14001.

But I believe that lasting for ever is an excellent aspiration for a business. No business (and no human) will ever achieve it. But it’s a really good goal.

It’s a good goal because to achieve it a business has to become really good at a number of things:

  • Being a learning organisation. Fancy words that mean that a company develops and grows – not necessarily in size, but like a person, becoming wiser with age. Stronger perhaps, but stronger with compassion, not violence.
  • Caring for the environment. If a business doesn’t care for the environment, then eventually the environment will hit back. Whether it’s fuel prices or raw materials – any business that is ultimately dependent on depleting these resources will eventually run out of them – or find itself  uncompetitive.
  • Caring for the people it employs. Businesses are people. Businesses can’t learn but people can. And if people aren’t cared for then ultimately they will walk or give less than they can.
  • Caring for human rights more generally. If a business breaks this rule, sooner or later people including customers and investors will figure it out. Ignoring human rights is a violation so huge that most people will eventually, when faced by the facts, turn away. Without customers and investors no business can survive.
  • Really understanding and fitting into the market. The market is all these things: customers, investors, people, resources. It’s more than that too – it’s the complex interactions between these things, the system that makes up the world we all live in.  It’s the connections, the inter-dependencies, the limits, and the whole.

Understanding the market means understanding our world and our place in it.  Understanding that if our goal is human sustainability then we need to address all the complex issues of poverty, war, greed, species destruction, resource depletion, climate change and so on. And find a way to really fit in.

Unless a business gets really good at these things it simply won’t last.

And neither will we.