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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Right or wrong?

I listened to an interesting talk by Paul Gilding at the RSA yesterday.

I often become defensive when I hear people strongly assert their views, so I liked it when later in the talk he disarmingly admits that actually he may be wrong. In fact, he says he’d be happy to be wrong.

I like that, because how can anybody know the future? The future hasn’t happened yet. And even if it is in some way pre-ordained, personally, I don’t believe it can be accurately predicted.

Gilding’s talk is based on his book, the Great Disruption. The message as I understand it is that the world is already at one and half times its carrying capacity. Our success means that what we consume already outstrips our planet’s ability to provide it, and we are only surviving because we are burning up our capital.

Anyone who has ever been involved in running a business understands how easy it is to burn through capital once expenditure exceeds income.

Economic and corporate growth have, so far, been mankind’s great, and only, solution to the problem of human development: so far defined as giving more people ever better standards of living.

The problem we now face is that the ratio of use compared to carrying capacity is going to grow rapidly as we apply that solution to the poorer people in the world. And from a humanitarian point of view, as well as politically, we just can’t avoid doing that.

Once we get to a point where the majority of the world’s population – already nearly 7 billion – has a reasonable standard of living, we will be at a much, much worse ratio. Somewhere around 3, 4 or even 5 times carrying capacity within the next 30 years or so.

So, according to Gilding, this is the end of our existing economic system – the one based on growth. That doesn’t mean it will be curtailed, or slowed down, or whatever; it simply means it won’t work. And it will end long before we reach 3, or 4, or 5 times carrying capacity.

Practically, and in the relatively short-term, food and oil prices will again rise dramatically – as our global oil and food production systems reach their natural limits. Political instability, oil and food prices, and climate are all inextricably linked: so we can expect even more unpredictable results. We’ve already seen the first signs of this: the need for a global financial bailout and even the recent Arab spring.

But “Mother Nature doesn’t do bailouts”. There is no “global government” that can throw additional resources at the problem. So whatever happens precisely, growth will stop. Clearly, an economic system based on growth doesn’t work when growth has stopped. And this will happen well before we reach the higher end of those use-to-capacity ratios.

Again, according to Gilding, fiddling around with population won’t help. Even if we could stop population growth today this ratio of use compared to carrying capacity will still grow massively as the standard of living of people already born rises.

Might technological advance, and, for example, limitless energy solve the problem? Possibly, but not for the next twenty years or so. We’re just not there yet technologically. Gilding’s prediction is that the current economic system will reach its limits well before we find technological solutions.

So, not a pretty vision. But ultimately he is mainly optimistic. For two main reasons.

Firstly, he believes that once we eventually notice that we are being boiled alive (like Charles Handy’s frog), then we will band together and deal with the crisis well.

Humanity, he says, is excellent at dealing with crises. It may be painful but we will do whatever it takes to solve the problems we have. A spirit similar to that of the second world war will emerge – community and mutual support will strengthen, and with a bit of luck we’ll get though it. Perhaps not as individuals. But at least as the human race.

And the other reason for hope is that as the current economic system collapses we’ll replace it with a much better one. A steady state economy which while it reduces that use/carrying capacity ratio to a sustainable level also has the huge benefit that it supports a much more holistic definition of wealth – where happiness, relationships, community, and mental and physical health sit alongside sufficient material prosperity.

All of the above is based on research done by some respected bodies and groups (such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Global Footprint Network). I suppose there’s always a question with this kind of thing: who do I, as a relatively uninformed citizen, trust?

Personally, what worries me about some economists is that they seem locked in to a paradigmatic view of the world which assumes growth is the only model. Where many environmental scientists, perhaps because of their more systemic world view, seem to be prepared to challenge their own assumptions. Perhaps.

But does it really matter if Gilding is right or wrong? If I am right or wrong? Or if anyone is right or wrong about this kind of thing?

In one sense yes. Gilding downplays the terrible human consequences if he does turn out to be right.

But in another sense perhaps not. Not in the sense of what we should be doing about it.

What does it mean for Conscious Business if he is right?

Well, for me, it means that Conscious Business is an excellent idea – because anything that prepares people for a world where happiness, relationships, mental and physical health sit alongside sufficient material prosperity is a good thing. Making the transition to that world easier seems, to me, a good and useful thing to do.

And what does it mean for Conscious Business if he is wrong?

Well, for me, it means that Conscious Business is an excellent idea – for exactly the same reasons. Creating that kind of world is a good thing in its own right, for all of us.

So take your pick: right or wrong? And then get on with becoming more conscious, and bringing more consciousness into your business.

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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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A shake – or a hug

Sometimes I want to give the people who run our government, banks and largest companies a shake.

Yesterday at a meeting of the MDHub in Brighton I listened to a fascinating presentation by Jeremy Beckwith of Kleinwort Benson about the state of our global economy. It was a story of how all governments since the last World War, aided and abetted by the banks and large corporations, have systematically grown our public debt to a point where our economy is in such a state that no one will lend us any money. Where we can’t borrow to spend our way out of our troubles. Where things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.

Other highlights:

  • nearly every country in the world is in dire financial state
  • there are many further backed-up economic problems to come
  • some countries will almost inevitably drop out of the Euro, causing untold disruption
  • 40 million Americans are receiving food stamps
  • if you’re relying on a state pension, you better make alternative plans
  • large private corporations are making record profits – based on population growth and a resulting unskilled global labour price of $2 a day
  • economic policy is out of control: we are entering a twilight zone of currency wars and other unknowns.

Oh, and the good news? Gold is at a record high. If you want to live somewhere with a reasonable economy, well you could move to New Zealand, Australia or Sweden. If they’ll have you.

So why do I want to shake them? These people who run our government, banks and largest companies? Because my first reaction is that they seem to be asleep. Asleep as they wave their children off to their private schools. As they play with their Blackberries and laptops. As they tramp from their cars and trains to their glass sky-scrapers.

Obviously these aren’t theoretical problems, in some economic text book. There are real people out there, millions and millions of them, suffering the indignity of relying on a government for benefit, having to leave home and hearth to chase that $2 a day, suffering the uncertainty of losing their home, their job, their income.

But the strange thing is I also know that many government leaders, and bankers, and the leaders of large corporations are, like all of us, trying to do the right thing. They want the best for themselves and their families, yes. But they also want the best for the rest of us too. Just as I do. Just as you do.

Of course, if asked, they’d also say that we sleep-walked too – the rest of us. And, I agree, it would be failing to acknowledge our share of the responsibility to suggest that we didn’t enjoy the good years. Why didn’t we ask those difficult questions – like how does the economy work, or why are we building up all that debt – when there was still time? Do we have so little self-responsibility we’ll just blame them for our current situation?

And I guess, if I think about it for a moment, that it hurts those government leaders, and bankers, and CEOs too – and especially it hurts them to know that all their brains and money and power and effort didn’t help them make things better.

To know that they failed.

So maybe what I really want to do is give them a hug.


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Let it be

In my working life I quite often hear people make a distinction between life-style and ‘growth’ businesses.

‘Growth’, at least from the entrepreneur’s point of view, really means exit.

The idea is to build fast and create a lot of value in the company – in the eyes of prospective purchasers – so that the business can be sold.

Naturally, this also creates a lot of uncertainty for employees, and other stakeholders. And often it creates a lot of uncertainty for the entrepreneur.

Maybe they sell. But then they have to endure an earn-out, and disrupted relationships with all those around them. And at the end – well, often they’re back at the beginning, needing to find the next opportunity to express whatever they feel the need to express.

So-called life-style businesses on the other hand provide the owners with a steady income over many years, provide steady employment and can lead to strong, resilient relationships with staff, customers and investors.

I guess this distinction can be a useful way of getting someone to think about their values: about what is important to them.

I nearly said goals, but goals as opposed to values are perhaps part of the problem.

“Growth” businesses are all about long-term goals. They’re about imagining a particular future (e.g. making a lot of money; lying on a beach) and working single-mindedly towards that goal. They’re sometimes about control: making sure that the actual future matches that imagined future.

Short-term goals can be useful, especially as a measurement tool. But long-term goals, don’t make as much sense, as I don’t think we can control our lives. Whatever we plan, something else will usually happen. We plan to lie on a beach and end up starting another business.

Ever so often, our lives evolve outside of our conscious control and something unexpected happens. Particularly over time, few of us can predict the detail of what will happen to us.

Of course, being the kind of creatures we are, we do make sense of it – after the event. We’re excellent at dreaming up good explanations. So we can very easily fool ourselves into thinking we are in control.

But if it’s an illusion, and we can’t control the future, what should we do? Well, I’d say relax and let the future come. It will.

And if that doesn’t satisfy the need to control the external world, what about transferring that need to your internal world?

Why not start with yourself? Try and understand yourself first, and if you wish, make a choice to be different, to be more conscious and self-aware.

Make a choice to communicate better/differently. Make a choice to build better relationships, ones that last and give you something that no amount of money can.

Make a choice to build a team around you that works in a very special way – a team that is supportive, creative, fun and challenging. And one that gets things done.

Make a choice to learn new business skills – and to learn about the world outside and explore what is really out there.

Do those things and let the rest happen. Life-style or growth. Whatever will be, will be.


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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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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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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.