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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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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.


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What's so good about growth?

It occurs to me that sometimes we confuse growth and development.

I have been reading Donella Meadows’ excellent book “Thinking in Systems“. In it she tells the tale of Jay Forrester, one of the early proponents of systems thinking, who when asked by the Club of Rome in the early 1970s to show how major problems of poverty and hunger, environmental destruction, resource depletion, urban deterioration and unemployment might be solved, alighted on a clear leverage point: growth.

Not just population growth, but economic growth. Growth clearly is the solution to many of these problems. What Forrester revealed was not that world leaders didn’t understand that growth was important. The problem was that they were pushing it in the wrong direction.

As has now become much more obvious than it was then there are limits to our resources, and growth has costs as well as benefits. For example, economic growth has led to increased CO2 emissions, and therefore risk to the climate.

So this raises a major question. Why in the face of knowledge about the dangers of rampant growth do we continue to push this lever in the wrong direction? Why are we so obsessed by getting back to rapid economic growth?

I’ll suggest a few reasons; you can probably offer more:

  • It has worked in the past. Economic growth has helped us reach the standard of living we now have in the developed world, and is helping raise living standards in the developing world. And, of course, we tend to think that if something has worked in the past that it must still be a good strategy.
  • Growth impresses us. When we see a sunflower shoot up or a child suddenly grow long legs it is impressive, and it does feel good. There’s something attractive about that power. We’re temporarily in awe.
  • We’re told again and again that we benefit from growth, and, of course, sometimes we do. Growth does have benefits.

But we need to be careful. Growth can mean a lot of different things. As Nassim Taleb has said there is something not quite right when growth leads to extreme imbalances – for example, in wealth. For example, randomly gathering 1000 people then adding the heaviest person on the planet would only add perhaps 0.3% to the total weight of the group.

But doing the same thing according to wealth and adding the richest person would lead to much great variance. The richest person would be worth some 50 billion dollars versus a total of 1 to 2 million for all the others put together. As Taleb suggests, and recents events seem to have shown, these imbalances can greatly affect us.

So we need a clearer a definition of growth. And different types of growth: slower growth. No growth. Negative growth. Progress towards goals that matter, rather than just growth for growth’s sake. Development, in the sense of gaining maturity, not growth.

Conscious growth?


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What goes up must come down

Stimulated by reading something in a discarded newspaper by Jonathon Porritt, standing down this month as chairman of the government’s Sustainable Development Commission, I dug out their report “Prosperity without Growth“.

It’s long, over a 100 pages, and could do with a bit of editing. I think it was Greg Dyke who when faced with a difficult decision would ask “What would it mean for my mother?” My view is that if a bit of technical writing can’t be presented clearly and simply, then they may be a waste of all that brain heat.

I only managed the summary (pages 6-13). But the frustration and confusion leaps off the page. The author (Tim Jackson of Surrey University) seemingly can’t understand why others simply don’t get it, and he isn’t happy about it.

His point is that economic growth, in the way we commonly understand it now, is completely at odds with living on our planet in a way that gives all 6 billion or more of us a decent life.

The current macro-economic model doesn’t work socially (letting us all be happy people), environmentally (keeping our ecosystems alive), and economically. Economically it fails when it peaks and troughs, leading to the kind of financial “meltdown” we have experienced recently; but then neither does reversed growth, leading as it does to increased unemployment and so on.

I don’t pretend to understand the complexity of all this – I am no economist. But I do think it’s sad when minds are closed, as Porritt suggests they are, at some of our leading institutions.

Porritt claims that, in the Treasury, for example, there is “no readiness to interrogate the macro-economic model”.

I sometimes come across businesses who aren’t ready to interrogate their own local economic models. But after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, the realisation comes that without a sustainable economic model, the business won’t be around long. There simply has to be some kind of effective balance between what goes in and what goes out.

Anybody can see that, especially my mother. And I don’t want to live in a world with a broken economic model.

Maybe Porritt’s plan is to embarrass the Treasury into change. Whatever it is, I’d rather hear the news that all the intelligent people out there are working together, facing the facts, doing a bit of brainstorming, and coming up with some new, practical ideas about creating a new model that really does work.

I know it takes courage to challenge the status quo. But people are full of courage. So come on.


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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.


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Stop working, stop spending and start living

I read a chapter by Tom Hodgkinson in “Do good lives have to cost the earth” last night. He wrote one of my favourite books of the last few years – “How to be idle.” His article is a variation on that theme – ending with the suggestion that in order to save the planet we should “stop working, stop spending and start living.”

I have huge sympathy with this idea and in our own small way I think this is what my wife and I have been trying to do for some years. I try to work as little as possible (although I fail lots of the time), and we have also down-shifted quite a bit.

Making this step is about attitude as much as anything else. And often my attitude is less than the best. I am still plagued by the same socially driven desires as most other people (Hodgkinson is clearly a saint). Security drives me, sometimes status drives me, and the desire for the easy, perfect, TV-like-life drives me.

But I agree with Hodgkinson, it’s worth the effort. Maybe I am getting better at it too. There really is more life with less spending and less work.

But what does that mean for businesses? Hodgkinson rails at business because he believes the whole system depends on greed. That 0 percent growth means death to business. And that “business” therefore drives us to work and spend.

I think he is talking about big business. I don’t see why small business (and he is the owner and operator of a couple of small businesses: publishing a magazine, writing books) has to be just about growth in terms of scale. It’s also about growing in strength. Perhaps it is easier to grow your small business if the economy is booming. But I don’t see why it has to be that way.

For example, a small business can get stronger by changing from a dependence on one large account to a larger number of smaller accounts. The latter business is stronger and more resilient. But its income (and profitability) may not change at all.

A small company can get stronger when one of the team learns some new sales skills. And then finds it easier and simpler to close a piece of business – using less time and less effort. If that sales person spends more time playing and doing nothing (and definitely not shopping) revenue won’t rise. The company won’t grow in conventional terms. But it is stronger and more resilient. So it has grown in that sense – like a piece of bamboo.


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To grow or not to grow?

One of the debates that seems to be threatening to ignite right now is the one about economic growth and how it fits with sustainability.

Is it possible to have an economy that grows, and be sustainable at the same time? Some say yes, some say no, some say maybe.

The issue to me seems to be partly one of definition. Wikipedia defines GDP as “the total market value of all final goods and services produced”. The article also suggests that GDP represents a measure of “the sum of value added at every stage of production (the intermediate stages) of all final goods and services produced within a country in a given period of time”.

There’s a well-known saying in business: “Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity”.

What I take this to mean is that any fool (more or less) can increase turnover, by for example, selling more products and services. The path to sanity is to focus not on turnover but on profit – because profit is a better measure of the value that an individual or an organisation adds to other people. It’s a measure of what we give, and, crucially, how well we do it.

If we accurately meet really important needs, and we do it really efficiently, the more profit we’ll earn.

I am not an economist, and so am probably making a idiot of myself here. But from my reading, GDP seems to be measuring something analogous to a country’s turnover, not profit.

Plants and animals (and people) grow – so I can’t see anything inherently wrong with growth. Small businesses seem to understand that growth and development isn’t just about size and scale. Profit seems to me to be an excellent way of measuring what we give to other people, and measuring our progress at getting better at that.

By the way, Wikipedia also lists 14 or 15 separate criticisms of GDP. It lists five alternatives to GDP and I heard about another one the other day: Gross Peaceful Product.

Perhaps as the sustainability/economic growth debate develops, we’ll agree some more useful measures of growth?