Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Is conscious business doomed? Quite the opposite…

One of the Performance Review Pro team was at the Meaning Conference in Brighton last week – a Conscious Business event full of people who want to make business more meaningful and kinder to the planet and the staff, while still making a fair profit. Speaking as someone who lives on this planet and is a human being, this seems like a good idea, but its critics maintain that business is business and that ‘Conscious’ might just mean ‘less controversial’.  Capital and Kindness are not the same thing, they say, so is conscious business doomed?

Happine$$ vs $$$$$$ - Performance Review Pro - Performance Appraisal Process

Well, in the blue corner we have the fat-cat capitalists, eager to flog every last inch of performance out of their wage-slaves; in what used to be the red but is now the green corner we have the old hippies, agonising about the morality of profit and going to such lengths to be nice to people that they fail to break even and end up going down with all hands. These two positions are inherently opposed to each other and anyone who says other wise is, as one reviewer said of John Mackey’s Conscious Capitalism, spouting a lot of “well-meaning rhetoric” (hot air).

But this is an oversimplification – business has always involved compromise between profits and ethics, since the abolition of slavery at least.  In practice there is a continuum of differing approaches to business, with a harder attitude to profit at one end and more concern for employees at the other. The question for every business person is where on that spectrum to position your management style, given that each point has its own disadvantages.

At the end where the drivers are margin, efficiency and profit, people become part of the machine.  We make them work harder by threatening their job security (if there is a shortage of jobs or the work is simple) or offering them more money (if there is a surplus of jobs or rare skills are involved).  Carrot-and-stick, in other words.  The hope is that these ‘incentives’ will stimulate focus, engagement and productivity.  But they actually bring stress, disputes, anger, apathy, burnout and (if there are other jobs to go to) staff turnover.  So right now, as business is picking up, people who have been managing on this basis can expect to lose their best employees.

At the other end of the spectrum, where love and peace reign and fulfilling the conscious business dream should be easy, it is often hard to get anything done.  Democratic  decision-making is agonisingly slow, and it is impossible to tell anyone that what they are doing doesn’t work.  It’s just as well everyone is on an equal share of the profit (not that there is any) because pay negotiations would last until the end of time…

So, if you want to achieve a sustainable, profitable, ethical business, how do you decide where to compromise?  Actually, you don’t have to: you really can harmonise the needs and goals of the company and the staff.  You don’t have to beat people or bribe them, because intrinsic motivation is sitting there in each individual.  The same mechanism that powers voluntary, leisure and sport activity in home life is waiting for you to enable it at work.  When you do, your staff will work because they want to, and your organisation will do well, if your business model is sound.

Doing this involves aligning the culture, conditions and communications in your company with workings of the human. That is not just ‘well-meaning rhetoric’ because we can unpack it into practical steps which are straightforward to implement.  And staff enjoy this process because they recognise it as humane and likely to make work work better for them.

This does not mean applying the same changes to everyone – people need different things to different degrees, so you have to measure the need for change from their perspective to see how to enable each team member.  The appraisal or review is a rational place to do this – in fact basing your review process around this discussion is a fantastic way to make use of a process that can otherwise be a fairly negative experience for all concerned.

And so they will want to stay, and to make it work better still, for themselves and for the higher purposes of company, customer and planet.

Happine$$ - Performance Review Pro - Performance Appraisal ProcessSo it’s not a question of humaneor efficient; it turns out that humane is efficient.

The leader who wants to use Conscious Business principles has nothing to fear from the staff, or the market, if they are implemented in alignment with the nature of the staff.  And there is a good way to be sure you’re doing that – take a look at Performance Review Pro


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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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The Real Value of Totems

We often get asked: “How do I know if a business I am working in is conscious?”

There are plenty of posts here, and on other sites, which attempt to answer that question by giving lists of attributes – behaviours, processes, statements of principles etc.

These ideas are very, very useful. But they also have limitations.

Our BHAG is to create more conscious businesses. That means change. Such analytical and diagnostic methods can help bring about change in organisations. But there are other ways to assist change – and to increase consciousness in a business.

For example, in our consulting practice, we often encourage our clients to create what we call ‘totems’. Another contributor to this site, Rob Warwick, has written about this topic too, but from a slightly different angle.

A totem is an object to which a society or group attaches a particular significance or meaning. It may become emblematic of that society or group.

For example, one of our clients created a pack of Top Trumps cards representing the strengths of employees. Another has a large banner which represents the future vision of the company.

A totem can be something physical, or it can be a ritual.

For example, at another client in the ’90s we started holding stand-up meetings. These meetings became an emblem of how things were done. Since then many other companies have come up with the same idea – it’s not a unique practice. By what it represented was unique to that group at that time – in that case innovation and the ability to do things differently, and better.

One of our long-term clients, NixonMcInnes, has at least two obvious totems. One is a ritual: The Church of Fail, which came directly from some workshops we ran for the company. The other is Happy Buckets, which was born a little more indirectly, but still by design.

The idea of measuring happiness in a business has been around for many years. Paddi Lund, for example, first wrote about it 1994. In fact, I borrowed the idea from Paddi’s book “Building the Happiness-Centred Business”. There’s lots of interest in the idea today, post-Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, and there’s even a Chief Happiness Officer!

Happy Buckets is very simple in principle.

When people leave the office they simply drop a ball into a bucket to show whether they are feeling happy or sad, or something in between. The number of balls is counted up every day. At NixonMcInnes the figures are reported back weekly to the whole team, and monthly to the management team for further consideration.

People often ask: “What do you do when the numbers go down?” “How do these numbers correlate with other business measures, like profitability?” “Do the numbers really measure happiness?” And so on.

Unfortunately, these questions miss the real point of this and many other totems.

The important thing from an organisational development perspective is what simply having Happy Buckets means. What does it mean to the group – the business team – and how will that meaning help effect real, lasting change in the organisation?

Clearly something like Happy Buckets means different things to different people. Meaning is constructed on the fly, and is related to context, our personal state and probably other things.

But we can make some guesses for the meanings people might construct. For example:

  • To some, measuring happiness every day signifies that the company cares about employees and their happiness.
  • To some it means that employee happiness is an objective of the company beyond simply making money.
  • To some it might simply mean that the company likes to measure things.
  • To some it might mean that the company values experimentation and piloting things.

And so on.

All these different meanings give people a story to tell, a narrative to follow. By telling the story and listening to it, we create meaning together. And we gain something to hold onto, something to ‘anchor’ around.

As long as it stays foregrounded, the totem begins to emblemise something about the company – something semi-permanent about the ‘culture’. As we construct the ideas in words and language, we start to ‘live’ it, and the ‘culture’ emerges.

At best that aspect of culture becomes ‘embedded’. Something is now different from how it was. A short cycle of change is completed. Or so the theory goes.

Of course, there’s probably more to it than that.

For example, I can also read Happy Buckets as a transitional object.

Businesses and society generally are stuffed full of such objects. It has been argued that work itself is something that we use to manage separation from our parental figures. Work, just like a teddy bear or a security blanket, helps us grow up, and gain our own adult independence.

So, perhaps, for some, totems like Happy Buckets operate in a similar way. We attach to them, and hold them as important, because they signify something that is important to us about a particular company.

When they represent a particular kind of relationship – a caring relationship between an organisation and an employee, for example – they allow us to foreground that relationship, and perhaps eventually integrate it.

By that I don’t mean move away from it, nor do I mean cosy up to it. I mean to bring the parts together and make a connected whole.

Over time, therefore, that object might allow us to step beyond a simplistic and dependent relationship into a realisation that we can choose to build caring relationships with other adults, in adult ways, in the company we work in, and beyond the company or corporation too.

That also takes us beyond a rather mechanistic view of company culture as something we can ‘build’ or ‘create’ or ‘design’ and into a more complex one – where culture is continually constructed by adults relating to each other. In complex and continually evolving ways.

That to me seems much closer to how life is.

As a way of thinking and being it also generates a ‘living flexibility’ that from a business and a human perspective seems more likely, at least to me, to give us the immediate and longer-term results we need.

What do you think? Does your business have totems? What do they mean to you, and your fellow employees? What are the obvious meanings, and the more subtle? Do they help or hinder people in ‘growing up’ and becoming more conscious?


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Evidence for Conscious Business

Some people would argue that if you need evidence that being more conscious at work is a good thing, you’ll never be persuaded. But there’s also an argument that hard evidence helps – to give confidence and encouragement to those that need it.

So here’s a selection of facts and figures I have put together.

It covers the value of employee engagement, clear purpose, innovation and good leadership. It shows these are what investors look for, and that they are good for a business generally. There is a PDF version here if you prefer to print and read (or send to your ebook).

Investing in  leadership skills:

About 80% of professionals who analyse companies for investors – including investment bankers and executives at private equity companies and hedge funds – say they would place a valuation premium on a company with a particularly effective senior leadership team. And the same percentage said they would discount a valuation if they thought a company’s leadership was ineffective. Analysts and investment professionals placed an average premium of 15.7% on particularly effective leadership, and an average 19.8% discount on companies with leadership that was deemed ineffective.

[Deloitte 2012 How TMT Companies Win The Confidence of Investors]

Stock market performance and shareholder return in relation to conscious business:

Firms of Endearment study – over 10 year period companies that broadly  follow conscious aims outperformed the S&P 100 by ratio of 9:1

[Raj Sisodia, Bentley University]

Stock market performance and shareholder return:

Motivated employees are 52 to 127 percent more productive than those who have average motivation. Companies that have an employee recognition strategy double the return to shareholders compared with those that don’t. 40% of the variability in corporate financial performance comes down to employees sense of fulfillment in the workplace.”

[Richard Barrett, ‘Liberating the Corporate Soul’ – TBD original source]

Growing interest by investors in sustainability, climate change, social factors:

Investors increasingly believe that social and environmental conditions in society can have a direct impact on the business operations of a company and its long-term viability.

In 2011, average support for environmental and social shareholder resolutions topped 20% for the first time, according to research by Institutional Shareholder Services. That’s up from 18.1% in 2010 and 16.3% in 2009.

[Sabine Vollmer  – senior editor – CGMA Magazine March 2012]

 Including more stakeholders improves financial performance:

Despite the drop in performance seen in 2011, companies that are owned by their employees have outperformed FTSE All-Share companies by on average 12% each year.  Over successive three-year periods they have outperformed by 37% and over successive five-year periods by 71%.

[The Employee Ownership Index]

 Transparency:

280 CEOs were surveyed for the report spanning 21 countries. Three-quarters of the CEOs recognised the need for measuring non-financial value. Meanwhile, 76% think the current reporting system places excessive emphasis on financial data. 87% viewed transparency as an opportunity, and 13% viewed it as a threat. The question among many CEOs is how much transparency is too much.

[Research Commissioned by  AICPA and CIMA (the major UK Accounting Bodies) and carried out by Oxford Economics (2012)]

Employee disengagement is expensive and destructive:

In recent years, employee loyalty has plummeted. Here are just a few sobering statistics that may surprise you:

  • Only 30% of today’s employees reported that they were engaged (loyal and productive)
  • 54% reported they were passively disengaged (going through the motions)
  • 16% reported they were actively disengaged (badmouthing the employer, sniping from the sidelines

[Getting Engaged: The New Workplace Loyalty, Mattanie Press, October 2005, By Tim Rutledge]

Congruence and authenticity at work:

In a field experiment carried out in a large business process outsourcing company, it was found that when socialization/induction focused on personal identity (i.e. emphasizing newcomers’ unique perspectives and strengths and authentic expression) it led to significantly greater customer satisfaction and greater employee retention after six months, compared to (a)when socialization focused on organizational identity (i.e. emphasizing pride from organizational affiliation) and (b)when it focussed on the organization’s traditional approach which focused primarily on skills training.

[Breaking Them In or Revealing Their Best? Reframing Socialization around Newcomer Self-Expression By Francesca Gina (Associate Professor in the Negotiations, Organizations, and Markets Unit at Harvard Business School)]
Encouraging newcomers to be themselves rather than adapt to the company culture]

Purpose impacts profit:

A  strong, strategically coherent and well communicated corporate purpose is associated with upto 17% better financial performance

[IMD/Burson Marsteller Corporate Purpose Impact Study 2010. The study is based on research into 213 European companies from 10 industries.]

Employee engagement:

88% of highly engaged employees believe that they can positively impact the quality of their organization’s products;  only 38% of disengaged employees think so

[Towers Perrin 2008]

Only 4% of UK workers exhibit the highest level of engagement with their work.

[Corporate Leadership Council]

Purpose and brand:

40% of a company’s reputation is determined by its purpose and 60% by its performance.

[Burson Marsteller/Penn, Schoer and Berland 2008.]

Lack of employee engagement costs companies re staff turnover, accidents and theft:

Gallup in 2006 examined 23,910 business units and compared top quartile and bottom quartile financial performance with engagement scores.  They found that: Those with engagement scores in the bottom quartile averaged 31–51 per cent more employee turnover, 51 per cent more inventory shrinkage and 62 per cent more accidents. Those with engagement scores in the top quartile averaged 12 per cent higher customer advocacy, 18 per cent higher productivity and 12 per cent higher profitability.

[Gallup in 2006]

Employee engagement and earnings per share:

A second Gallup study of the same year of earnings per share (EPS) growth of 89 organisations found that the EPS growth rate of organisations with engagement scores in the top quartile was 2.6 times that of organisations with below-average engagement scores

[Gallup in 2006]

Employee engagement and innovation:

Gallup indicate that higher levels of engagement are strongly related to higher levels of innovation.

Fifty-nine per cent of engaged employees say that their job brings out their most creative ideas against only three per cent of disengaged employees. This finding was echoed in research for the Chartered Management Institute in 2007 which found a significant association and influence between employee engagement and innovation.  Based on survey findings from approximately 1,500 managers throughout the UK, where respondents identified the prevailing management style of their organisation as innovative, 92 per cent of managers felt proud to work there

[Gallup/Chartered Management Institute in 2007]

Employee engagement and illness:

Engaged employees in the UK take an average of 2.69 sick days per year; the disengaged take 6.19.

[The Macleod Report commissioned by BIS 2009]

The CBI reports that absence due to sickness costs the UK economy £13.4 bn a year.

[CBI]

Employee engagement and interfacing with clients/customers:

70 per cent of engaged employees indicate they have a good understanding of how to meet customer needs; only 17 per cent of non-engaged employees say the same.

[The Macleod Report commissioned by BIS 2009]

Employee engagement and retention:

Engaged employees are 87 per cent less likely to leave the organisation than the disengaged.

[The Macleod Report commissioned by BIS 2009]

The cost of poor employee retention:

The cost of high turnover among disengaged employees is significant; some estimates put the cost of replacing each employee at equal to annual salary.

[The Macleod Report commissioned by BIS 2009]

Employees as ambassadors and relation to NPS (Net Promoter Score):

Engaged employees advocate their company ororganisation – 67 per cent against only three per cent of the disengaged. Seventy-eight per cent would recommend their company’s products or services, against 13 percent of the disengaged.

[Gallup 2003]

Employee engagement and change/flexibility:

Engagement  and involvement are critical in managing change at work; according to Price waterhouse Coopers (PwC), nine out of ten of the key barriers to the success of change programmes are people related; only 24 per cent of private sector employees believe change is well managed in their organisations (15 per cent in the public sector) according to Ipsos MORI.

[Price waterhouse Coopers (PwC) and Ipsos MORI]

The need for employee engagement and conscious business more widely in UK:

Gallup suggest that in 2008 the cost of disengagement to the economy was between £59.4 billion and £64.7 billion.

[Gallup (2008)]

The importance investing in everyone, not just leadership:

The IES/Work Foundation report ‘People and the Bottom Line’ found that if organisations increased investment in a range of good workplace practices which relate to engagement by just ten per cent, they would increase profits by £1,500 per employee per year

[The IES/Work Foundation report ‘People and the Bottom Line’]

Towers Perrin in their 2008 Global Workforce Study of employee views found that the top driver of engagement was senior management demonstrating a sincere interest in employee well-being.

[Towers Perrin in their 2008 Global Workforce Study]

Evidence is not the problem, there is so much of it:

The case for employee engagement – there are so many more research findings in the Macleod Report

[commissioned by the Department for Business (BIS) 2009.]

Consciousness is a rare commodity:

Only 10% of Managers take “Purposeful Action” (a powerful combination of focus and energy).  Meanwhile 30% of managers procrastinate, 20% show detached behaviour and 40% exhibit distracted behaviour.

[Sumantra Ghoshal and Heike Bruch]

Pretending to engage employees doesn’t work:

If employees conclude that a manager is just trying to win points by paying lip service to consulting them — and has no intention of acting on their advice — they are likely to stop offering input and, worse, act out their frustration by clashing with their colleagues.

[When Employees Stop Talking and Start Fighting: The Detrimental Effects of Pseudo Voice in OrganizationsGerdien de VriesKaren A. Jehn and Bart W. TerwelJournal of Business Ethics, 2012, Volume 105, Number 2,  Pages 221-230]


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The Transition to Conscious Business…..

I am a management consultant who has always tried to do  ‘what is right’ rather than what is conventionally accepted and I treat people as I would want to be treated myself rather than as corporate entities. The moment I became aware of the Conscious Business concept, I immediately identified with it and wherever possible, incorporate it into my offering.

This is what Conscious Business means to me today. I am looking forward to better developing the meaning, understanding and application on the journey ahead.

A Conscious Business enshrines a series of core principles which allow it and its interactors at any level to prosper on a simple, rapid, enjoyable and mutually beneficial basis.

Sacrosanct core principles include being:

  • Conscious
  • Empathic
  • Engaging
  • Innovative
  • Ethical
  • Honest
  • Empowering
  • Transparent
  • Seamless
  • Fair

Interactors are:

  • Shareholders
  • Colleagues and their families
  • Clients  / End users of the product or service
  • Suppliers / Service Providers
  • Competitors
  • Local and wider community

The core principles are the building blocks at the foundation of any Conscious Business, regardless of its area of operation – if they are firmly in place in relation to all of the interactors, then the result is a highly successful, sustainable organisation that knows no boundary and can achieve literally anything.

By success, I mean:

  • Products / services judged as market leading by clients and peers
  • Happy and fulfilled colleagues
  • Perception and proof that the organisation is a force for good
  • Shareholders satisfied with their ROI
  • Surpassing of all interactor expectations
  • Long term sustainability

No need to include the ‘P’ word as it is an automatic by-product of Conscious Business!

So, what’s the catch?  How difficult or easy is it to make the transition to a Conscious Business? Well, it’s like anything worth achieving, it does take time and effort and is a continuous process. But there is nothing to fear.

The biggest challenge to established organisations is wholeheartedly committing to the principles, some of which can at first appear to contradict traditional business practices and personal behavior in the workplace.

Firstly, we have to talk the talk and then we have to walk the walk. Nothing to fear though, the tiny steps morph into long strides and it’s an entirely liberating process.  The result is a way of business and life that melds together far more then ever before. Participants feel good about themselves and their organisation. All interactors benefit.

One of the beauties of  the concept is that it is developing on a continuous basis and there is such scope for personalisation  – each business can achieve overall consciousness but with a unique personal twist.

Some companies make the decision from a position of equilibrium but others are prompted by some type of crisis, perhaps a massive downturn in their particular sphere of operation or a succession or strategy issue.

Ironically, it’s easier to persuade companies in crisis that a major structural change is the way to go as there are not so many alternatives. For those companies in equilibrium it’s about helping them to see that sustainable organisations are highly conscious of the changing world around them.

To make a successful transition, everyone within the organisation needs to commit to the principles but this will only happen if the organisational culture is seen and felt to be changing.  It can only change if the people currently in senior management roles understand and desire the transition but there will almost certainly be a few who are afraid and protective of their position.

(As the process unfolds, poor performing senior managers will lose the protection of any fake fortresses they have created and will either improve their performance or find new challenges elsewhere – more about that in a later blog post on Conscious HR.).

As a consultant, it is critical to work closely with the existing management team on an individual and group basis, to empathise and reduce fear together by discussing any elephants in the room.

Start with the core principles, the building blocks, and spend significant time exploring with the management team what the acceptance of these principles means in practical terms for themselves and their business.

This process will soon result in draft  mission, vision and values which can be applied to all aspects of the organisation.

There will be some funny looks at times but as the group discusses the concept from a perspective that all interactors will benefit then the light bulbs in peoples’ heads will start to come on.

It is now time to internally publicise the desire and reasons for becoming a Conscious Business. Involve everyone within the organisation, this time the management team working with their departments on an individual and group basis, in the same way that you worked with them.

The finalised and agreed versions of the mission, vision and values statements will be a truly joint effort and can now be lived by the entire team.

Yes, there may still be some skepticism by certain members of the workforce that good things will truly  happen but the basis is in place and it is now time to actually change the organisational  culture of the organisation, to become a truly Conscious Business.

In my follow-up posts, I am going to explore how Conscious HR and Conscious Sales benefit the equation.


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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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Do you think that this is a good question?

In times of uncertainty, many people long for definite answers and clear leadership.

There are times when such an approach is warranted, but history has shown that all too often after short-term gains, long-term oppression and regression arise.

If business is to become more conscious, it cannot be forced but must be evoked from within people. Pull not push. And if we believe that humans are both limited and ‘built for growth,’ we have to consider how these factors shape our approach to increasing such consciousness.

I think that key to this is the use of questions rather than the provision of answers. By adopting this method, we are helping each other think more. Hard work at times, but in the long term I’m convinced it will produce better results.

So a key issue is to learn to ask not just questions but the right questions. To do this, we must apply the ‘questions are more important than answers’ approach to ourselves. It doesn’t matter how good an ‘answer’ is, if it is an answer to the wrong question it is at best useless, and at worst regressive.

Let’s ask ourselves what evidence we have that asking questions is such a good way to encourage growth. Here are some reasons:

1 Coaching – the best coaching I have received has been when I have been asked questions. My initial reaction was, “Hm, I paid for answers to my issues not questions!” But as the wise coach persisted with questions, my own ability to think about possible solutions developed, and most importantly, my belief grew that I could think differently, take action and see some change in my situation and that of my business.

2 Knowledge v Wisdom. – we seem to live in a society that is rich in knowledge but poor in wisdom. I think that in good measure knowledge comes from an ‘answers’ approach, wisdom from a ‘questions’ one.

3 Socrates – one of the founders of Western philosophy, a major contribution of his was the Socratic Method, whereby a series of questions are asked not only to draw individual answers, but also to encourage fundamental insight into the issue at hand. This is shown (at length…) in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates is the questioning mouthpiece for the message of that work.

4 Jesus – Christians claim that Jesus was God himself. So surely, he would have the ‘answers’ and would give them to us. Well, he certainly did give some very clear answers, but the Bible records him asking people nearly 300 questions. If such an approach was good enough for him, …

5 Pascal – a great quote from him: “All of man’s problems stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room.” We want noise and answers, rather than quiet and questions.

6 Delegation – if done properly, this costs in the short-term, but pays dividends in the long-term. I have found Ken Blanchard’s situational leadership model helpful in thinking about management and delegation, and the use of questions is a key part of this approach, particularly at the later stages of development.

Apart from the Situational Leadership model, I have also found the following helpful in trying to become someone who leads more with questions:

1 Kipling’s six honest serving men.

2 Covey’s seek first to understand.

3 Read, read, read.

4 Expose yourself to new ideas by developing weak as well as strong links.

By continually adopting a ‘questions’ approach, we shall develop our own and other people’s thinking ‘muscles.’ It is harder work in the short-term, but will produce better results in the long run. It can also help us all break out of stuck thinking.

As Steve McDermott has said in one of my very favourite books (How to be a Complete and Utter Failure in Life, Work and Everything: 44 ½ Steps to Lasting Underachievement), the quality of our life will be in direct proportion to the quality and depth of questions we ask ourselves on a regular basis.

What do you think?


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4 good reasons to make your business more conscious now

I get some perplexed looks when I mention ‘conscious business’, which are often initially followed by further confusion as I try to explain the concept. This is because on the face of it, it does not sound very ‘business-like’. But then, maybe the problem with business practice as we’ve always known it, is that it has actually remained too ‘business-like’ and that hasn’t evolved along with the needs, awareness and expectations of society. This leads me to my first point…

  1. Evolution through expectations in the workplace

It might be living in Brighton, it might be that I’m getting older, but it feels like we’re finally getting over the ‘greed is good’ hump and refocusing towards something a bit more enriching. Maybe trying to climb an increasingly greasy pole makes us pause for thought and wonder why we’re focusing so much energy on that specific objective and not so much on everything else in life, such as making it more enjoyable, or pondering what it would be like to look forward to going to work every day because we just love it there.

This is not unique to our generation, it’s the ongoing culmination of the evolution that has been before us and that continues every day. The same basic principles that eradicated slavery, for example, have influence on the increased adoption of flexible working hours, less structured working environments, less formality, project days once a week, etc.

We’re slowly realising that effective collaboration and a well boundaried democracy is far more productive, adaptable and enjoyable than a mono-focused dictatorship. Conscious business is the natural next step in the business evolutionary process and it’s already happening.

  1. Knowledge changes things

Being able to Google anything from your pocket – apart from ruining the pub quiz – has a more profound impact on how society functions because the wide distribution of knowledge means we’re no longer living in the dark, trusting only a few questionable sources.

Part of this shift to knowledge ubiquity has been the rattling of the skeletons in many company’s cupboards. In fact now it’s a bit like the cupboard doors have been removed so all can see inside. So if a company is less than honest and perhaps a little too cut-throat in their practice, the knowledge of this will increasingly decide how and more importantly if, we deal with these people now or in the future.

Consider the web site TripAdvisor: when people have good or bad holiday experiences they have a forum to publicise this information. This knowledge helps others decide whether they want to go to a particular hotel, for example, but most importantly it transfers control of the hotel’s reputation into the hands of the hotel users who are perhaps more objective than the hotel itself.

So if you are not open, honest and genuine in your dealing with your clients you rapidly risk being left behind as your potential customers go to those hotels that are. Wouldn’t it be better to be the hotel that they move to, rather than the one they move from?

Now this sort of balance is what we’ve always wanted but we’ve never had the tools to achieve it before. To that extent, though social media has provided the tool, it’s in response to an underlying desire for balance and fairness that is innate within us. And this is an important distinction: what we innately desire is conscious business, it’s just we’ve lacked the tools to achieve it. Without this desire, TripAdvisor would never have been conceived, let alone built.

On the other side of this the internet also empowers us to make change directly, hence:

  1. The empowerment of the general public

The other part of the ‘TripAdvisor effect’ is that if you’ve been poorly treated by a company as a customer or in B2B dealings, you can broadcast that experience to the world quite easily. So suddenly we’re empowered and the knowledge that we can do this makes us less likely to accept substandard practice.

Last time I got stitched up by restaurant owner, who admitting the mistake (thinking I was a tourist rather than a local) refused to do anything about it, I posted a factual article about the experience on a local restaurant review site for others to read. There were many similar complaints from others – maybe I should have checked first – next time I will.

Now I know most people reading this would never consider ‘stitching anyone up’ for anything but the point is in a business that attempted some empathy with their customers rather than just trying to say the right things to extract the maximum amount of money, one where the client is valued as an ongoing relationship rather than a ‘mark’ to fleece, that business would be full of clients throughout the sparse ‘tourist free’ winter months. This one is always empty. Now I know why.

Again my personal desire was to redress the balance because I’ve been swindled by sharp practice and left with an unwholesome taste in my mouth. It’s just that before I could never do anything other than mention this to a few friends, and now I feel a real sense of  redress because I have ‘outed’ them publicly.

Social media is the tool but it’s only used because there is a desire from me wanting to do something about the situation, to let them know that their behaviour is unacceptable in a way where they can’t brush it under the carpet and to warn others.  Personally I only want the nice, fair businesses to survive and I think I’m probably not alone in that.

Which neatly leads me to the last point and that’s all about spin.

  1. We are better spin detectors

Spin has been the norm in political messaging for a good long time, but because we are aware of it, we’ve got more cautious about believing it and on the whole we’re pretty sick of it. We know when we’re being spun and very often where to look to find the truth or at least what sort of questions to ask to reveal what the spin is designed to conceal. We’re tired of being lied to and want something better than that.

If you think about your relationships in general you will probably find that, if you are honest with yourself, what you prize more now than ever is truthfulness or congruence in how you’re communicated with. We’re tired of being bullshitted to and we increasingly know when it’s happening.  So a very positive differentiator when attracting customers is to be straight with them.

Also remember being congruent is just sooo much easier as well. One of my favourite quotes, from Oscar Wilde I think, is this: ‘People who never lie have it easy because they never have anything to remember.’ If you are always straight and open you will build trusting, long lasting and fruitful relationships.

So where does all this take us? Well, there are lots of reasons to make your business more conscious, but none better than to capitalise by being in front of the revolution as the sort of business that everyone in society wants you to be, rather than desperately trying to catch up when you’ve been left behind.


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Great leaders, great groups

A recent contact pointed me to a great little book on leadership by Steve Radcliffe.

It’s short, very clear, and very aligned with the way I understand leadership. I have written before about the need for us all to lead, but I only wish I could put it across so succinctly.

Of course, it’s only a book, and can’t really give a full sense of what it is like to live in a real life, or in a real group situation. But the central tenet – that we benefit by becoming more conscious of how we behave, what we think, and what we assume – is very dear to my heart.

The book also suggests this idea can be carried into teams, and again I completely agree. But borrowing from the great Ed Schein, I think there are even more fundamental things we need to build into our groups and teams, namely an understanding of:

  • Who am I? What is my role to be?
  • How much control/influence will I have?
  • Will my needs/goals be met?
  • What will the levels of intimacy be?

These are really great ways to access the dynamic of a group. If you are in a group and answers to these questions aren’t clear, then I’d suggest asking again, and again, until they are.

But why doesn’t every group automatically provide good, believable answers to these questions?

I believe it does indeed relate to leadership. Personal leadership. The responsibility of each of us to manage ourselves, our own emotions, our own impact.

To my way of thinking group culture is no more than the sum of how all the people in a group lead. That aggregate is what creates a situation, or maintains one, where we do – or don’t – get answers to those questions.

It is, ultimately, how we all lead that makes the difference.


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Empowered – or employed?

I just read a neat and good little book by Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler called Empowered.

It’s a kind of follow-up to Groundswell, and a very practical book packed with case-studies and charts and tools and ‘technical stuff’ about transforming your organisation into one where employees are your greatest asset – interacting with customers (using social media) to build loving relationships that propel you ever more quickly into profitability and revenue growth.

Nothing wrong with that.

But I do have one little problem with it. The use of the word employee. For example, there’s a chapter on IT security – in it one of the principles is to remember you’re an employee. The idea is that employees have certain responsibilities – presumably towards their employer. And that while freedom and empowerment are great things as they relate to dealing with customers, it is vital to always remember you are an employee.

This is clearly true in a legal sense for many people, including the authors of the book, who, it seems, are employed by Forrester Research. But that legal truth seems, to me, to come with an emotional burden and a much broader framing.

The emotional burden is one of duty and maybe even guilt. I ‘owe’ it to my employer to behave in certain ways. Presumably because they ‘gave’ me my job etc. They pay me. And they can take my job away. And like a good father he (I am sure it is a he) will look after me if I perform my responsibilities as an employee.

The broader framing is that my boss, and my company, hold power over me. I have willingly entered into this relationship with them, codified in my legal contract, and that means that while I can do certain things there are many things I must never do. Like question my contract. Or question who is boss.

I don’t want to labour this point. After all, this is perhaps an assumption that a huge number of employed people everywhere hold. I don’t know what Bernoff and Schadler really think, having never met them. And I don’t wish to offend anyone (well, only a little).

So let’s play a different game.

Imagine if rather than assuming that you are employed, and that your employer holds power over you, imagine it is the other way around. You’re the boss. You have the power.

To employ means to put to use. To put something to its natural use.

Imagine you have some needs, and are currently engaged in the process of putting everything else around you into use.

Your computer or ‘phone to read this words. Your chair to sit on. Actually you’re using your bottom to sit on, and in fact you’re using the rest of your body to good avail too. You’re using your body to breathe, see, hear, move, think etc.

And everyone around you is at your command. The organisation you work in is at your command – to do what you want it to do. Your friends and colleagues are also at your command.

Of course, they may not always like it. Like every element of the world you now inhabit they operate according to certain rules that you may only vaguely understand.

You pick up a pen and drop it and it will fall. You pick up a phone, press some buttons, and you may or may not be able to speak to the person you want to speak to. You ask someone to do something and it may nor may not happen.

But despite these natural consequences, consequences that are built into the nature of the world that we interact with, we are at the centre of our worlds, and we are using it. We are employing it. We collaborate within it, we work with other parts of it, to get what we want to be done, done.

This is what I mean by empowered. I usually call it deep empowerment but until I read Bernoff and Schadler’s book I hadn’t really understood why I add the word deep. I now know it is to distinguish it from their kind of empowerment. Which I read as empowerment within limits.

Deep empowerment is a point of view, a framing where you are in charge, and you can question anything. Including what you want your “organisation” to do. What you want your life and your relationships to be like. Even what you are in charge of. Everything.

Sometimes I call this distributed leadership. For me, it is the same thing. The whole idea of centralised leadership – special individuals leading a mass of supposedly unconscious people in one direction or another – deeply offends me. For me, everyone is a leader.

It is a moment-by-moment thing. It is a feeling. It is a framing – a way of looking at the world.

So go on. Take the power. Be the leader. Be the employer. Be deeply empowered.