Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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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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Google Friday

Google quite famously encourage their staff to set aside their day-to-day work every Friday to explore new ideas, new technologies. I’ve known this for years and always thought what a great way to develop new products it was. Talking to Craig Hanna the other day, what I came to realise was that the biggest plus for Google is not in the form of New Product Development (NPD) but in the learning that takes place. The interesting thing (maybe I’m wrong here – maybe I don’t know enough about Google Fridays yet) is that it seems to be the employees who choose what to learn i.e. it’s a bottom up approach not top down. To what extent does that happen currently in organisations?

More than we think maybe? If informal learning accounts for 70% of total learning and peer to peer 20% then that only leaves 10% for formal training and that’s quite often bottom up e.g. “I’d like to go to this event boss”. But I still can’t help feeling there’s an opportunity being missed here. Maybe Google’s approach is successful because employees get to work on real problems? Maybe it’s the level of empowerment, the fact that they get to choose the area in which they learn? Maybe it’s the level of collaboration it encourages?

Maybe the job of organisations is not to train their staff but to remove the barriers to learning. If 70% of learning takes place informally, who are we kidding if we think we can control what our employees learn? Our employees network includes pretty much anyone who has an internet connection, so maybe we should focus our effort on using that network to the full and not worrying about it?

As long as our vision, our values, our objectives etc are clear and we have staff that believe in them then surely we should trust them to identify their own learning needs and in an ideal world, share their experiences with their network. It might even save us a few quid in the process.


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Go for it

Confidence, and self-confidence, are very important issues in the organisations where I work.

Lack of confidence can lead to all kinds of problems: sometimes it can freeze us  – we find ourselves completely unable to enter new territory. A simple example: having the confidence to sell a new type of product or service to a new type of client.

I think it was in a book by Jesper Juul that I first saw the distinction made between self-confidence and self-esteem.

Self-esteem, the way I read it, is about how I feel about myself, regardless of my skills or abilities.

Self-confidence, by contrast, relates to my view of my skills, my abilities, and my behaviours. If I think I am good at things I do – then I am self-confident.

Following this approach I can, if my self-esteem is good enough, feel good about myself even if I am demonstrably rubbish at something. And if I unfreeze and take the necessary steps, then I’ll learn and build the skills I need – growing my self-confidence.

Children, of course, learn new skills like sponges, and only at a certain age start to worry about their skills and abilities. By the time we are adults, many of us seem to be depending on our skills and abilities to maintain our self-esteem.

So that’s the theory. But how can I ‘operationalise’ this? (I love that word). What can I actually do that will help me become more fearless and act as if I have high self-esteem, even when I have zero self-confidence in a certain domain?

Three things come to mind:

  • Tell the truth. Maybe I am the only one, but a lot of my fears and worries are fears of being ‘found out’. Fear leads to inaction. Without action I cannot develop the self-confidence I need. So to avoid ever being put in a position where I will be ‘found out’ I find it useful to always tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

When I was younger, if someone said something I didn’t understand I might try to bluff my way through it. You can imagine the results. Anxiety and tension that only escalates as the situation gets more complicated because of my failure to understand a key point. Then scurrying away afterwards to research what I didn’t know.

A big waste of time. Today, if I don’t know I’ll say. That way I can put my energy into doing whatever I should be doing (like really listening) instead of wasting time watching my back.

  • Work as a team. Drop the commonly held expectation that you are somehow ‘serving’ the other person, in the sense of being inferior to them. I do believe in one sense that we always serve others. But often the worst way to serve another is to act as if they have some kind of hold over us and to pander to their demands.

Much better to treat other people as peers. The easiest way to do this is to change the language you use. If someone asks you a question, don’t always jump to answer it. Instead, use language that assumes you are working together in a team. Say “we”. Say “that’s an interesting question, I wonder what the answer is. Shall we work it out together?”

  • And finally, stay in the moment. Handle what’s in front of you “one step at a time”. Stop planning ahead. A year. A month. A day. Even a few minutes.

Instead, focus on your breath. On your body. Tap into your emotion. Feel the earth (the seat) beneath your feet (bottom). Look around. Listen carefully. Extremely carefully – to what is being said. And what your body is saying.

And respond to that, what ever it is. Don’t worry about what might happen – in the future. Bring your focus back to the present and respond to that. OK, so you don’t know the answer. What does that feel like? What’s happening to the other person? When you have an answer, respond. Take the next step.

Rinse and repeat.


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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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Opening Minds

I wrote the other day of the dangers of over-confidence and not knowing what I didn’t know.

Knowing what we know and what we don’t know seems to me a core competency. How else can we start to move forward and explore and learn?

So I was very encouraged to come across the RSA‘s Opening Minds programme.

The programme has been running some years, and is now being used by more than 200 schools. It’s aim is to encourage schools to teach “real world” skills including Learning, Relating to People, Citizenship, Managing Situations, and Managing Information.

The framework includes a focus on, for example:

  • “how to learn”, “to enjoy and love learning for its own sake and as part of understanding themselves” (Learning)
  • “how to develop other people”, “managing personal and emotional relationships” (Relating to People)
  • “how society, government and business work”, “an understanding of ethics and values” (Citizenship)
  • “how to manage risk and uncertainty” (Managing Situations)
  • “the importance of reflecting and applying critical judgement” (Managing Information).

The last few don’t seem to have been taught at any of the schools that our bankers went to.

And they all would help with running most businesses, I believe. So all power to the RSA for this programme. You can read about how to get involved here.