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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Too big to fail?

A recent post in the Conscious Capitalism LinkedIn group made me think about what happens when a group – a company – gets too big.

Is this the end for consciousness? Can large companies sustain the consciousness that small groups can?

As a young man I worked for a Fortune 50 company called Digital Equipment. (No relation to the much smaller and less successful Digital Research – the company that produced the operating system CP/M).

This was a company which grew organically from a $70,000 investment in 1957 to a $14bn corporation employing some 120,000 people. Eventually it faltered and was sold to Compaq in 1997 – in what was at the time the largest merger ever in the computer industry.

As some of you will remember Compaq itself faltered and was acquired by HP in 2002.

But my story is about growth. And demise.

Following its meteoric rise over 40 years, the hard fact is that DEC was a large company that faltered and eventually disappeared.

You could put this down to all sorts of reasons. Unseen flaws in what was a highly collaborative, innovative but also caring culture? Failure to adapt to a changing marketplace? Even narcissism amongst the top team? We can speculate endlessly.

Or maybe it just got too big.

But there’s a letter from a friend and colleague of mine in Ed Schein’s book on DEC (DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC – The Lasting Legacy of Digital Equipment Corporation).

Schein was a consultant with DEC for many years, and it was seemingly where some of his enduring ideas about organisational culture – and process consulting – emerged.

My friend’s letter suggests that when a big corporation disappears we can talk of death. But we can also talk of new life.

He suggests we picture a sunflower. When the flower is ready, the hundreds of thousands of seeds – the employees – spread far and wide, born on the wind. They take with them the DNA of the organisation.

And indeed look around the world today and you will find many ex-DEC employees still following the values that attracted them to DEC -we could call them ‘power’ and ‘love’ – and bringing them into their working lives with new colleagues and new companies.

I like this story – obviously, because it is little self-flattering. It also helps me make sense of what happened, and the loss – of great culture, great dreams, great experiences and great friendships.

But I also think it is a story worth telling. Because it reminds me that at core organisations really are only people.

Yes, something special can happen when a group of people coalesce together in a special way – a new matrix is formed. I think groups and companies are really important. I also think that we are attracted to groups that share our values anyway – that is why we get together.

Companies – groups of people working together (literally, breaking bread together) – give us strength and collective power. And that is good if linked with generative purpose.

But we can also sustain our values individually, even if we move from one organisation to another. Our identity as individuals continues.

In many ways it is harder – being together is great. But I think being alone also contains strength and power.

And sometimes it seems to me to better than relying on any one organisation – however comforting it may be – for our sense of identity.

I’d be interested to hear what others think.

Is the “great group” the be all and end all of working consciously?

Or is there something to be said (heroism, for example) for being alone with one’s values?

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Love is all you need

Since Tim Sanders wrote the best seller “Love is the Killer App” (published in 2002) the word love has crept ever more widely into business usage.

But what is love? And what does it really mean in a business context?

People have been writing about love since …, well, since writing began, I’m sure. There’s even the beginning of a psychological literature on the subject, although perhaps not quite as much as you’d expect for such an important subject.

I don’t really know for sure what love is, but I want to offer an opinion and maybe start a discussion.

In my view, we’re definitely not talking about “falling in love”, that thing that appears at the start of a relationship, but quickly fades. Steve Jobs and John Sculley fell in love – at first they could see no faults in one another; but they quickly fell out of love too, and came to see each other in very different ways.

Yes, we are talking about giving, and caring for others, along the lines of Sanders’ book. But critically not in a co-dependent way. Co-dependency is where two people feed each off each other; where they get their own needs met from the other.

Sometimes supplier-client relationships are like that: there’s an imbalance of power – often the need for money is exploited by one party. Sometimes it’s more subtle than that: maybe the supplier has a lot of knowledge but simply needs to be heard. He or she may end up virtually giving away what they have.

So, for me, true love, “inter-dependent love”, is where both parties already have ways to get all their needs met. And where they are aware of their needs and choose for them to be met, at least partially, through a business relationship. Where they commit to the relationship, despite the inevitable short-term ups and downs, because they believe in the long-term mutual value.

Their awareness of their needs means they know how to stop the relationship swinging into co-dependency – in other words they can walk away when they need to, if the relationship becomes abusive.

This all requires “adult” behaviour, straight talking and agreement to work together symbiotically. For the best of both individuals, and as a pair. In the best relationships, both also choose to give a little more than they may take – to put money into the shared “bank” rather than always take it out.

This is all fairly simple to understand. But, boy, is it difficult to do.

Certainly, in my business life, there have been times when I have confused “falling in love” with love. Often with a project, and sometimes with a business partner.

There have also been times when I have not been aware enough of my own needs to be able to sit on them when I needed to. To be able to stop them driving my behaviour. Sometimes it’s been as simple as not being able to say “no”.

And I haven’t always had the skills to confront my business partners when I or the relationship needed it, in a way that protects and enhances the relationship rather than making it worse.

Many professionals, and not just those in the caring professions, do achieve this level of client love, I’m sure. In fact, maybe that’s what it really means to be a professional? To be always able to act in the best interest of your customer or client. Even if it hurts.

But wouldn’t it be great if more business relationships were built on this basis? Our businesses would have truly amazing customer service. Really fruitful account management. Great client relationships, and more successful, more profitable business partnerships all round.