Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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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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Keep it clean

JR Ewing is dead.

Actually Larry Hagman is dead, and I always had a soft spot for him. But I understand the JR character for many epitomises the amoral, covetous and above all selfish worst of the archetypal fat cat business leader.

Selfishness is a theme than seems to be the back story behind much of the discourse around business and capitalism. Surely ‘fat cats’ are selfish? Isn’t the entrepreneurial dream of success a selfish journey? Isn’t business about selfishly taking what you want for yourself?

Indeed, selfishness may seem downright wrong to those who think that Conscious Business is all about doing things for others.

But contrary to this, talking to a friend the other day, I was reminded of how much I do things because I am trying to please. There’s a sense, nearly always at the back of my mind, of trying to help, to support, and to put right, to mend, to solve. I suppose that’s understandable given how I make a living, and perhaps explains it.

That statement – “I am trying to please…” – raised a question for me. Exactly who am I trying to please?

The answer was not immediately obvious. It has taken a lot of soul searching for me to realise that very often I am seeking to please other people. Parents, siblings, old friends, and various derivatives thereof.

And that has been big for me – to realise that much of my effort goes into giving to others who are actually long gone. Who might not want that particular burden anyway. And, therefore, that my selfless giving may not be quite so noble after all.

So, in praise of selfishness, I will from now on do whatever I want to do, whenever I want to do it. I will ignore the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ of the typical day. I will enjoy the moment. Give myself what I need, when I need it.

In the words of Joseph Campbell I will follow my bliss.


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Why Consciousness

People sometimes ask me why am I involved with Conscious Business?

I have been involved in business for over 30 years. During that time I have worked with some marvellous people, and in some marvellous groups and companies. And we’ve done some great things.

So the business bit is easy – business is, in my view, simply the best and most powerful way to get good things done.

But why ‘conscious’?

I’ve often noticed that the things that seemed to work really well in those successful groups weren’t the stuff of conventional business or management. It was as if I was operating in a parallel world – that, to me, seemed very different from the conventional one outside.

About 10 years ago I moved to Brighton and helped create the MDhub, a collaboration of local MDs. Working with this group I realised that a lot of them wanted to do things in more innovative, more collaborative, more successful ways, but that they too could only find the one business and management book – the conventional one.

So I started working with some of them to do things in slightly different ways from how they are usually done. Business, but different.

Digging this up is a bit like archaelogy. It is only through uncovering artefacts I can date certain of these activities and things that I started to do differently.

For example, I know it was it 1987 that I learnt some of my first lessons about self-responsibility at work. On my first day of work in my new job at DEC, I was left to my own devices. On the next day too. And the next. It took a while for me to realise that I was meant to figure out what I was meant to do – for myself. Without instruction.

I know that it was during 1997 that I started doing stand-up meetings with teams, because I know that is the year that BBC News Online launched. And I remember the first large team meetings – held in an abandoned studio that had no chairs. Hence it was a “Stand-Up”.

I know it was in early 2007 that I started measuring happiness in my favourite organisation – my family. I got the idea from Paddi Lund – an Australian dentist – and my wife, kids and I measured our happiness daily for some months. I know because I still have the spreadsheets.

Having prototyped (!) the approach the only sensible thing to do was to start trying it out with the businesses I worked with.

The financial crash of 2008 certainly isn’t too far back to remember. The crash accelerated the number of MDs, and people from other fields, calling out for different, more effective ways to do business and management. The trend was already clear by then, and it wasn’t just financial. Bigger social trends such as the feminisation of the workplace were already well underway.

So working with my partners we’ve continued to develop and deliver new and different ways of doing business.

But why consciousness? Looking back the key to change in all the outfits I have worked in has always been a change in the level of consciousness, first with individuals, and then with the group.

By a change in level I don’t meant anything esoteric. Or spiritual.

I mean something quite simple to understand. But hard to achieve in practice. I mean a change in my assumptions, a shift of paradigm.

I don’t know how many levels there are.

But I do know that my experiences of 1987, 1997, and 2007 were all about increasing my consciousness and those of others.

In 1987 I learned first-hand that business worked better when I and others chose what to do.

In 1997, standing up, I and others learned that meetings weren’t the be-all and end-all of getting things done.

And in 2007 I realised that measuring happiness every day – paying attention to it – actually seemed to change my level of happiness.

There are many ways to ‘do’ change in organisations. Change is often approached like a technical problem, as if a company was a machine that could be prodded and pushed into action. Much is ‘technological’, believing that new technologies will somehow drive changes in behaviour.  Some change is ‘structural’ – change what is connected to what and things will get better.

In my view all of these work to some extent. But the thing that makes most sense to me is increasing consciousness. To me changing, and developing and growing, in fact, maturing, seems to me to be the only thing that really changes things sustainably and reliably.

I am not saying it is easy. It has taken me these three decades to make even a few real steps forward. And I often step backwards too.

But, personally, I find the process of growing my consciousness terrifying and fascinating in turns, and ultimately deeply rewarding. We get better things done, and it is more enjoyable.

That is why I choose to work in Conscious Business.


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Systems Thinking and Conscious Business

Today one of my sons told me he had been trying out the text-to-speech option on the Kindle. He thought it funny it couldn’t speak properly – all it does is read the words with no intonation or sense of meaning.

This led to a discussion of the difference between a series of words and a sentence. The computer can read each word individually but has no sense of the bigger thing – the sentence. Nor of the next bigger thing, the paragraph. Nor the next – the chapter, or indeed of the whole book.

It is very clear that a book is much more than all the words in it added together.

Take a piece of paper and draw 5 boxes. Arrange them in the rough shape of a circle. You can see the boxes. You can also see the circle. But where exactly is the circle? It doesn’t really exist in one sense – there are no lines on the paper which make up a circle. The circle only exists as an emergent property of the individual boxes arranged in a particular way.

2 + 2 = 5. Or in this case, 1 + 1 + 1+ 1 + 1 = 6.

These examples illustrate something that is central to thinking about business in a “systems” way.

This has little to do with IT systems, by the way; nor systems in the sense of processes that are used to deal with issues methodically or “systematically”. We’re using a different meaning of the word – this is systemic not systematic thinking.

These examples illustrate that businesses are complex systems. They are made up of “just” the individuals that work in them, but they are also much more than that. They are all the relationships between the people as well. And the relationships externally too.

And they are even more than that. They are wholes, and also part of a bigger whole. They’re integrated and connected into that bigger whole in ways that may even be difficult for us to comprehend.

This may all sound rather ethereal.

But it has some very practical implications.

For example, when trying to improve profitability in a company managers are often tempted to play around with metrics or KPIs. Adjust a few simple things like how hard people work, and surely profitability will increase?

I’m afraid it just isn’t so. A business is a complex system, and playing with one low level metric is just as likely to make things worse as it is to make things better.

Much better to think systemically. I have blogged before about Donella Meadows and her (fairly) famous list of the best points to intervene in a complex system. Be it a business or any other system.

According to Meadows, the least powerful are the ones we most often think of, presumably because they are easy to grasp and grapple with: constants, parameters, and numbers. Often we rearrange these “deck chairs” while the ship is sinking.

Transparency – who sees which information – comes in at number six from the top.  Transparency is a core part of developing a conscious business. It does work to radically change behaviour – and is certainly much more powerful than changing low level metrics themselves.

But the really powerful levers (in Meadows’ view, and mine) are:

  • The goal(s) of the system.
  • The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises.
  • The power to transcend paradigms.

Consider that a business that chases short-term profitability has a different goal from one that is interested in profitability over the long-term.

Asking questions like “what is a business for?”, or “what does competition actually mean?” is the kind of activity that can lead to a shift of paradigm or mindset.

And realising that how we see things changes everything is the ultimate lever. That, of course, is what consciousness is all about.

PS To get started in systems thinking I’d really recommend the late Dana Meadows book Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Or try the Systems Thinking wiki. Or more recently I really enjoyed The Gardens of Democracy if you want to explore how (eco) systems thinking relates to areas beyond business.