Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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A Meaning Economy?

I’ve written before about what a Conscious Business is. And what it is not. But no man, and no business, is an island. Businesses live and operate in a market.

And what kind of market is that? At the moment, for example, we seem to have:

  • Web 2.0 people theorising about the importance of ethereal content over physical objects, of production versus consumption;
  • psychologists, and even the UK government, propounding the importance of well-being and happiness;
  • an ever-growing discussion of environmental sustainability;
  • the feminisation of the work-place;
  • the rise of long-term, inter-generational thinking;
  • and, of course, the rise of Conscious Business – in all its various shapes and forms.

Could this all be part of an even bigger trend for the market? A shift towards what we might call a “meaning economy“? We’ve had the information economy, and the knowledge economy. (Once I even heard talk of a “wisdom” economy.)

A meaning economy for me is one in which people’s basic needs are already met through the producing power of our industrial economy. And instead people start to change their focus towards gaining more meaning in their lives.

But what is meaning? Meaning is an answer to the question “why?”, not the industrial age questions of “how many?”, or “how much?. We know how to answer those questions and we know how to answer questions about “what”, “who”,  and sometimes even “when”. Why we want things, why we have things, why we do things: the answers remain much more elusive.

Put another way, is the overall market changing so that people are no longer satisfied with just goods, and no longer satisfied with shabby, or any, “services” – are they seeking instead to fulfil their higher values?

Of course this won’t mean much to the billion at the bottom of the pyramid. But for the aspirational 5 billion people in the world – is that where we are heading?

If so, this might mean different things in relation to each of the product types we are already familiar with, and we can see that some of these trends are already underway in some areas of the economy:

  • for a physical, tangible product it means valuing the associated brand and reputation more than just the product itself;
  • for a service it means valuing the associated relationships more than just the service itself;
  • for content it means producing something that deeply touches the heart and soul, not just the mind.

In business more generally it might mean shifting our emphasis as we try to build revenue and profitability. Shifting it:

  • from technological innovation to service innovation;
  • from growing functional value to growing relationship value;
  • from improving process quality to a focus on the quality of the customer experience;
  • from strategies that grow transactional volumes to those that grow loyalty and retention;
  • and even from strategies designed to reduce cost to strategies of investment;
  • and so on.

All of these things have been identified before, of course. And some would say that a knowledge economy leads to some of these things. So, I wonder, does it add anything to see this as a change in the market to meaning away from information and knowledge? What else might that ‘frame’ tell us?

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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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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.


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Own goals?

I have always been rather suspicious of goals. So I was delighted (!) to find a recent post by Jeff Trexler pointing to this Harvard Business School paper and a Boston Globe article on “Why setting goals can backfire“.

The late, great coaches’ coach Thomas Leonard remarked in 1989 that “goals are overrated and unnecessary”. Perhaps some evidence that he was right is  finally starting to emerge.

As the HBS paper succinctly puts it, it’s not that goal setting doesn’t work. It’s that it’s “a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.”

So take care. Be careful what you aim for.


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The elements of passion

A colleague, Mick Landmann, introduced me to the great Ken Robinson, a very funny speaker and holder of strong views on education. Last night, I watched him talk about his latest book, the Element, which is about the importance of having a passion for what you do in life.

If we follow our passions, Robinson argues, we are so much more motivated to do our work, are so much better at it, and we can achieve, much, much more.

He also made very clear the link between the problems we face in running up against resource constraints (land, water, oil etc) and the importance of following that passion. His suggestion is that for us, as a society, to find a way out of these problems it’s essential that all of us do what we are most passionate about.

The logic, I guess, is that these problems are so difficult that they require all of our individual and collective power to overcome them. Only by fully tapping into our passions can we access that power.

For me, this is where business comes in. I have been asking myself again recently, thanks to Simon Conroy, what business is. For me, business, when all is said and done, is a sandpit, a place to experiment, that allows people to be their best. To tap into that passion.

Sure, business can generate money. It provides employment. But much more importantly it clearly identifies problems and opportunities. Such problems, opportunities and the resulting solutions are meat and potatoes to someone with passion.

With passion people will work the long days, take the risks, and overcome the fears (facing conflict, for example) needed to solve the most difficult of problems, tackle the most inspiring of opportunities, and come up with the most creative solutions.

And through that work, become whatever they can become.

“Win-win” is a rather over-used term. But if at the same time as developing ourselves, we solve some of our hardest and most challenging problems, I can’t help thinking that is a real win-win.


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Navigating through difficult times

In difficult times, as in good times, I think it’s important to focus on the basics. Perhaps more so.

What are the essentials for a sustainable business? I can feel a list coming on.

Firstly, be agreed on what you are trying to achieve. Knowing this can get you through the toughest times.

Secondly, believe in profit. I know this is a little controversial. Some will say it is obvious. Others will not like the idea of profit as essential.

Profit is such a emotional topic, although mostly we don’t admit that. For many it has a bad name. And on the other extreme, even those who seek it above all else might be feeling a little guilty about it now.

But for a business to be sustained, whether it has a social or a purely economic goal, profit is needed. Profit builds reserves. When reinvested it creates strength – primarily through skills and knowledge. Excess profit can be harmful. But reasonable profit, reinvested, is essential.

Beliefs about profit are often so deeply held they’re hard to shift. But unless everyone in your company shares a positive view of reasonable profit, then you really do have difficulties if you want your business to survive and meet its mission.

Thirdly, everyone involved has to have a can do/will do attitude. It’s easier to believe that if things get hard we can give up. But to succeed we have to believe there is a way to get through – even in the hardest times. And we have to believe that we, and we alone, control our progress.

This is somewhat related to understanding that fear is normal. Fear of meeting people. Fear of doing new things. Fear of failure. And most of all fear of change. Know that fear is normal, and you are part way to overcoming it. If you know it and admit it, then you can ask for help, as just one example.

Being open to learning more generally – not being afraid to look a fool, and being unafraid to duck difficult things – is part of the same skill.

I believe even the strongest among us are afraid of change. We all fear the new and unfamiliar. Some like to change the world; but few are brave enough to change themselves.

But in an ever-changing world, what could be a more essential attribute for a sustainable company or an individual?

Fourthly, do the right thing. This doesn’t mean moralising. It’s more of a felt sense. For me, it mainly means overcoming fear so you can move towards a bigger goal. It’s about knowing what that bigger goal is. And sometimes taking the time to check the goal, so that it doesn’t get too big for its boots.

It also means a sense of proportion in other ways. For most of us in the developed world, it means remembering how lucky we are even when things look bad. Most of our lives contain many good things. Remembering to be grateful for them helps keep everything in balance.

Fifthly, do what you say you will, most of the time. Avoid promising to others; but if you make promises to yourself, then keep them. It’s all too easy in times of uncertainty to let a fog settle over us. And that fog provides the perfect shield to hide away, to let things slip, to quietly drop promises – even the most important ones.

Holding on to and reinvigorating your vision is one way to dispel that fog. Another is simply not to let yourself or others off the hook.

One way we let ourselves off the hook is by failing to “bottom-out” things. To me, this means starting a conversation, but when it gets a little hard, giving up. It means failing to push through the mental pain barrier to get at the roots of a problem.

The antidote might be stopping and declaring a time-out, and admitting one is lost. With no idea which way to go.

Being right, knowledgeable and on the ball is so important to most of us that sometimes we’d rather let confusion reign than admit we are lost.

But if you are wandering around in a mist, you are unlikely to get out of it by just wandering around. You need to get a grip. Work out what you know and what you don’t. Assess your resources. Form a plan. And then move steadily forward.

Another way of saying this? Tell the truth. Not just any old truth. But THE truth. The truth that is true for you right now.

However hard that may be.


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Service or product?

I was planning to post on the topic of purchasing decisions today, when by coincidence I saw Jeremy Litchfield’s interesting post on consumer responsibility. Isn’t it great when things fit together like that?

One aspect of taking this responsibility is whether we decide to buy services or products. I was faced with a choice over the weekend of buying a “thing” or a “service”. Both served exactly the same function (to make some of my data safe).

Products clearly have a quite different environmental profile from services. A product requires energy and raw materials to manufacture and transport. A service, delivered over the internet, for example, has low transportation cost. And the incremental cost of providing it may be small because of economies of scale and the fact I share the tangible components with many other people.

I considered the environmental impact of both – and the service won hands-down. But I still felt myself so drawn to the “thing”. A strong emotional pull that I couldn’t fully locate, but I knew was real. What was this all about?

The thing was nice and shiny and I could imagine it arriving and the fun of unpacking it. The service was a software download – and pretty intangible and almost “grey”, in my mind.

Something about “having” the thing – on my shelf, in my house – was also attractive. I guess this is the same thrill that collectors have. Not something I thought I suffered from, but I when I looked I could really experience it.

There were some additional benefits to the service – the “thing” would quickly become obsolete. Whereas someone else would have the problem of ensuring the service always took advantage of the latest technological advances. And, of course, if the “thing” broke I’d be the one dealing with the problem.

But I also felt some fear around the service – the idea of tying myself into a long-term contract was getting under my skin. My preference is not to load myself with financial commitments. I guess I am not alone in that, especially right now.

In this case the burden of owning the “thing” seemed negligible; whereas I felt I was imprisoning myself in the service deal – probably for life.

In the end, I found another way and bought neither. Hooray for a simpler life!

But my point is that there are habits around this kind of purchasing decision. Perhaps my example was trivial. If we are talking about the difference between car ownership or car sharing, then yes, as Jeremy points out, we need to take responsibility.

But, in my opinion, we need to do that fully: we as consumers, and also the businesses that serve us, need to become aware of these emotional and psychological factors if we are to have any collective hope of changing our behaviour. Some clever people are already looking at this – look at Live|Work’s work for Streetcar, for example.