Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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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.


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Lifestyle blogging

My friend Nigel of Nigel’s Ecostore (provider of all things eco) gave me a Christmas present this year: 4 Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferris. As a huge fan of Ricardo Semler’s Seven Day Weekend I was intrigued but sceptical.

It is fairly easy to rubbish the author’s approach: basically he suggests stopping deferring the good life life now for the fantasy of a great life later.

For him this means jacking in the day-job, setting up a business selling anything (“nutritional supplements” in his case), and automating the running of the business so that you can take advantage of disparities in global incomes and live at South American prices, pay a wage bill in Indian Rupees, and earn income in US dollars.

It’s easy to rubbish because I guess we all hope that disparities in global incomes are temporary; and hence this New Rich lifestyle is not really sustainable, unless you keep hopping from poorer to poorer countries. He puts a complete ban on the whole African continent by the way; too scary perhaps?

Because while Ferris does suggest longer stays than most travel writers (months, not days or weeks) there’s undoubtedly a lot of carbon-generating international air travel involved in the process (who am I to talk: I work with a business travel company amongst others).

And mostly because, while there’s a section at the end about giving something useful back to society, for Ferris that’s a step to take after having lived it up and made your money – it seems to me that’s another form of deferral. Why not get on and do what seems most worthwhile right now, and let money and lifestyle find you?

But that all said I did like the book (so thanks Nigel). Yes, you could say it’s shallow; but then so am I sometimes. It’s well crafted, his youthful enthusiasm is infectious, and it’s full of ideas and practical suggestions. Is it a bad thing that he won Wired Magazine‘s “Greatest Self Promoter of All-Time” prize in 2008? If he uses it to generate money for charities through his LitLiberation project?

Who knows what he’ll do next? The combination of promotional skills using social media and charitable inclinations is probably a good one.

And at least reading the book has made me question some of my assumptions about these things and others, and that is surely always worthwhile.


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Begin at the bottom

Lewes, where I live, is a Transition Town. The Transition movement led by Rob Hopkins and Ben Brangwyn and based in Totnes in the UK  is a very interesting movement.

It’s different from some environmentally focussed groups in that it’s not a protest group – it’s not against anything. Rather it’s focussed on creating positive solutions in response to climate change and “peak oil“.

It’s different because it’s local too, and is really more about community, and community resilience, rather than looking at the world top-down or from a global perspective. Instead, it’s a truly bottom-up way of looking at the world.

In fact, I’d argue it operates from the real bottom – me. My perspective and my behaviours as a member are the first and most important place where things can change.

I also like the way the Transition network is structured. It is a network not a hierarchical organisation. Each Transition Town, Village or City can choose how it operates locally, as long as it at least considers following the network’s broad principles.

Being involved leads to some interesting local debates, which I believe have resonance with the broader world too.

Firstly, we have debated whether it’s better to take a positive or negative view of global trends, particularly climate change and peak oil. Is changing our lives as a result of these things bad or good? I, for one, think a world with less oil where we care for the planet more could be a lot better, and in lots of ways.

Secondly, there’s an argument about resilience in the face of change. Who is more resilient, us in wealthy surburban Britain? Or people in developing countries who haven’t forgotten how to live simply. I realise there are shades of grey in this debate, but still can’t help wondering what all the real fuss is about for us more wealthy folk.

Thirdly, there is an argument about hysteria, about getting people into a state of panic. Plenty of the rich world’s population appear the opposite – almost frozen and immobile – in the face of the things that are happening to us. Ecosystems in collapse, species (including our own) under threat, and we continue to shop, drive and so on. As if there was no tomorrow.

I am sure there is a place for hysteria in getting people to sit up and take notice. For jogging people out of their comfort zones. But ultimately I think, as the story of the boy who cried wolf suggests, it’s really not constructive.

The world is simply too unpredictable. Anyone who uses hysteria to garner action risks becoming simply unbelievable.

So, what other strategies might there be to shake people from their immobility? A psychologist, and friend of mine,  Ben Fletcher, has a suggestion: Do Something Different.

Ben’s suggestion is that people stay the same largely because of habits. Because of habits people behave incongruently with what they believe. For example, we know we should recycle more but we don’t because it’s not our habit.

So randomly and consistently breaking habits should allow us to behave more congruently.

Then all the publicity and knowledge and “facts” which fly around about the environment should properly drive us to take corrective action.

Does it work? Yes, I think so, from having tried one of the DSD programmes. It seems to have the same kind of results as behavioural disputing – where our actions can prove that thoughts we hold to very dearly aren’t actually correct.

Changing our thoughts, beliefs and attitudes allows us to move on – to change our behaviour and create the world anew. That’s a bottom-up change. Something transition is all about.


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Live more simply…

Thanks to my friend Oliver, I just finished reading Ervin Laszlo’s 2006 book The Chaos Point. Probably the best book I have read since  the last amazing book I read. They seem to be coming thick and fast at the moment.

We are always busy so my wife asked me to summarise it in 30 seconds. Here goes:

  • The world is in a terrible state, and getting worse.
  • Doom is not, however, inevitable.
  • Changing our own consciousness – personally and as a group – is the answer.

This goes a long way to answering one of the major riddles I struggle with. If you believe the world is a complex system (as I do), and that we can’t predict outcomes with any certainty (even though scientific, economic. and political dogma suggest we can), why isn’t it OK just to live and let live?

It will all work out for the best won’t it? The trickle-down will work. Technology will fix the climate. Crisis will be averted, yet again. Everyone will be happy.

Laszlo’s point is that we humans are both the problem and the solution. We are destroying the planet and in danger of destroying ourselves. But we have the power to change our thinking. And changing our thinking allows us to change the framework by which we all live. Our future is not predetermined. It depends on that framework.

Our ingrained liberalism suggests live and let live. But we can, for example, choose a better morality, summarised by Ghandi’s “Live more simply, so that others can simply live”.

How do we change our morality, change our consciousness? Another riddle: it’s not easy, and yet it is. One clear way forward is to work on oneself. To try to understand oneself better, mind, body and soul.

My wife liked that bit. She’s an example to me. Someone who takes personal development very seriously. And I must go and read another book.


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Roll up, roll up

What a great time to enrol people in the business of doing something about social and environmental issues.

Gordon Gecko was wrong, greed is not good. As some of the financial fat cats get their comeuppance surely we’ll see  an acceleration towards a world where more people use their working lives to do something worthwhile.

But what might stop this happening?

Firstly, I suppose, especially in an economic downturn, people might claim poverty. But as fellow JustMeans blogger Osbert Lancaster wrote in “Responsible business in a time of turmoil?” – one good strategy is to remember we in the West are rich. Wildly rich compared to many of the people in the developing world.

Selfishness isn’t a bad strategy in my view. If you don’t look after yourself, what chance do you have of looking after others? The trick is probably to try to sort oneself out, in every way, then start to see what you can do for others.

Secondly, many people seem to argue there’s no point. The world’s going to hell in a handcart anyway, so why bother. Well is it? It seems to me that our biggest hope is the very presence of sites like JustMeans, and all the thousands (millions?) of people signing up to similar initiatives. If together we create a critical mass, then surely there’s some hope?

Thirdly, some people seem to feel they aren’t able to do anything. Maybe we haven’t got  the skills. Or maybe we don’t have any choice.

That’s something that took me some years to fully understand. That really everything we do is our own choice. We may tell ourselves that we have no choice but it’s simply not true. No one cooerces us. Or very rarely anyway.

Anything else? People like me, preaching? Personally, I hate being told what to do. And I do worry that many of our social and environmental organisations are too exclusive, run by “professionals” and “experts”. People who “know” the answers. (Hopefully that’ll trigger a response!)

I like the message that came across from Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest video – that this movement is wide and deep, broad and inclusive. Everyone, literally everyone, has something to contribute.

So dive in.


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Keeping going

What do you do to keep going when the going gets tough?

I guess we all have times when we feel like giving up. Maybe it’s the heat of the summer. Or the cold of the winter. Maybe it’s because things seem to be going badly. Or maybe they are going so well that all impetus is lost.

When I get like that, inspirational talks don’t help. In a different mood listening to an inspirational speaker might lift me up. For me, at that time, the obvious refrain “it’s different for them” becomes very attractive.

One thing I know helps is the support of friends. A talk with like-minded people can, at least for the duration of the session, get me fired up again. Of course, the last thing I want to do in this mood is get out there and meet friends.

At times like this having made a commitment to myself is probably the best source of forward motion. If I have previously promised myself that despite hitting the doldrums I will continue to move forward, then when I hit this state, that’s what I’ll do.

It works for me. What do you do?


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Resistance is useless

I am struggling today with getting started.

I see the opportunity. But will I do anything about it? Before it’s too late? And “if you see a bandwagon it’s too late to jump on it …” as my old friend Damien reminded me just the other day.

Artists and writers of all kinds know about “resistance”. So do psychologists and therapists. Everything gets in the way of change – whether it be the higher desire to create (write, paint, draw, make music). Or the need to improve our lives. To stop being depressed. To achieve things we would like to achieve.

Experts in ‘change’ know about these things too. But I can’t really get to grips with many of these theories. Personally, I favour approaches where change emerges bottom-up rather than being “managed-in” from the top down. I could easily spend a few days thinking about this, working it out, burning some brain-energy.

If I did, of course, it would probably be just more resistance. If you’re truly interested in that topic I’ll recommend Steven Pressfield’s the War of Art. Three sections spell it out: what resistance is, combating it, and what happens when you get beyond it.

But the real answer for me, the way to get beyond resistance in a single step, to stop procrastinating, to suddenly find yourself doing what you know in your heart of hearts is the right thing, to suddenly find yourself in the middle of the process of addressing the opportunity of sustainability (as opposed to thinking about it, talking about it, and getting ready to start) is to Do Something Different.

Do Something Different is a phrase coined by some psychologist friends of mine, Ben Fletcher and Karen Pine. Of course there’s a convincing theory behind it. You can read about it in one of their books – which happens to be about changing eating habits.

But the truth is – the phrase itself says it all. Do something different from what you normally do. Strangely, it doesn’t even have to be anything to do with your objective. Just do anything at all, as long as it’s different. Do one thing different, then another the next day, and so on.

You’ll be different. And things will be different. They’ll be different from the very first action you take that is different, and your world will change.

And that’s the easy the way to get started. No motivation required. Resistance is useless.