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Elvis was right

This post is to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Cluetrain Manifesto.

I listened recently to philosopher Peter Singer talking at the RSA. The talk was all about boundaries. At the end I must admit I thought “wasn’t that all just common sense?”.

It took a little time for the power of his words to settle in.

He spoke about the boundaries we create in our lives – between other people and ourselves, even between animals and ourselves. He linked three much discussed issues: global poverty, animal rights, and climate change together, pointing out that each was really about boundaries. Boundaries between us and others far away, us and animals, and us and future inhabitants of the earth.

His suggestion, as I understood it, is that sometimes these boundaries are false or over-estimated. And sometimes they turn into barriers. And that these barriers can cause us to act irrationally – for example, to fail to transfer even a small amount of our income to solve problems of poverty; to treat animals in sometimes appalling ways; and to continue to destroy the planet with obvious disregard for those who follow us.

Another potentially dangerous boundary, I’d suggest, and one that often becomes a barrier,  is the one between customers and companies.

When we allow it to become a barrier we create products and services that harm the planet. And we cut ourselves off from the value and joy we could be giving to each other through exchange,  innovation and commerce.

Thesis 29 of the Cluetrain Manifesto runs as follows: Elvis said it best: “We can’t go on together with suspicious minds.”

Surely, suspicious minds are at the root of the thinking that turns a boundary into a barrier?

We fear what we don’t know. We fear what might happen. We lack trust. And the truth is we often don’t take the steps needed to build that trust.

I am not sure that we can ever completely remove suspicion. It serves a biological purpose, I am fairly sure. But we can become more conscious of it. We can take actions to reduce it. To develop and grow its antidote: trust in others.

  • We can become more conscious of it by looking for examples of media, both old and new, that stereotype. We can challenge or avoid them.
  • We can watch the stereotyping, and labelling and judging behaviour, in ourselves. How often, when confronted by someone who says something we disagree with, do we label that person: “he’s a jerk”; “he’s stupid”; or, simply, “he’s weak”?
  • We can feel our fear – simply by focussing on an emotion, sometimes we can reduce it’s power.
  • We can challenge our beliefs. We can get out there and meet and talk to people. Even people we wouldn’t ordinarily talk to. To prove to ourselves how our stereotypes and suspicions are so often wrong.

It’s one of the great things about new media and the Internet – it has the potential to break down barriers between people, between creator and audience, and between customers and companies.

But to make that potential real we need to see more clearly, and to act, to take steps, to overcome our suspicion.

PS Next in the list is Kevin MacKenzie, at mack-musings.blogspot.com. You can see the full list of posts in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Cluetrain Manifesto here.

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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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Solar power – no thanks

I’ve asked the question before. Just what are these business opportunities? And do we need an innovation strategy to define them?

Not always – sometimes you can just look. And sometimes a little idle speculation helps. I like the idle bit especially.

It’s been raining a lot in the last few days. I have been looking out of my office window at the rain. I looked and looked. And looked again. The view from my office Window

Where does all that rain go I wondered?

The answer is a whole slew of new rainwater harvesting businesses – such as www.clearwell-rainpiper.co.uk. Offering rainwater collection services for businesses and consumers alike. As their blurb says, not only does collecting rainwater save a lot of money for a bigger business that is greening itself. But it also saves energy and can prevent flooding.

What could be more appropriate. In a rainy country like ours.


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Smug

I am feeling just a tiny, tiny bit smug today. As I watch oil and energy prices soar. And I revel in my new lawnmower.

The old flymo blew up a few weeks ago. We have a small lawn. I thought “Who needs electricity?”. “Who needs petrol?”. So I sought out a push mower.

Brill, I discovered, is the Rolls Royce of push lawn mowers.

Mine is simple and elegant. It’s well engineered and very well made. It packs up small. Cuts like a dream. Will last for ever (or so they say).

It uses no fuel. And it’s good exercise. Lord knows I need it.

I sincerely hope Brill practices low energy manufacturing. I wonder where they get the steel?

It’s made in Germany. So I guess it cost something in fuel and carbon terms to get it here. That troubles me.

Now there’s an opportunity. 25 million UK households. I wonder how many have a lawn?


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So what are the opportunities?

I just finished reading Stuart Hart’s Capitalism at the Crossroads.

I took from it a few pointers about what the business opportunities might be for bigger corporations. His argument is that the 4 billion people at the “bottom of the pyramid” (“BOP”) is an amazing new market. Of the six billion on the planet, these are the poorer people mainly of the developing world.

It’s a market that can’t be addressed in the same way as the developed world markets we are used to. And the best bit of the book for me was how businesses need to change the ways they work with and understand people in order to create relevant, insipiring and above all sustainable products and services.

Another book along these lines is Natural Capitalism (by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins). Again the authors show how capitalism can be adjusted to become part of the solution.

But what about small and medium-sized businesses? It seems to me that the opportunities fall into several obvious categories.

  • SMEs can create B2B products and services for large and small companies who are both “greening” themselves and also addressing the BOP market.
  • SMEs can create products and services for government and other agencies that are influencing the market.
  • And SMEs can create B2C products and services for non-BOP consumers who are greening themselves. Most SMEs don’t have the reach to address the BOP market, without partnering with bigger corporations.

Creating B2C products can be done on a global, national or importantly on a local scale. Another important shift at the moment is relocalisation (or relocalization depending on where you live), driven by the twin needs of reducing carbon emissions and reducing our dependence on non-renewable forms of energy, such as oil.

What does this mean in terms of business ambition, I wonder? Will our definitions of growth and life-style businesses have to change in this new world? How do we match a business owner’s ambitions to grow their business to this new landscape? It’s a challenge.


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Solutions not problems

There are some excellent summaries of what the sustainability challenge is all about. Personally I am more interested in solutions than the problems.

But just to set the context, I guess if you have read this far, you’ll agree that actually it’s not that surprising that as the world population has grown from around 2 billion people to around 6 billion in the course of just my lifetime (I am 50 years old) that the world is creaking a little under the strain.

That’s a huge understatement of course. There’s a long list of problems we face: climate change, poverty, nuclear annihilation, terrorism, resource insecurity, and so on.

To me sustainability is the solution to all these – “to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (that’s the Bruntland Commission’s definition).

And it’s solutions I am much more interested in than discussing the problems. And specifically what small and medium-sized businesses can do.