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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Taking a day off – from selling

A couple of my colleagues and I went to an interesting talk on Friday by the excellent Anil Seth from the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex.

The event was hosted by the Headstrong Club, which has been debating the hot topics of the day since at least the 18th century, although it only more recently relaunched – in 1987.

Anil gave a very lively run through eight key areas that he and his colleagues are researching. I really liked the way his team are integrating recent technological advances such as virtual reality into their research – as with their VR version of the rubber hand illusion (here’s the background).

I am a sucker for this kind of thing, and also like the perceptual illusions which are often used to illustrate some of the surprising ways the brain works; I especially enjoyed Anil’s version of the amazing colour changing card trick.

But I don’t know if it was this talk or something else that meant I woke up this morning deeply aware that everyone is always selling something.

I respectfully include Anil, because actually one of the bits of his talk that most stuck in my mind was his answer to a question about which other key aspects of consciousness are worthy of research.

His perhaps only partly flippant answer was something like “those that attract funding”.

I liked this answer because it seemed to me to be an honest acknowledgement of that need that I also share – to be always selling.

There’s a probably apocryphal story of an academic and a salesman meeting at a party.

Quickly they engage in a debate around the value of each others’ profession. The story ends with the academic unconsciously proving the salesman’s point, by saying “Just give me 5 minutes and I’ll tell you why my profession is worth so much…”.

At its worst selling is a intrusion, a subtle form of violence. An attempt to manipulate someone into doing what they don’t want to do.

At its best it is a form of helping – a way of gently discovering what another person really needs and helping them gain it for themselves.

And I am not just talking about buying a physical product. I am also talking about ‘buying’ ideas. Selling is just as relevant to politicians and therapists.

So I suppose what I am really noticing this morning, and objecting to a little, is that desire in me to manipulate another.

And I am recognising the difficulty of staying in a place where I seek to get my own needs met, without having to persuade others to adopt my point of view.

And perhaps I am making a little plea? Could we all take a day off from trying to persuade others that we are right? Or that we have something that the other needs?

Let’s all just stop selling for the day, and see what happens.


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Conscious Walking

A beautiful day.  Thick snow on the ground with a sunny blue sky.  I dress warmly as the annoying quote “there’s no such thing as bad weather only inappropriate clothing” springs to mind.  I step out into the cold, aware and excited by child-like feelings and the novelty of my new surroundings.  One foot in front of the other, knowing where I’m going.  I sense a feeling of joy as I look around at the blanket of snow making the familiar seem new again.

But as I climb the icy path my focus shifts to the steps in front of me.  Breathless, like working in a recession, I am no longer aware of my surroundings or direction.  I have no capacity or will to lift my head – even to see a clearer way just beside me.

It’s not until I reach the top that I can pause to catch my breath and breathe a sigh of relief.  And in this stable place I can now stride forward looking up and down and around – reflecting on surviving the recent challenge and basking in the the success of where I’ve been, the path I’m taking and on where I’m going.

But, another ‘but’, as I start the descent.  It may have been a struggle on the way up but now it’s one careful step at a time with self preservation front of mind.  And no time to look around at the stunning views.  What a waste.  If I can’t look around whilst I’m going down at least I can stop on what was a grassy mound.  A thought: ice skaters don’t move forward step by step, they embrace the flow so why can’t I? And on this last stage I move faster, still gently and still in control, safely – being part of the way forward.

As I reach the foothills I hear the high pitched tweet of a bird enjoying the day.  “Sounds like a blackbird to me.  I will Google ‘birdsongs’ when I get home to check.”  “Or not.” I thought as I stopped at the hawthorn tree, causing the bird to silence.  I could see no source of the sound until as I waited the call started again.  And with my stillness, I saw a beautiful little bird with yellow and black markings.  Beautiful and serene – what a treat.

But what has this got to do with conscious walking or even conscious business ?  Everything I thought.


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The power of models

My first job after leaving university required that I learn about (computer) operating systems. At the time (1979) the most important ones included MVS and VM from IBM, RSX and VMS from DEC, and UNIX: PCs were yet to really emerge.

For a while, books on operating systems were my bedside reading (yes, geeky, I know). I loved to understand the way these systems worked – scheduling work, handling resources and managing interactions with the computer terminals of hundreds of people – all at what seemed incredible speeds.

I learned to write programme code and played around a little with the internals of these complex beasts. But, really, I was much more interested in understanding the models involved. What fascinated me, I think, was how a few relatively simple constructs, when implemented rigourously, could create complex behaviour.

I’d studied psychology at university, not computer science. And thinking back I’m now clear that it was always models that interested me, not behaviour. I was mainly interested in mental models and particularly assumptions – about how people constructed the world.

Later I studied social, cultural, and other models. Throughout my life, this desire to understand how things work – through the lens of models – has been fairly constant. Today it is still human models, but also business and organisational models, that often gain my attention. For me, all these are systems, and worthy of understanding.

People sometimes say I am “conceptual”. And I guess it is true – my interest in models would support that idea.

But there’s another factor which I think leads to that conclusion. Sometimes I refuse to give specifics, to describe behaviour. That’s not because I don’t have a view. It’s because I want people to work it out for themselves. You see, I also deeply believe in distributed leadership – decisions being made independently by the people involved.

A model may set the limits within which behaviour occurs – but it doesn’t predict the behaviour in a deterministic way. I like that – and the freedom it implies.

Not everybody likes to think in terms of models. But one of the best explanations of the importance of models comes from Donella Meadows. The late environmental scientist and teacher wrote a brilliant list of the most valuable leverage points in systems which prompted an earlier post.

Wikipedia lists the twelve leverage points and I won’t repeat them here. 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.

The three most powerful (in Meadows’ view) are:

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

Models are paradigms. And, like Meadows, I believe that understanding models sets me free.

I believe that if people understand the model they inhabit, they can choose it, or change it; and they can also choose their behaviour within it, rather than acting because of forces they don’t understand.

What does all this have to do with Conscious Business?

Models are everywhere. Business today operates within a model (a paradigm) – containing invisible assumptions about goals (make money), structure (me on top, you below), rules (you must do what I say) etc.

Businesses also contain models – we have business models, organisational models, rewards models, innovation models, skills development models and so on.

So, why not take the time to bring into your consciousness the models that drive or control your world? Set yourself free.


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Hey ho hey ho it’s off to work we go

Many people seem to agree that part of the path to success is hard work.

That begs a big question, of course. What is success? I don’t want to go into that here. It’s a big topic. So let’s just assume, at least for the time being, that we are talking about some combination of health, wealth and happiness.

So what about the hard work part?

I guess the most common definition of hard work is working long hours. At times I have believed, and maybe I still do on occasion, that if I work longer hours than others I will gain success.

My head tells me that isn’t true.

I know the feeling of working in an office and wanting to go home, but wondering if I can, wondering what others will think if I leave before … when? … the allotted time? a reasonable time? those other people?

My sense that I can’t actually define the issue properly is perhaps a clue to some faulty thinking?

I also know that working late at the office isn’t going to help me meet some of my other success goals. How will I have time to exercise to gain that health that is a part of my desired success package? Or be able to spend “quality time” with my family?

I also know from experience that working long hours and producing great volumes of stuff doesn’t lead anywhere close to wealth. Several times in my fairly long career I have lived through the night of the long pens, only to discover that whatever I produced languished unnoticed, or had no result whatsoever, other than keeping a paper mill rumbling a little longer.

I know also from when I have paid people to do things for me that I care little about the hours they work. I am interested in the results they achieve, and the pleasure our relationship gives me as it develops and grows.

Of course, sometimes working late or at odd hours is necessary. But I just can’t see the logic of extra hours equating to hard work.

So what is hard work?

Some work, of course, isn’t hard. Those Seven Dwarves didn’t seem to be finding their grueling shift down the diamond mine hard work at all. In fact, they seemed rather happy (or grumpy, or sleepy, or …). We know about flow – and many Disney cartoon characters seem to exemplify it.

But I still believe that in order to succeed it is necessary to work hard.

I think hard work is work that is hard.

Some work is easy, as the Dwarves made it seem. But although they laboured at the mine they were stuck in a timeless, fantasy world where nothing changed, nothing improved, nothing decayed.

That’s not the real world. The real world, or at least the one I inhabit, changes constantly, growing and decaying; and I, as a human part of that world, change constantly too.

Going along with that flow of change is, for me, the only sensible way to proceed. To fight against the stream is madness. Nature grows and decays. People grow and decay. I cannot change that. I would be a fool to try.

So all that is left is me. And how I am in that flow.

I change, but I can also change myself. That, to me, is to be human. To change myself I can change my beliefs. I can change my attitudes – the very paradigms through which I see the world. I can change my habitual behaviours – those things I say and do that reinforce my beliefs and attitudes, just as much as they are driven by them.

Those attitudes I hold, and those behaviours I express in work, in my business dealings, in relation to money, wealth, health and yes, even happiness.

Changing those, for me, is hard work.


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Following the crowd

Scott’s recent response to a post got me thinking about group conformity:

The first video:

Candid Camera (2 minutes 13 seconds)

The second is less Candid Camera and more Solomon Asch:

If successful business depends on difference, then learning the skills of iconoclasm to me seem essential. Just why do we conform? And how can we learn to be different?

The neuroscientist Gregory Bern’s book Iconoclast gives some great examples of iconoclasts at work (including Arthur Jones, developer of the Nautilus training machine. Perhaps an inspiration for Indiana Jones (?), his personal motto was “Younger women, faster airplanes and bigger crocodiles”.)

And Bern gives some pointers too on how to cultivate your difference. He suggests developing:

  • your perception
  • your courage
  • your social skills.

Ignoring his interesting appendix on how to manipulate your brain chemistry (!) to enhance these areas, the main initial driver for me is awareness of my own limited perceptions.

(Thanks Richard Wiseman/Quirkology).

But what works for you?


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A natural high?

Just finished reading the excellent Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt.

It starts slowly and to my mind doesn’t say much about happiness as such – unless it’s addressed to the less conscious “elephant” in his “rider and elephant” model. There’s a lot of stuff (reciprocity, bias etc) that you may have read elsewhere.

But as he gets on to the ground he’s passionate about, morality and ethics, it really takes off.

And what I liked so much is the way he helped me reframe debates that have long interested me. Left vs. right. Religion vs. spirituality. Autonomy vs. shared values.

I, like Haidt, loved the story of Flatland (by the marvelously named Edwin Abbott Abbott).  It demonstrates so clearly how our own perceptions limit our ability to see the world as others see it. And the joy that comes from integrating two previously irreconcilable viewpoints.

(By the way a modern version of much the same story is The Planiverse, by A. K. Dudeney.)

For me, I am sure one of the reasons I pursue an increase in consciousness is to get the hit from just those ah-ha moments.


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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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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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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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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.