Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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We’ve come a long way baby

In its short history, the human race has achieved some magnificent things. But together we’ve also created a host of complex, and very serious, social and environmental problems.

Of the three powerful forces in society – business, the public/charitable sector, and politics/religion/media – I believe it is only business which has the power and the flexibility to address these problems.

Power because of its reach – the ability to touch many lives, even from a small base.

Flexibility because only business seems to be currently capable of transforming itself – reinventing itself. Away from greed and personal profit and towards really addressing those broader, much more important problems. Above all, business listens, and people are crying out for change.

But change alone isn’t enough. Too often change just means small improvements to delivering the status quo. We need ‘step-change’ – real transformation. Transformation is beyond change – it means adopting a new purpose, and a completely new way of operating, with new energy.

I am reminded of the story of one visitor to Ray Anderson’s visionary company Interface. A fork-lift truck driver, working for a company that makes office carpets, after helping her all he can, tells the visitor he must get on, because he’s “busy saving the planet”.

That is the new kind of energy we need in business people. Energy released by belief in a new kind of purpose.

How do we get there? As the author Jeanette Winterson said in her New Year resolution: “It is important to work out what is important. Living consciously has never mattered more.”

Individually and collectively we need to raise our consciousness. To become part of the group who are trying to transform things, systemically, radically – at the root.

We need to become more aware of what matters, why it matters, and what we can do, and are doing, about it.

And often are not doing. We need to become aware of our habits and the other things that hold us back. Conscious of our failings, as well as our successes. That means internal, personal work. As much as putting our heads above the parapet.

There are many, many people on this journey. It is not my place to tell you what you should do. But I can tell you what we are doing.

We are building a business – Conscious Business People – that helps leaders discover a more important purpose, a transformational purpose for themselves and their businesses.

Then we help those leaders develop transformational strategy, structure and culture – to create businesses that are part of the solution. Businesses with positive purpose, and radically better behaviours, and much higher levels of awareness.

We help businesses and the people in them become more conscious, and stay that way.

Many will say this is foolhardy, it will never succeed. That mixing business with purpose is simply wrong and doomed to failure. But I think it’s the only game in town. The only game worth playing.

I’d love to know what you think, what you’re doing to “save the planet”.

Happy New Year.

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Research and Practice in Organisations and People

If you’d like to get a handle on some of the deeper thinking around Conscious Business, you might find it useful to buy and download a copy of the latest issue of eO&P.

We think this is probably a world first – an issue of an academic journal dedicated entirely to Conscious Business.

e Organisations and People is the quarterly journal of AMED – the Association for Management Education and Development. If you download a copy you’ll be supporting its work:

“AMED is a long-established membership organisation and educational charity devoted to developing people and organisations. Its purpose is to be a forum for people who want to share, learn and experiment, and find support, encouragement, and innovative ways of communicating. Our conversations are open, constructive, and facilitated.”

What I really like about AMED  is its focus on research and practice.

Remember Everett Rogers’ bell curve – the diffusion of innovation? If you’re at all interested in Conscious Business you’re probably an innovator or an early adopter. Conscious business is still very early in the adoption life-cycle – indeed the term only really emerged a few years back.

Rogers' Bell Curve

Rogers’ Bell Curve – Source wikipedia

Now research is really useful, but I believe that research combined with testing, practice, experimentation is the way to really get to the heart of a new innovation.

To find out what it is good for. It’s strengths and weaknesses. How to mitigate those weaknesses. How to refine it – and pivot if necessary.

I believe it is only through real immersion in the practice of something that we can properly get to know it.

eO&P is not a peer-reviewed journal. I like that too.

Peer-review has its strengths. But Kuhn’s famous work on paradigm change has shown us that there are dangers too – that elites can, for example, suppress the emergence of new ideas. And that this can slow innovation and hence paradigm change.

And boy do we need a new paradigm for business 🙂

Most of the academic publishing houses seem to be very conventional businesses. Where will the energy to overturn the existing paradigms come from, if not from us?

Not being peer-reviewed doesn’t mean that we (@smilerob and @peteburden) didn’t work very hard to ensure the quality of the pieces. We did.

And the authors did a fantastic job too. Some had written for journals before but for others it was a  totally new experience. All brought their practical, hands-on experience as well as critical thought to the project. We’re really proud of every piece, and of the overall outcome.

I’d also really like to thank the publisher of eO&P, Bob MacKenzie and everybody at AMED (especially David McAra) for their massive help and support during the publishing process. We’re currently starting work on the next edition and we’re looking forward to that collaboration too.

So please take the trouble to download a copy, or better still if you are really interested in supporting the development of management and leadership education please consider joining AMED. There’s an annual subscription option at their website.


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Conscious Business Events in November

Four great Conscious Business-related events in London, Birmingham and Brighton next month:

  • Meaning Conference – connecting and inspiring people who believe in better business – 8th November, Brighton
  • Many employee-owned businesses are purpose-led. The showpiece EOA conference for employee-owned businesses is in two weeks time – 12/13th November, Birmingham
  • An RSA-sponsored event: Is CSR dying? 20th November, Brighton
  • A Conscious Leadership Conference – How to create profit with purpose – 28th November, London

Plus our usual Conscious Business practice meetups in Brighton (18th November) , London (25th November), Bristol (11th November) .

And a new event if you work in the City of London  (26th November).


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Preaching, fear and hopelessness – the holy trinity of resistance

If conscious business makes sense, why is it not more universally adopted?

If good or conscious businesses can be empirically shown to be more profitable, as more and more studies appear to show is the case; and if it can be shown that a more human approach to business makes the people who work in them happier, committed and fulfilled; then what is it that stops more people and businesses from embracing and adopting the principles willingly and gleefully?

Well, the first thing is simply knowing that there are other ways of doing things. That bad behaviour doesn’t have to be accepted under the guise of ‘that’s business’. That’s an awareness exercise.

But often what stops people is a simple case of resistance.

Human nature, by instinct, is very often naturally resistant to change, because there is a certain comfort in doing things the way you and other people have always done them, even if you don’t like the process or the outcomes. This can be put simply under the label of habit, and explains why people continue to smoke when they know and feel it does nothing for them.

And beyond that I also wonder if there other forces at play that might turn people off.

The first is hopelessness. If the size of the task or the change seems overwhelming, such as changing the nature of business, then starting the change alone can seem just a bit futile. (See climate change).

The second is preaching. From toddler to pensioner, no-one likes being told what to think and do, particularly if you’re being made to feel bad about what you have been doing.

That’s why all good engagement should start with a question – why should you, or anyone else, be interested in this? Or a story. That’s why the most famous preachers haven’t been preachers at all in the fear and damnation mould. They have been the more inspirational types, storytellers, the ones who help create a positive vision of the future. “I have a dream…”

And what is most prevalent in any stopping any form of change? An underlying sense of fear.

If I do this, because it’s against perceived wisdom or practice, what will happen? Will the world stop, will my customers and staff leave, will we make any money?

Fear is a very powerful emotion. Indeed it has been used for years as a sales tool to gain action. Sell your client a story based around fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) and you will scare them into action. But honestly, who wants to build a life or a career based around something as destructive as fear?

The truth is, the trick to overcoming  this holy trinity of resistance – hopelessness, preaching, and fear – is to challenge them wherever you find them, and share and create new practice and stories that inspire and reassure.


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Book review: Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia

Here’s a review I wrote for Amazon. I think I could probably write several reviews of this book – there’s such a lot in it. But here is a snapshot:

This is a great book.

I must declare a bias: I am a real fan of the ideas presented here, and I have met one of the authors.

But trying to put that to one side, I still think it is a great book.

It is very thorough, very complete, and like my colleague Will McInnes’ book Culture Shock: A Handbook For 21st Century Business it is full of practical advice and suggestions on building a different type of business.

It is clearly written, full of good stories and quotes. It also seems to include a good measure of honesty – as when John Mackey describes the problems he had with the SEC.

It is ideological, yes, but I think that is what we need right now. There’s a lot of talk in business about disruption, and how business should respond, but this book sets out the beginnings of an intellectual and emotional framework for business in the 21st century.

Umair Haque’s Betterness: Economics for Humans (Kindle Single) also comes to mind.

After an introduction, which aims to reset the narrative of business, the book is broken into several sections on making practical changes to the way a business works:

– Higher Purpose
– Stakeholder Integration
– Conscious Leadership
– Conscious Culture and Management

The book pulls together a lot of thinking from a range of very diverse sources. That is the whole point I suppose: to bring topics such as economics, sustainability, business management, psychology and systems thinking together. Indeed, the authors aren’t afraid to mix words like love and care in with the kind of terminology (innovation, collaboration, decentralisation) you will read in many modern books on business management.

There are lots of practical examples and stories from Whole Foods Market. That company is obviously better known in the US than the UK, and there is a notable lack of any European examples (John Lewis, the Co-op, Cadburys etc). But as founder and CEO, John Mackey has been through most of the major decisions that need to be made in setting up and growing a large, listed company.

Once or twice I had a bit of a sharp intake of breath.

The term “free-enterprise capitalism” personally reminds me of “free market capitalism”, in the style of Reagan and Thatcher. Something to which I have an instinctive and somewhat negative reaction. But, after a moment, I reminded myself to suspend a little, remember that I am not an economic theorist or expert, and read on.

And their real point is that capitalism generally has given itself a very bad name with the people who should be supporting it – those of us who believe in freedom for individuals and also in sharing, giving etc.

The other slight intake of breath came when Margaret Thatcher is listed amongst a list of leaders with high integrity, including Gandhi and other personal heroes. Again personally, I found this hard to take.

But again the truth is this is probably more about my biases and prejudices than anything else. And a good book, I believe, should challenge one’s thinking, not just confirm one’s prejudices. I resolved to dig out a biography and do some deeper research.

The book ends with sections on starting a conscious business, and transforming to become one.

An appendix covers the business case for Conscious Capitalism – including reference to Raj Sisodia’s work on Firms of Endearment and a comparison with the “Good to Great” companies. This, in my view, is a very strong and compelling financial case.

Another appendix gives a very useful list of similar, related approaches (such as sustainable business, B-corporations etc), and explains why conscious capitalism is different.

In a final section, which contains a call to action, I was pleased to see a reference to Tom Paine, author of Common Sense and the Rights of Man. These, at the time, were seditionary works. They stirred people up.

This book is similar – some will hate it, but the mixture of emotion and intellect is powerful. Which is important, because, as the authors say, there’s no time to waste.

Overall, this is a manifesto for a new type of business. Or, if you simply want to find out what Conscious Capitalism and Conscious Business are all about, this is a great starting point.

It is a big book as well as a great book. It will take you a while to read. But in my view it is really worth the effort.


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Joint responsibility

There’s a lot of talk these days about responsibility in business.

To me, this always boils down to individual responsibility – individuals taking responsibility for their own actions. Without that kind of personal responsibility, any talk of ethics or morality seems, to me, to be less than useful.

But what does personal responsibility actually mean – in practice, in the nitty gritty of working life, in a company, in a business, where we are by definition working with others? Where really we mean joint responsibility, responsibility for the “we”, as well as for ourselves.

I think it boils down to three simple things:

  • Taking responsibility for my contribution – to the project, to the business, whatever.
  • Taking responsibility for the help and support I give to others in my team, in my business, around me. I can make a major difference by helping others succeed in whatever they aim to do.
  • Taking responsibility for making sure that all our aims are reasonably aligned.

It is easy to ignore the last one, and assume it is someone else’s problem – the CEO’s, for example. But if we all individually take on the responsibility for working together well as a group, I think our chances of success are much better.

That’s three areas of responsibility, not one.

If you think you are already great at all three, try this simple test: give yourself a score from 1-10 on how you currently perform in your role, in your organisation.

Be honest. Look for any signs of blaming or undermining – this may, of course, be unconscious too – in each of the three areas.

  • How fully do you take responsibility for your own actions, for gaining the results you wish to achieve?
  • How fully do you support and help others in achieving theirs? Do you really know what their goals and aims are, for example? Do you help, or sometimes, even inadvertently, get in the way?
  • And how well do you ensure that the whole group of which you are part works well? Do you sometimes, again perhaps without meaning to, undermine? Do you know that alignment is missing but fail to do or say anything about it?

Now think about how you would like your scores to be, from now on.


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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.