Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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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.


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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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Purpose and Values

The economic climate isn’t great for business at the moment but in one very important sense business is getting easier for me and it’s down to my ability to make decisions. Decision-making is getting easier because more and more of the choices I make are the ones I believe in. In the past I spent too much time and energy arguing with myself about the best way of doing something.

Part of me wanted to act in line with the perceived business wisdom. I guess because it required very little thought, to others it looked like it was the right thing to do and maybe if it went wrong I felt I was less to blame. But all too often I thought the perceived wisdom (particularly the bits that involved people) was a load of old bull, it just didn’t feel right and the resulting argument with myself caused me to get rather stressed.

These days I’m much more likely to make decisions I believe in. Sometimes they’re in line with the perceived wisdom and sometimes they’re not. When they’re not in line, I make the decision consciously and if later on, things go ‘pear-shaped’, I really want to know why. In other words, I learn.

The alternative would be to go with the perceived business wisdom but there’s a real danger that unconsciously I’ll try and prove myself right by sabotaging the whole process so I can say to myself ‘I told you so’. Even if things don’t go wrong I’d probably convince myself that ‘my way would have been better’.

Whilst the case for listening to one’s self may be strong, putting it into practice isn’t always so easy. To do it well, I believe there are two essential ingredients.

The first is Purpose, a really strong reason for doing what you do as effectively as you can. The second is Values, a set of principles that cannot be broken even if breaking them helps achieve the Purpose.

In the relatively recent past many of us have mistakenly believed that our ‘Purpose’ was to make money. Many of us failed because it was obvious to others that, this, and not ‘fabulous customer service’ or ‘great quality’ was what we were looking to achieve. Another group of us managed to make some money but found out pretty soon after, that it wasn’t our ‘Purpose’ after all.

But I also know people who seem to go out of their way to avoid making money. It’s almost as if their ‘Purpose’ is to go without the nicer things in life.

My advice is to avoid including money as part of one’s ‘Purpose’ and trust that the more progress you make towards your real ‘Purpose’, the less money-related worries you’ll have.

A really strong ‘Purpose’ is something that motivates you, something that gets you out of bed in the morning and something that you’d happily have on your gravestone.

Values are personal, they are a set of principles by which you live your life. They are not a set of principles by which you would like to live your life. Your ‘Values’ are your ‘Behaviours’. The way you behave is the way you are. It doesn’t mean you can’t change your behaviours but it does mean if you cheat, then you value cheating. It means that if you shout at someone you attach value to that shouting. If you help an old lady across the road, you value the help you give.You give someone feedback, you value feedback and so on.

The perfect Conscious Business is the point at which all stakeholders have the right ‘Purpose’ and the right ‘Values’ for them personally and they are aligned. Investors, Customers, Employees, Directors, Suppliers  etc all share a common ‘Purpose’ and a common set of ‘Values’

Conflict is the beginning of consciousness. M Esther Harding


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Let it be

In my working life I quite often hear people make a distinction between life-style and ‘growth’ businesses.

‘Growth’, at least from the entrepreneur’s point of view, really means exit.

The idea is to build fast and create a lot of value in the company – in the eyes of prospective purchasers – so that the business can be sold.

Naturally, this also creates a lot of uncertainty for employees, and other stakeholders. And often it creates a lot of uncertainty for the entrepreneur.

Maybe they sell. But then they have to endure an earn-out, and disrupted relationships with all those around them. And at the end – well, often they’re back at the beginning, needing to find the next opportunity to express whatever they feel the need to express.

So-called life-style businesses on the other hand provide the owners with a steady income over many years, provide steady employment and can lead to strong, resilient relationships with staff, customers and investors.

I guess this distinction can be a useful way of getting someone to think about their values: about what is important to them.

I nearly said goals, but goals as opposed to values are perhaps part of the problem.

“Growth” businesses are all about long-term goals. They’re about imagining a particular future (e.g. making a lot of money; lying on a beach) and working single-mindedly towards that goal. They’re sometimes about control: making sure that the actual future matches that imagined future.

Short-term goals can be useful, especially as a measurement tool. But long-term goals, don’t make as much sense, as I don’t think we can control our lives. Whatever we plan, something else will usually happen. We plan to lie on a beach and end up starting another business.

Ever so often, our lives evolve outside of our conscious control and something unexpected happens. Particularly over time, few of us can predict the detail of what will happen to us.

Of course, being the kind of creatures we are, we do make sense of it – after the event. We’re excellent at dreaming up good explanations. So we can very easily fool ourselves into thinking we are in control.

But if it’s an illusion, and we can’t control the future, what should we do? Well, I’d say relax and let the future come. It will.

And if that doesn’t satisfy the need to control the external world, what about transferring that need to your internal world?

Why not start with yourself? Try and understand yourself first, and if you wish, make a choice to be different, to be more conscious and self-aware.

Make a choice to communicate better/differently. Make a choice to build better relationships, ones that last and give you something that no amount of money can.

Make a choice to build a team around you that works in a very special way – a team that is supportive, creative, fun and challenging. And one that gets things done.

Make a choice to learn new business skills – and to learn about the world outside and explore what is really out there.

Do those things and let the rest happen. Life-style or growth. Whatever will be, will be.


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Do we really count?

It takes me a while to get around to seeing new films, so it was only last night I watched the Age of Stupid. Apart from the very interesting way this film was funded (by more than 620 ordinary people investing getting on for £1 millon), I was most struck by a comment made by the lead character, Pete Postlethwaite, a few moments before we are fully introduced to the idea of our own ignorance and stupidity being the cause of our downfall (and, in the film, ultimate destruction).

He remarks that maybe we humans don’t think we are worth saving.

I find that a really powerful thought. If true, it would explain a huge amount of our behaviour, and not just that related to climate change. It would explain why we allow ourselves to get fat; why we work our socks off to earn stuff that rarely makes us happy; why we poison ourselves with excesses of alcohol and other drugs; why we kill each others’ children in endless wars.

I’d like to see more businesses funding themselves through broader share ownership (Ben and Jerry’s reputedly did a great job of that in the state of Vermont).

And I’d also like to see more business owners reflecting on what their businesses would be like if their purpose was genuinely to enhance people’s sense of self-worth – their own, and that of their staff, their customers and the public at large.

For example, I think I could quite easily make a list of products and services produced by commercial companies that are, in self-worth terms, destructive, neutral, or positive.

The most positive on the list, for me, would include services that encourage people to really get better at what they do; to introduce some kind of professional reflection into their working lives; and to engage more honestly and authentically with other people. And services that encourage creativity, imagination, and the appreciation of beauty and quality.

All of these things, when done well and in a sustained manner, should lead to a better sense of real self-worth and self-esteem.

I’d be interested to hear your lists too.

By the way the same people responsible for the film are producing a (sillier?) daily 20 minute live web TV show, The Stupid Show, from the Copenhagen Climate Summit. Minimum sponsorship only £300 in case you are interested in getting into the TV business.


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Business for personal growth?

I said in my last post that business was a powerful means to develop and grow people. I have been mulling this a lot lately, and have been wondering what it would mean if that was the entire purpose of business?

I can certainly see my own experience in that way. Working in business has brought me more challenges than pretty much anything else in my life. Firstly, the challenge of making a living. Secondly, learning to interact with all sorts of different types of people. Thirdly, doing all sorts of things I never would have imagined myself capable of.

Maybe that shows what a sheltered life I have led; but it truly has been challenging. Even balancing the demands of work with the rest of my life has stretched me physically, mentally and emotionally.

And yet at the same time it’s been a very safe place to learn. Scary at times, yes, but ultimately there has been little threat to life and limb.

Along the way I have also come to very much admire the people who run small and medium-sized businesses. It seems to me that they take more real risks than those in big business. In a well-salaried, very senior position in a large corporation, yes, you can learn a lot. And yes, you can lose your job. But you are unlikely to lose your house, or your personal reputation. You’re just too well cushioned by salary, savings and a network that protects its own.

Small business owners by contrast sometimes do lose everything, including their reputations with friends and family, and have to start again. There are few golden parachutes in the small business world.

But back to the purpose of business. I know what I am suggesting is not for everybody. Some people do simply want to make money out of business. Others want to do something really, really worthwhile. But for others, including myself, I think the goal is actually personal development and growth.

That may seem rather selfish. But I guess life ultimately belongs to each and every one of us. And we each have a choice to make, between what psychologists call hedonic and eudonic goals.

With the former we choose to make pleasure and joy our aim; and we avoid pain.

I understand the latter to be more about achieving a sense of fulfilment: a life well led, with real purpose and meaning, good relationships, good self-esteem and feelings of competence and self-control.

If this is your life goal, then why not make small business your training ground?

It will stretch you. You will need to learn new skills. You’ll need to become a specialist and a generalist – good enough at all things to be able to tell if you are wasting your own time and money.

You’ll need to be an expert in human relations. Money won’t always pave your way. So you’ll need to develop and rely on much more human strengths: passion, persistence, and the ability to persevere when others would give up.

You’ll need to learn new ways to lead – to help others discover their purpose and turn it into reality – often without recourse to coercive power.

And most of all it will force you to be really honest, to really be yourself; it’s hard to survive and thrive in small business if you adopt and hide behind a role. When things get tough you simply have to reveal yourself if you want to gain and build trust. Only honesty and trust will get you through the difficult times, and help you create something truly sustainable.

From this honesty and self-inspection you’ll also gain self-knowledge and self-esteem, and ultimately a sense of self-control and personal power.

Surely that’s worth shooting for?


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What if…?

You’ve probably guessed by now that I am obsessed by the big questions. Questions like “what’s it all for?”, “why are we doing this?” and so on.

I came across a great paper the other day by the late Donella Meadows on leverage points for changing real world systems. I’d heartily recommend it – you can find it here on the Force for Good website. It suggests that one of the best ways to effect change is to focus on the paradigm – the set of assumptions – out of which the system and its goals emerges.

Our basic human paradigms seem to include fear and love – either we fear for ourselves and close down our efforts to help others. Or we put others ahead of ourselves and give as much as we can to them. There are other important assumptions I am sure, but thinking like this made me wonder again what the basic purpose of business is.

What if….?

What if our purpose individually, and in groups, and even in whole generations was different from how it sometimes seems to be?

What if our purpose was quite simple and pure, and simply expressed: what if each of us, in each generation, made it our goal to leave a better world for the next generation?

We can debate that, but I’d rather just list some of the things that I think we would then do if we made that our goal. Sometimes I find it easier to accept a goal if I understand what I’d have to do to achieve it.

So if each of us, each business, each society and each generation had as our primary goal leaving the world a bit better for the next generation, then:

  • First and foremost, we’d work to get our own physical and psychological needs met. I think it’s helpful to distinguish between the two – yes, we all need food, shelter and good relationships. But do we all need a fancy lifestyle to prove our inherent worth? In this new world, that is what education would be for – teaching individuals to get their own needs met.
  • We’d seek to understand the world we live in and what is good and not so good about it. We’d try and understand how it worked and what the results created are. Clear vision would show a mixed bag, I think. Plenty of joy, happiness, hope and inspiration. But also much unnecessary pain and grief, and, of course, threats to our very survival from climate change, poverty, and various forms of careless destruction.
  • We’d seek to understand our own gifts and contribution and apply them. And we’d seek out, promote and support leaders who had the skills and vision to move us as a whole generation towards creating a better world for our children.
  • We’d all work together to reduce local and global problems, and make things better – critically, in sustainable ways. We’d seek to understand the leverage points – the best ways to make positive changes happen with as little effort as possible. And we’d make sure the improvements we make are here to last – after all we won’t always be around to keep things on track.
  • We’d celebrate our successes and reward individuals and groups that achieved things that helped move us towards this eventual goal.
  • We’d have to keep on learning as we did all this. Because the world doesn’t stay still. We’d need to be always open to new ways of doing things, and we’d innovate constantly. And we’d find ways to argue with each other constructively about the best solutions, avoiding the petty debates that slow us down and make us ineffective.

Our businesses would be designed to help us create this better world. We’d build strong businesses that were profitable and met our current needs. But we’d give up a little of our selfishness. And instead we’d all live and work in the knowledge that everything we did was helping those people who have yet to come.