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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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Solving ourselves

I read a great blog post recently by Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project about giving and receiving feedback.

He uses the term ‘deconstructive’ – a term I have also seen used in the book ‘Seven Languages for Transformation‘ by Harvard Professors Kegan and Lahey to describe both feedback and conflict.

The idea is much older than that, of course, and runs as a theme through much work on dialogue – including that by Bill Isaacs (Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together – one of my favourite books), who refers back to David Bohm. It is also central to the ideas of Chris Argyris and many others. In fact, I am pretty sure the idea can be traced back and back, probably to ancient thought including Taoism and beyond.

So what does it mean? Putting it into a modern context, the starting point for me is how we perceive ourselves and our relationships.

If we see ourselves as unitary figures, each with our own problems and failures, and if we adopt a critical mindset, then deconstructive criticism doesn’t make much sense. Surely our aim is to point out the failings of others and fix their problems? To be constructive – in other words to help and support them as they “grow”.

Extend that a little, and add in a little sympathy for the human condition, or perhaps guilt at our own imperfection, and the idea is now that we need to find our own flaws and figure out how to eradicate them.

But take a different perspective. Start with the idea that everything is how it should be. That people as individuals and the relationships they inhabit are fine, just fine. In fact, they are perfect – in the sense that they are in balance, in a perfect homeostasis – like everything in nature.

Take a different perspective – that we are not unitary figures, but that we are all connected, that we are part of complex systems, in fact, part of a single complex system. Unboundaried parts involved in a complex interplay, perhaps one that cannot even be understood by us – not simply cogs in some giant machine.

Then what deconstructive means is to try to understand our own role in that system. To understand how what we say and do, and even what we think and feel, joins together with what others say and do, and think and feel, to create a particular result.

Deconstruction is about stepping away from blame, stepping away from a position of superiority, or, equally, of inferiority. Away from a position of condescension, or of false innocence. Of stepping away from knowing.

I am probably misinterpreting it but doesn’t the Bible say that knowledge is the root of all evil? I know for sure that my own tendency to think I know the answers is the biggest block to my understanding. It is only when I start to suspend my certainty in my own knowledge and beliefs that some sense may start to creep in.

As Tony Schwartz, and Kegan and Lahey, and all the others point out, giving feedback to others from a position of knowledge is fundamentally flawed.

What works better is to examine our own role in the systems we inhabit. How is what we are doing, thinking, feeling affecting the results we get?

This is how problems can be helpful – not because we can identify them, solve them, eradicate them. But because problems teach us something about how we are. I can learn how superior I can be. And that might just help me start the process of starting to solve myself.


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Owning the problem

I am going to write today about the topic of responsibility.

This is a difficult post to write because I really want to avoid coming across in a self-righteous way. I know that I have that weakness – it is very easy for me to step into a hyper-critical, hyper-intellectual mode; and the result is that other people feel criticised, patronised and so on.

But responsibility feels so important to me that I think I need to take that risk. When I say it feels so important, I mean that when I think about it I almost shake with emotion, which is both scary and exciting. But that also triggers warning bells – is that self-righteousness bubbling up?

And is that self-righteousness just a mask for deeper feelings of inadequacy – in my own attitudes and behaviour? How often do I take real responsibility myself?

But what can I do about that – other than write and see where it  leads? After all I write mainly for my own edification. So here goes.

In the companies where I work, I usually place great stress on the definition of roles and responsibilities. I think this is a fairly normal thing to do – don’t most people believe that role definitions, or role specifications, are one of those important bits of HR “stuff” that every company needs?

But I am generally very against “HR” (something I might discuss elsewhere). So why the emphasis on this bit of paperwork that in so many cases is written and then filed away never to be looked at again?

I think it’s because of responsibility. The kind of role definition I like contains a statement of purpose, a list of responsibilities, and one or two other important things. What I am trying to achieve by encouraging people to write and take responsibility for a clear role definition is to add a vital anchor, an anchor that makes it possible to operate in a “sea of change”.

I like organisations where there is a lot of personal and organisational freedom. A lot of flexibility. I think this is essential for creativity and resilience to emerge. Free and flexible organisations also allow a lot of error and conflict, and more worryingly, it is possible for things to fall through the gaps.

For me clear role definition provides stability and context. But only under certain conditions. Only when people take their responsibility seriously. What does that mean?

For example, I can imagine the situation where someone is asked to keep costs “within budget”. And the response to that is to follow the instruction to the letter of the law.

Most of us can do that – work to rule when we want to. “Did you do the shopping?” “Yes, I went to the shops.”

But did you really do the shopping? Doing the shopping, at least in my house, isn’t about going to the shops. Doing the shopping is about ensuring that there is enough healthy, nutritious, delicious and varied food in the house for the next few days. This is what my wife and I have agreed “doing the shopping” means.

I can easily say “Yes, I went to the shops”, but return with no bread, no milk, no fruit. Or the bread can be stale, the fruit tasteless, and so on.

So for me, taking responsibility isn’t about working to rule. It’s not about saying “Yes, the expenditure is within budget”.

It’s about first determining what that phrase “within budget” means.

And it usually means something much broader: the expenditure is an excellent investment, won’t limit the growth and development of the company, is one of a small number of absolute top priorities and so on.

Taking responsibility is about considering the whole picture, thinking laterally, considering and reducing risks (the supermarket might be closed; I’ll go to the farmers’ market instead), and being very proactive: taking steps to constantly improve (I know the family will eventually get bored with the same old fare; what can I do to liven things up?) .

But that makes it sound very intellectual. It’s more than that. It’s a gut thing. It’s about “owning” the responsibility in a very personal, visceral, scary, exciting and deep way. It’s about connecting deeply with the emotions that come with the responsibility.

It’s about leading not managing. About an ethical position too: doing the right thing. As well as doing things right.

In this view of responsibility nothing – and I mean absolutely nothing – will stop the achievement of the aimed-for result.

Do I always achieve that myself? No, of course not. That’s where there’s a risk of self-righteousness.

But I do think this form of real responsibility, and the accountability that goes with it, is really worth striving for. In fact, it’s absolutely essential to making an organisational model based on distributed leadership work.