Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Enough is enough

I came across a really neat little report today – “Enough is Enough” – that summarises in just ten pages the reasons why we need a steady state economy, and what we need to do to get started on creating such a thing.

It was produced by two British non-profit organisations: CASSE and Economic Justice for All, and is based on work at the first Steady State Economy Conference held in June last year.

The ten straightforward proposals seem very much aligned with what we are trying to do with Conscious Business. In fact, so much so, that I have added links to relevant past posts in the list below. The ten proposals include:

  • stabilising population – sensible in a finite world, but what a challenge to achieve and maintain this;
  • reforming the monetary system – if you thought stabilising population was difficult, imagine successfully reforming banks, bankers and all that;
  • changing the way we measure progress – something so deeply entrenched in establishment thinking, and in the education system itself;
  • improving global co-operation – vital to balance the needs of countries where growth is necessary with developed countries like ours, but an immense political challenge;
  • engaging politicians and the media – another daunting task; but there are always early adopters in these groups.

And five in particular standout as of specific relevance to business:

  • limiting resource use and waste production – this, to me, is the only sensible route in a finite world, and business as a huge user of resources and producer of waste clearly has an enormous role to play in this;
  • limiting inequality – lots of practical things we can do here and are already exploring – like limiting the gap between the highest and lowest paid; and introducing new models of business ownership;
  • securing full employment – this requires a change in the way we think about employment – for example, to allow us to reduce the working week. I have written before about the real, underlying challenges of this;
  • changing consumer behaviour – we have the technology, and probably the know-how; but do we, collectively, have the will: this means, ultimately, changing ourselves?
  • rethinking business and production – the key here for me is changing the primary goal of business towards developing the people in the business – helping them become more conscious and happier.

All of these things are difficult individually. And overall the list of 10 priorities can make the whole exercise seem overwhelmingly hard. But two things strike me:

  1. We are already some way down the track on many of these things. I know more about the business elements than the others but I know we have been experimenting – going around the loop of failure and success – for many years. Conscious Business itself is already a broad and growing church.
  2. What an exciting and amazing overall goal? A true Big Hairy Audacious Goal – something stimulating and exciting for a whole new generation of younger business people. Young people who in many cases aren’t held back by the attitudes and outlook of their older colleagues. People who are happy to shake up the status quo and challenge “Establishment” thinking.
Game on!


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What a week

What a week that was.

Momentous change in Egypt, people power in action – again. The process that Ghandi helped start in India in the 1920 to 40s, that continued in the U.S. Deep South in the 1950s and 60s, continues today. And, it seems, enabled by ever faster, more democratic media to be, if anything accelerating. Despite the fears of a surveillance culture, centralised control and so forth, we seem (at least to this optimist) to be moving slowly in the right direction.

And on another front it was pleasing to read and hear Michael Porter, the eminent business guru, apparently joining the bandwagon of “democratic business” (WorldBlu?), “social business” (Yunus?), “sustainable business” (Anderson?) and “conscious capitalism” (Mackey?) – all things related to what we might call Conscious Business.

Pleasing as it demonstrates how mainstream these ideas are becoming.

But beyond that it is also interesting to ask “how are we to ensure that this innovation, once underway, continues?”. Many, many forces are able to kill off good ideas long before they really get established. Indeed, does entering the mainstream always represent a good thing?

Two very familiar phenomena are backlash and whitewash.

Examples of backlash are all too common – everyone is watching Egypt with concern, for example. Will the “uprising” cause a backlash from the “system” that initially appears to allow it?

Whitewash, while less violent, is perhaps more worrying. And it is equally common when change “threatens”: for example, we all recognise “greenwash” in relation to the response of mainstream business to environmental concerns. As this new type of conscious business emerges, as my friend and colleague Tom Nixon asks: “how many of, say, the FTSE 100 or the Fortune 500 have made it real?”

In response, I’d like to quote Hunter Lovins: “Hypocrisy is the first step to real change.” His point is that once somebody says something, then we can hold them to account for it.

So let’s listen to what Porter and the gurus have to say. Then see whether corporate America and corporate UK actually change. Or if they just pretend to.

And then, personally, we need to hold the line. Hold on to our own beliefs and hold others to account for what they are saying. To make sure their actions follow their words.

Of course, that requires awareness, self-knowledge and, most of all, personal strength and courage. It’s all too easy to want throw in the towel when faced by force and threat or by duplicity and pretence. Easier to give in – especially when the power of the “establishment” seems overwhelming.

For me, overcoming those desires is what Conscious Business is really about – not the big trends, not what happens in the world, not what others say and do – but what goes on inside me, the choices I make, and what I do as a result. Exploring that, in the context of business, is “the road less travelled”. But also the route to momentous change.


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How to become the home of smartphones (or anything else)

Someone from a large mobile phone company asked the following question the other day: “What would make Vodafone the home of smartphones?” It’s a question I hear pretty often – I heard it as: “how do we become leaders in such-and-such new technology”?

I posted this reply. I thought you might enjoy it:

Hi Tom, here’s an answer:

Step 1 – Radically redefine the purpose of your company. Maximising stake-holder value is never going to work – because it will never inspire the company’s employees. And to become a leader a company has to have inspired employees. Replace that purpose with another one – to serve your customers and increase the well-being of the employees.

[I used the words stakeholder-value and then half-regretted it. I really meant shareholder-value, because “stakeholders” often will already include customers and staff. I only half-regret it though because I also think that stakeholder-value is often really code for shareholder-value. What is needed is a real re-think of purpose and a change of emphasis – not just fancy word-smithing.]

Step 2 – Change the way the company is structured. Employees will never be happy or inspired in a workplace where a few people at the top wield all the power and earn 20 times more than the customer-facing employees.

In the old days power was concentrated in the hands of the unions and the “bosses”. Nowadays it’s usually just the “bosses”.

Employees, like all of us, need fairness, transparency and a sense of being able to make a difference through what they do. They need to feel they have a fair share of the power.

Step 3 – Change the focus of the company so that it is focussed on what customers want, not what shareholders, or even just the employees, want.

You’re looking for a win-win – a solution where customers get what they want, and employees get what they want – but more as a by-product of pleasing customers.

To find this everyone in the company needs to learn new skills – to learn how to talk to customers in new ways, to really listen and understand them.

Then, having understood what customers want, change the company so that it gives customers what they want.

Customers, for example, don’t want to be shuffled around from department to department. They want to speak to someone who is knowledgeable and can help them with all the problems they may have: billing, contracts, hardware, software, network issues and so on.

This may require reorganising into different groups that stick with clients for a long-time. Customers want personal and meaningful relationships – not call-centre queues.

Giving clients what they want isn’t rocket-science. Once you realise that what they want isn’t rocket-science either. Customers want what all human beings want: respect, honesty, trusting relationships and so on.

This approach will, I believe, lead to leadership and success for your company – in smart phones and anything else you turn your hands to. Customers will become happier and more loyal, revenues and profitability will rise, the company will be able to pay everyone better, and train and support everyone better.

Is this vision hopelessly naïve? Well, there are companies out there doing this already if you look, which suggests that even if I am assuming things can get better, I am not the only one; there are others out there who believe it and are proving it every day.

The biggest problem that these successful progressive companies seem to have is being killed off by their success. They get good at all of the above, and other bigger companies buy them and destroy them and their culture.

So if you embark on this journey a fourth step (or maybe it should be step zero) is to choose a set of managers who really buy into all this and won’t sell you down the river later on. I’d recommend exploring employee share ownership as a way of ensuring you can hang on to your rights.

And, finally, what do you do if you are the single employee in a corporation of a hundred thousand who reads this and believes it? How on earth can you start to make this happen, alone?

The answer is simple actually: start with you.

Firstly, think or feel your way into this stuff – is it better than what you have right now?

Secondly, if so, decide to make it happen. Commit to not giving up at the first hurdle.

Thirdly, seek allies – in your company or else where. Use social networks – that’s what they’re for.

Fourthly, learn those new skills of communication and start doing the customer service bit with your existing customers. This will prove to the cynics and skeptics that this can work. That customer happiness and loyalty rise.

By the way, this probably won’t lead immediately to better profitability because your company structure may still be wrong – remember all those powerful, top-level high-earning employees for example?

Fifthly, keep going, just for the hell of it. Keep flexible, adapt when you need to.

At the very least, you can trust that this approach will:

  • make you happier
  • earn you allies
  • build your reputation

It may attract better offers and opportunities.

And remember that this is an unstoppable trend anyway. Wherever you look you’ll see these kinds of changes taking place as our economies mature. As this trend rolls out, you’ll be caught up in it anyway.

So why not take the first step yourself?


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Asking the right questions

A friend of mine asked me the other day “What is strategy?”.

It’s a great question. It’s a question I remember asking one of my mentors over 20 years ago. We were working for a consultancy and together we had just completed a fairly significant strategy exercise for our client, one of the big six accounting firms. We were in the pub having a quiet drink to celebrate. Perhaps I was asking the question a little late?

And I admit now I didn’t understand his answer. Maybe I just wasn’t ready.

Now, twenty years later, I think I understand what he said. I think he was saying that strategy is in three parts:

  1. finding direction – developing vision, and mission, that sort of thing;
  2. choosing the route you are going to use to get there, and steering;
  3. doing it – implementing the strategy.

The first and last are relatively easy to understand, even if they are not easy to do. But the middle one is, in my opinion, the really tricky one.

Tricky because it requires different skills. Skills of analysis, connecting things, and seeing the big picture, to name but a few.

And even if you have access to these skills it requires something else, something that is sometimes in short supply in organisations: courage and confidence.

Courage and confidence to trust one’s instincts and ask what strategy is. Know that what other people call strategy probably isn’t. It may be tactics. It may mean simply blindly following a vision, without making any difficult choices.

Courage and confidence to stop whatever habitual busyness you have, and take a long cool look at yourself, your world and what is happening in it.

Courage and confidence to see clearly, despite the pressure that social systems put on us to conform and ignore reality.

Courage and confidence  to work with others and trust others, in such a way that a shared choice can emerge. The world is so complicated I really doubt whether strategy can be done alone.

Courage and confidence to go it alone. Effective strategy is usually a lonely path. You (and your colleagues) won’t be following the crowd.

Courage and confidence.

Setting direction takes courage and confidence too. It’s not easy to be what we most want to be.

Implementing your strategy takes courage and confidence too. To take the first steps. And the next steps, and the next. This requires tremendous effort – to overcome the inertia and resistance that exists in organisations of any size.

So maybe that is what strategy really is: courage and confidence?


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Navigating through difficult times

In difficult times, as in good times, I think it’s important to focus on the basics. Perhaps more so.

What are the essentials for a sustainable business? I can feel a list coming on.

Firstly, be agreed on what you are trying to achieve. Knowing this can get you through the toughest times.

Secondly, believe in profit. I know this is a little controversial. Some will say it is obvious. Others will not like the idea of profit as essential.

Profit is such a emotional topic, although mostly we don’t admit that. For many it has a bad name. And on the other extreme, even those who seek it above all else might be feeling a little guilty about it now.

But for a business to be sustained, whether it has a social or a purely economic goal, profit is needed. Profit builds reserves. When reinvested it creates strength – primarily through skills and knowledge. Excess profit can be harmful. But reasonable profit, reinvested, is essential.

Beliefs about profit are often so deeply held they’re hard to shift. But unless everyone in your company shares a positive view of reasonable profit, then you really do have difficulties if you want your business to survive and meet its mission.

Thirdly, everyone involved has to have a can do/will do attitude. It’s easier to believe that if things get hard we can give up. But to succeed we have to believe there is a way to get through – even in the hardest times. And we have to believe that we, and we alone, control our progress.

This is somewhat related to understanding that fear is normal. Fear of meeting people. Fear of doing new things. Fear of failure. And most of all fear of change. Know that fear is normal, and you are part way to overcoming it. If you know it and admit it, then you can ask for help, as just one example.

Being open to learning more generally – not being afraid to look a fool, and being unafraid to duck difficult things – is part of the same skill.

I believe even the strongest among us are afraid of change. We all fear the new and unfamiliar. Some like to change the world; but few are brave enough to change themselves.

But in an ever-changing world, what could be a more essential attribute for a sustainable company or an individual?

Fourthly, do the right thing. This doesn’t mean moralising. It’s more of a felt sense. For me, it mainly means overcoming fear so you can move towards a bigger goal. It’s about knowing what that bigger goal is. And sometimes taking the time to check the goal, so that it doesn’t get too big for its boots.

It also means a sense of proportion in other ways. For most of us in the developed world, it means remembering how lucky we are even when things look bad. Most of our lives contain many good things. Remembering to be grateful for them helps keep everything in balance.

Fifthly, do what you say you will, most of the time. Avoid promising to others; but if you make promises to yourself, then keep them. It’s all too easy in times of uncertainty to let a fog settle over us. And that fog provides the perfect shield to hide away, to let things slip, to quietly drop promises – even the most important ones.

Holding on to and reinvigorating your vision is one way to dispel that fog. Another is simply not to let yourself or others off the hook.

One way we let ourselves off the hook is by failing to “bottom-out” things. To me, this means starting a conversation, but when it gets a little hard, giving up. It means failing to push through the mental pain barrier to get at the roots of a problem.

The antidote might be stopping and declaring a time-out, and admitting one is lost. With no idea which way to go.

Being right, knowledgeable and on the ball is so important to most of us that sometimes we’d rather let confusion reign than admit we are lost.

But if you are wandering around in a mist, you are unlikely to get out of it by just wandering around. You need to get a grip. Work out what you know and what you don’t. Assess your resources. Form a plan. And then move steadily forward.

Another way of saying this? Tell the truth. Not just any old truth. But THE truth. The truth that is true for you right now.

However hard that may be.


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New Year Non-Goals

I cheerfully said to the wife this morning “maybe we should set some goals for the year ahead”. After having narrowly avoided a flying saucepan, we then explored our general level of exhaustion, and agreed that our main goal for the year is to have fewer goals.

The trouble with goals, in my opinion, is that they do generate an awful lot of doing. Doing brings more doing (and more stuff as a by-product). Yes, I know there’s all that research about graduates who write down their goals earning more money in later years. But so what? Does it mean they contributed more than the ones who didn’t write down their goals? And does it make them any better people?

By contrast not setting any goals allows you to … just practice being a more pleasant person. That seems a pretty good goal in itself and a lot more relaxing than all those more difficult goals. As someone who loves a bit of peace and quiet it sounds a lot better to me.

But what would not setting any goals look like in a business? Businesses always seem to have goals or milestones or objectives or some such thing. Financial goals, people goals, quality goals … and so on.

If your business didn’t have any goals … could it just practice being a more pleasant business? What would that involve? And would that be a good strategy in these recessionary times?

Well, it might mean you could:

  • Slow down a bit and listen a bit more – to customers, suppliers,and the team.
  • Ensure the team speak quietly and respectfully with customers, suppliers, and each other.
  • Be respectful of everyone – even the government – and start by assuming everyone is trying to help not hinder.
  • Tell the truth more often (in all your marketing material and all your interactions).
  • Cultivate good operational habits (and get rid of any bad ones).
  • Change your habits every now and then.
  • Honour all agreements and always be fair (even if you have to lose people).
  • Keep learning.
  • Do your bit to minimise your company’s impact on the planet.
  • Tidy up around the place – including your finances.

I don’t know whether this strategy will work particularly well in recessionary times. But I do think it’s a good strategy at any time. It’ll make you friends, repair and strengthen relationships, and keep you out of trouble.

Sounds good to me.

Here’s wishing you a successful 2009.

PS I nicked some of the ideas for this list from the Pleasant Person Act in Richard Carson’s excellent Taming Your Gremlin.


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Sitting in the long grass

It’s that long grass time of year. That is, when the grass isn’t cut to 3 inches it can grow up to 3 feet or more. Great for sitting in and contemplating.

Somebody once said to me “enjoy nature”. And I think I know what he meant – relish it, absorb it, study it, let it overcome you. Nature has great lessons to teach. One is that anything important works on a long cycle.

Sitting in the long grass just now I was also reminded that business is a long game. I went to a course at the Sloan School of Management at MIT once and remember hearing someone say they surveyed a vast number of business startups and were surprised to discover that the average time from startup to being what they called a “mature business” was something like 18 years. Ok it might have been 16. But a very long time.

Much longer than I think many people appreciate when they start something up. Or when they try to change a business. I also heard today that while 2007 was the year of people learning about climate change, 2008 seems to be a year of people forgetting it again. Maybe this sustainability thing is just a passing fad?

But, as the people behind the Clock of the Long Now, and other interesting projects (I particularly like the Long Bets idea), are trying to point out, sustainability is a long game. The planet and nature work on long cycles.

It also takes time to develop a business strategy that will take you where you want to go. It takes time to implement it successfully. Sometimes a very long time.

So why not start now?