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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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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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?