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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Conscious Business: The Pyper calls the Tune

Cross-posted from Paul Levy’s Rational Madness blog here.

According to Jamie, a regular café converser with CATS3000’s Paul Levy, conscious business uses  “Common Sense to change the way business is done.” Here Paul has elaborated Jamie’s powerful eleven point checklist and the call is now out for your input!

Comment: You’ll notice a certain take on what common sense means in the set of behaviours Jamie outlines below. These behaviours embody a useful checklist for being a conscious business. Jamie and his colleagues at Conscious Business People work with organisations to help bring this consciousness about.

Pyper’s Eleven Elements of a Conscious Business

A conscious business behaves in the following ways:

  1. Uses plain speaking
  2. Is more profitable
  3. Is always applying common sense
  4. Is a place where everyone wins
  5. Is always grounded in evidence based stuff that works and is proven
  6. Tolerates no bullshit
  7. Lives a philosophy that is easy to grasp and apply
  8. Believes that Anyone can do it
  9. Is designed around simple idiot-proof concepts
  10. Is a popular place to work: People love it
  11. Continues to learn and develop

Let’s dive further into these…

1.     Uses plain speaking

The language of a conscious business supports that consciousness. This is a jargon and bullshit free organisation. The language of the business is aimed at clarity, understanding and reflects as true a picture of what is going on internally and externally as possible. People speak plainly, say what they think and how they feel in a culture that encourages and values openness and honesty

2.     Is more profitable

A conscious business has a real time clear picture of its processes. It knows what things costs and is mindful of resources. It uses only the resources that are needed to get work done and to deliver products and services to customers. It is lean, though never mean. It is more profitable because it minimises costs and all of its processes are energy efficient. Things are not minimised for their own sake, but rather optimised leading to processes that deliver excellence.Being conscious of costs, processes and the dynamics of value creation all feed into the profitability of a conscious business.

3.     Is always applying common sense

Common sense is a core ethic in the business. Common sense is the shared language and practice that makes sense to all employees and those with a stake in the organisation. Common sense is the common ground on which everyone meets in practice. People understand the logic of the business – why we do things the way we do. There is a regularly updating dialogue within the business and with its community about what we are doing, how we are doing it, and how it could be done better.

4.     Is a place where everyone wins

Organisations exist for the benefit of all their stakeholders. A conscious business does not play the game of win and lose. It seeks to create authentic value in ways that allow it to sustain itself, thrive, and ensure that those who depend on it thrive in ways that allow them to further feed their energy, feedback and commitment into it

5.     Is always grounded in evidence based stuff that works and is proven

A conscious business doesn’t guess. It measures what needs to be measured, collects and shares information as necessary that is relevant and useful. It collects and shares stories in order to learn from experience. It builds information into evidence to inform further decisions and actions.

6.    Tolerates no bullshit

A conscious business is grounded in truthfulness. It makes a virtue of accurate data, and rewards directly accessible truth. People tell the truth, never fudge nor engage in spin. Language doesn’t only have to be technical The conversation can be humorous, motivating but is always motivated by a sense of honesty and truth. People trust what they hear in a conscious business, wherever and whoever it comes from.

7.     Lives a philosophy that is easy to grasp and apply

The mission of the business is clear to all. We know why we do what we do. Motives aren’t hidden but out in the open. Products and services have a clear and well-articulated underlying philosophy. The people in the business are aware of, and committed to the values of the business and this is reflected in their consistent, freely applied daily behaviour. Each person lives the philosophy, because they want to, not because they have to.

8.     Believes that anyone can do it

A conscious business does not shroud its approach in jargon and mystique. Grounded in common sense it believes that everyone from the product designer to the managing director, to the security guard can practice conscious business. Consciousness is accessible to all of us, regardless of income or qualifications. We can all reflect on what we do, speak openly, honestly, observe and learn, share information, and apply what we know mindfully and carefully, as well as consistently and truthfully. We can all be open to feedback, responsive and keen to question and input.

9.     Is designed around simple idiot proof concepts

The core ideas and processes in a conscious business are articulated clearly, never too dependent on one personality, can be learned from simple documentation regularly updated and innovated as needed. There is a culture of prevention – preventing things going wrong and learning from mistakes in a fear-free culture. Ideas need not be over-complex and the business puts value on simplicity and clarity. Processes tend to be mapped in pictures rather than over-wordy text. Media are used skilfully and processes are designed in smart ways that help task completion in problem-free ways.

10.  Is a popular place to work: People love it

A conscious business is a motivated, energising place of respect. There are no hidden agendas. Irritations are brought out in the open. The working environment is light, vibrant and reflects people being open and up for change when it is needed. Work space is flexible, creative and there are times and spaces for refreshment and reflection. The business feels honest and a trusting place to work. People love what they do because it reflects their own authentic sense of self. And yes, the “L” word!  People love the business and love working in it.

11.  Continues to learn and develop

There’s a culture that values curiosity. We learn from mistakes and are open to the new. Ideas can come from anyone or anywhere and at any time but tend to be timed and focused on emerging business challenges and questions. Feedback and dialogue inform steady state and consistency over time. New skills, new knowledge evolve as needed. We know what we don’t know quickly and this becomes our learning agenda. The business feels as if it is always updating, changing when needed, and staying “in touch”.

Discussion

There are probably more. We welcome your input to these. A conscious business is also conscious that there is no such thing as a checklist cast in stone in a dynamic world!

The checklist can form the beginning of a real and potentially ground-breaking conversation for an organisation that would like to call itself a conscious business. It can create some challenging debate on a leadership team and can also mark start of a turnaround for an organisation in crisis.

An Activity – How Do You Measure Up?

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1. Score yourself above out of 10 on where you feel you are on each of the elements of the Conscious Business Wheel. Shade each segment from the centre, outwards, where the centre is zero and the circle perimeter is 10. Be honest.

2. Pick one that you would like to improve:

3. Reflect on what you are going to do to improve that score. (Plenty of resources on this site to help you!)

Consider:

  • What will get in your way?
  • What support will you need to overcome it?

Contact Jamie for a further conversation or leave a comment below.


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We’ve come a long way baby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year.


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Research and Practice in Organisations and People

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rogers' Bell Curve

Rogers’ Bell Curve – Source wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

And boy do we need a new paradigm for business 🙂

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

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

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

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

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


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Conscious Leadership: The Challenges of Empowerment

Laziness is my primary motivator when empowering others. If a thing is worth doing, I believe it’s worth getting someone else to do it.

This, however, is not as self indulgent as it might seem. I know that as a leader one of the first things I need to learn is to let go and trust others to get on with it.

I have not always been very good at this. However, over the years I have learnt why my old, more controlling ‘I’ll do it for you’ ways don’t really work and why empowering others is essential.

First off, lets look at confidence. My mother’s “Let me do that for you darling” – while I’m performing some simple task like making a cup of tea – is probably meant as an act of kindness. How I actually feel it is: “I am an idiot that can’t be trusted to make tea, despite the years of apparent evidence to the contrary.”

This not only irritates me but it also kicks my confidence, as it’s a tacit implication that I’m incompetent. There’s a subtlety to it though because cognitively I know I’m not, however I still irrationally feel it at some level and feelings tend to beat thoughts.

Learning is another key benefit of empowerment. In today’s fast moving, customer-centric world it is essential that everybody learns, and learns fast. Best of all is when they are so confident and engaged they take responsibility and drive their own learning.

When it comes to learning new things Mum is very much of the school of “probably shouldn’t try as it’s likely to be too difficult”. For me this is less than ideal. When I’m learning, what I really want is lots of encouragement and belief, as this helps me push through the self doubt.

Challenge is also very important to us. Solving something like a crossword puzzle or winning a video game is all the evidence we really need for this. Overcoming challenges helps us grow our self belief (or confidence) and it usually gives us a little frisson of excitement, and a sense of deeper resilience.

So why is empowerment so important? In my quest for a work free life, it is fairly obvious that once I let someone do something little – like a task I have handed them – then I  can give them more and more responsibility – until ultimately they are acting more like a leader themselves.

Effective leaders actively offer responsibility by distributing leadership power among the people that need it, allowing leadership to occur where it is needed most, often in the front line of business.  Most importantly this helps get a lot more done. It’s also likely to help teams be happier, more engaged and show more initiative.

It’s also probably helpful to think of leadership more as how you enable others to do what they need to do and then get the hell out of the way.

Although this is obvious in theory it can be quite hard to get right in practice. If you’re a control freak, for example, not only are you likely to be killing off your team’s motivation and innovation but you are likely to need more than a little help overcoming this urge.

A good and challenging place to start is delegation, and to get good at that. The more you are able to do this the more you are getting closer to allowing others around you to lead.

Inexperienced or untrained managers are most at risk of sabotaging themselves and their attempts to delegate.

The problem is, even if you are a ninja level engineer with technical insight gifted seemingly from the gods, management requires a totally and utterly different skill set and will exercise very different personality traits and emotional muscles, including some you might not have developed yet.

Many organisations miss this obvious fact and expect people to just figure it out, without proper investment in management training or personal development.

Not knowing how to be effective as a manager (common in those newly promoted to management) and without any help from those around them, before long the freshly challenged become frustrated and revert to what they do know – in this case “engineering”. They then start interfering with the “engineering” people in their teams are trying to do – showing them how they are doing it wrong and how the new boss can do it better.

As I said above, the thing most likely to undermine my confidence, motivation and general goodwill is poorly veiled criticism over my shoulder. Every “suggestion”, implies that I’m doing something wrong and thus can’t be trusted to perform the simple thing in front of me. And so I disengage.

Psychologically, I’m in a “double bind”: I’m feeling things are wrong even though I can see my way is working or valid. So I stop trying – because I’m wrong either way. I’ll go and look at what my friends on Facebook are doing instead.

Challenge is also removed – if my manager does take over and do my work for me. I lose the opportunity to learn. And, of course, I now believe he thinks I’m an idiot, so trust between us is destroyed.

It is worst of all when this exists at the top of hierarchies. Perhaps we are genetically predisposed to look up the hierarchy for tips on how to behave. So if someone senior is guilty of micromanagement, this crime can infuse the organisation below them like an unwanted inheritance.

An antidote follows. Let’s imagine the team player we’re delegating to is called Bob and he reports to me. Here is a way to set up delegation, broadly in line with the approach espoused by the late Stephen Covey. This is a mechanism that should catch any possible derailment and put the task back on track.

Bigger picture: I help Bob understand where he and what he’s doing fits into the bigger picture. What the organisation he is part of is trying to achieve. This taps into Bob’s sense of purpose and connects the task he’s achieving with that broader purpose. The context also helps him understand the implications if he does not get it done.

Ownership: I give Bob total ownership of the task. It’s up to him to get it done. This is so he is clear that no one else is responsible for achieving the desired outcome. No one is going to pick up his toys or tie his shoelaces for him. The buck stops with him. Essentially this is an invitation for him to “step up to the plate” of responsibility.

Expectations and Results: I also make sure Bob is very clear about what kind of results are expected. This will be helped if Bob already understands the bigger picture. It’s even better to ask Bob to consider the position of the other stakeholders and figure out what a good outcome for all might be.

For example, Bob might decide he needs to finish the project on time with a high quality, technically robust solution, and on, or under, budget.

Booby Traps: If there are some big obvious pitfalls in front of Bob then it’s only fair to warn him of these in advance so he can try to avoid them.

Support: If Bob is experiencing any problems, is unclear or struggling with the task, or if the delivery of the project is in jeopardy, I make it clear I am available to support to him to get through it, or to re-agree expectations. But I definitely am not going to do it for him.

Mistakes: Bob will undoubtedly make plenty of mistakes, we all do. This will help him learn and become more resourceful and do his job better, especially if all “mistakes” as are treated as learning opportunities. Not with punishment or disapproval, but with encouragement and support.

Feedback: Feedback should be a gift not a weapon. If given as a gift your teams will grow, develop and make you look good. If used as a weapon then your groups will regress, be generally unhappy and perform badly – they will be fearful of taking risks or “getting it wrong”. This kills innovation, creativity and energy.

Finally, having set all this up, you now need to live by the rules you’ve created. Again this is  basically because “monkey see, monkey do”. Other people will do as you do, not as you say. Any ambiguity also creates “wriggle room” – space to allow people to wriggle out of their responsibility. However, if you are consistently well boundaried and do what you’ve said you will do, the opportunity for others to wriggle will be minimised.

Good luck!


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Is conscious business doomed? Quite the opposite…

One of the Performance Review Pro team was at the Meaning Conference in Brighton last week – a Conscious Business event full of people who want to make business more meaningful and kinder to the planet and the staff, while still making a fair profit. Speaking as someone who lives on this planet and is a human being, this seems like a good idea, but its critics maintain that business is business and that ‘Conscious’ might just mean ‘less controversial’.  Capital and Kindness are not the same thing, they say, so is conscious business doomed?

Happine$$ vs $$$$$$ - Performance Review Pro - Performance Appraisal Process

Well, in the blue corner we have the fat-cat capitalists, eager to flog every last inch of performance out of their wage-slaves; in what used to be the red but is now the green corner we have the old hippies, agonising about the morality of profit and going to such lengths to be nice to people that they fail to break even and end up going down with all hands. These two positions are inherently opposed to each other and anyone who says other wise is, as one reviewer said of John Mackey’s Conscious Capitalism, spouting a lot of “well-meaning rhetoric” (hot air).

But this is an oversimplification – business has always involved compromise between profits and ethics, since the abolition of slavery at least.  In practice there is a continuum of differing approaches to business, with a harder attitude to profit at one end and more concern for employees at the other. The question for every business person is where on that spectrum to position your management style, given that each point has its own disadvantages.

At the end where the drivers are margin, efficiency and profit, people become part of the machine.  We make them work harder by threatening their job security (if there is a shortage of jobs or the work is simple) or offering them more money (if there is a surplus of jobs or rare skills are involved).  Carrot-and-stick, in other words.  The hope is that these ‘incentives’ will stimulate focus, engagement and productivity.  But they actually bring stress, disputes, anger, apathy, burnout and (if there are other jobs to go to) staff turnover.  So right now, as business is picking up, people who have been managing on this basis can expect to lose their best employees.

At the other end of the spectrum, where love and peace reign and fulfilling the conscious business dream should be easy, it is often hard to get anything done.  Democratic  decision-making is agonisingly slow, and it is impossible to tell anyone that what they are doing doesn’t work.  It’s just as well everyone is on an equal share of the profit (not that there is any) because pay negotiations would last until the end of time…

So, if you want to achieve a sustainable, profitable, ethical business, how do you decide where to compromise?  Actually, you don’t have to: you really can harmonise the needs and goals of the company and the staff.  You don’t have to beat people or bribe them, because intrinsic motivation is sitting there in each individual.  The same mechanism that powers voluntary, leisure and sport activity in home life is waiting for you to enable it at work.  When you do, your staff will work because they want to, and your organisation will do well, if your business model is sound.

Doing this involves aligning the culture, conditions and communications in your company with workings of the human. That is not just ‘well-meaning rhetoric’ because we can unpack it into practical steps which are straightforward to implement.  And staff enjoy this process because they recognise it as humane and likely to make work work better for them.

This does not mean applying the same changes to everyone – people need different things to different degrees, so you have to measure the need for change from their perspective to see how to enable each team member.  The appraisal or review is a rational place to do this – in fact basing your review process around this discussion is a fantastic way to make use of a process that can otherwise be a fairly negative experience for all concerned.

And so they will want to stay, and to make it work better still, for themselves and for the higher purposes of company, customer and planet.

Happine$$ - Performance Review Pro - Performance Appraisal ProcessSo it’s not a question of humaneor efficient; it turns out that humane is efficient.

The leader who wants to use Conscious Business principles has nothing to fear from the staff, or the market, if they are implemented in alignment with the nature of the staff.  And there is a good way to be sure you’re doing that – take a look at Performance Review Pro


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Conscious Business Events in November

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

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

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

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


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Inner and Outer

I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours yesterday with the entrepreneurs at the Fusebox, an exciting Brighton-based project. Tom Nixon invited me and a crowd of other mentors to meet the participants – a great bunch of people all round.

Whenever I meet entrepreneurs with new ideas I am struck by how their ideas reflect their personalities and passions.

This is a very good thing – for me, a big part of the joy of meeting entrepreneurs is seeing their creative process in action, watching them express, and flex, their ideas.

There’s a lot to be learnt from even a short chat – as someone tells you why they are interested and passionate about a subject, what got them involved, why of all the millions of things they could be doing they have picked this particular one.

I learn something about the subject, and the approach they are taking is often stimulating and new too. Again and again I am inspired by people’s individual passion and how far this has taken them, and will take them on their journey.

But people are complicated, of course. Entrepreneurs’ creations tend to reflect their personalities perfectly. So each creation, each venture, while containing their passion and personality, also contains the full breadth of each entrepreneur’s nature. The twists and turns, and perhaps even the ‘flaws’, are there too.

Over time aspects of personality that may hold the entrepreneur back become clearer, hopefully to the participants, and also to those around them. These are the personal challenges each may need to overcome if they are to realise their dreams and hopes and aspirations. Entrepreneurs, like all of us, have often suffered hurt and pain. Sometimes this is still unresolved.

From the point of view of Conscious Business, completing this inner journey is as important as the outer one.

The inner journey itself can offer a sense of success. Some of these hurts may be resolved and overcome. People grow fast when immersed in the cauldron of a start-up.

Often, of course, such a venture will not take the entrepreneur where they expect – they’ll be surprised by the lessons they learn and the ways the learning is delivered. But with luck they’ll end up as a different, and hopefully fuller person.

And in terms of external success, I believe looking inwards, discovering and resolving these issues is as much the solution to a business problem as external work such as clarifying the value proposition, developing the business model, and finding partners and investors.

The challenge for the Fusebox programme, and for the systematic development of entrepreneurial ventures in general, is to create an environment that makes it possible for both kinds of development – inner and outer – to happen simultaneously, and in mutually reinforcing ways.

The mentor model is great – connecting people with different sets of experience, knowledge and skills together. But good mentorship also develops real trust between mentee and mentor. Often this is the trust to share really valuable personal feedback, about our personal blindspots and flaws. That feedback can make the difference between continuing in a ever-repeating cycle, or breaking out of it to new ground.

Our world is sadly lacking such opportunities. The combination of personal defences and high levels of anxiety in organisations make genuine, untainted feedback a rare commodity in many businesses.

It’s great to see the Fusebox programme identifying this and trying to do something about it.


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Is truthfulness a competency?

As human beings, we tend to ignore the elephant in the room because we fear the consequences. Truth is a time bomb; the fuse is lit, and when it goes off we’ll all get blown to bits. Really?… It could just be that when it blows there’s nothing more than a lovely colourful (and perfectly harmless) foam fountain. Why do we fear the worst?

Duncan Brodie, a former NHS Director I interviewed for Undiscussables.com a while ago, questioned the logic of a health service that effectively works a Monday to Friday schedule when those who depend on it (i.e. require medical treatment) typically do not conform to an office hours only schedule when falling ill. I’ve also talked before about the notion that what is undiscussable in an organisation is, in and of itself, often undiscussable, and idea that stems from the work of Chris Argyris.

Reading a pointed (as ever) and thought-provoking post by Roy Lilley at NHSManagers.net recently, what struck me is that the two states of undiscussability that Arygris describes may need defining separately.

The undiscussable undiscussable

A subject that is taboo and has yet to reach the stage that it can even be alluded to.

Sexual and physical abuse, whether that alleged to have taken place by Jimmy Saville or within the Catholic Church, often seems to fall into this category. The difficulty that those who have been abused have in having their stories heard, let alone believed, might suggest that this pattern is particularly difficult to break. In organisational/work contexts, they can arise also.

The discussable undiscussable

The taboo alluded to, hinted at, ‘known’, tantalisingly out of reach

Writing that heading I question my logic momentarily, and it is this category that Roy Lilley describes powerfully in another post re mortality rates in the NHS. Analysis of three years of data and four million patient outcomes have revealed a statistically significant increase in mortality rates the nearer to the end of a working week you have elective (i.e. non-emergency) surgery.

It’s a bit like ‘Area 51’, the US Military…. It’s an open secret. Everyone knows it’s there but the US Government pretends it isn’t. Just like MI5. Everyone knew about it but it took the British government until 1994 to admit it existed. And, The Stig, BBC’s Top Gear test driver; apparently everyone knows who she is.

Elephant in the Room, Open Secret.

This is the ‘classic’ elephant: the thing we all know is there but do not want to acknowledge and/or discuss, yet there is tacit agreement that it exists. The undiscussable undiscussable is different: there is no agreement, tacit or otherwise, of existence because the consequences of doing so are too high for some of those involved. Or because those who witness what is happening cannot bear the consequences of even acknowledging it (the bystander effect)?….

There is no easy answer, although I am drawn to two suggestions, both sparked by Lilley.

Data, data, data… Give me more data

The mortality rate issue above was revealed and discussed in sharper terms because not only was there data available, it has been used to make sense of complexity to reveal an underlying pattern. With data, you get to a conversation that takes you closer to a decision based on reality rather than the shifting sand of opinion.

Truthfulness is a competency

In the post on mortality rates, Lilley laid out a challenge for leadership in and around the NHS, in the context of the recommendations in the Francis Report calling for a new approach to leadership practice.

Truthfulness emerges as a key competence when an organisation is faced with the unachievable. Soldiering-on, to protect reputations and careers, not confronting the real issues leads to an environment fertile for fraud, fictions and fabrications. Obsfucation, cover-ups and smokescreens disguise the actualite and defer the inevitable.

Relative to the NHS, and given my own experience working with people within the UK health sector, I would agree. What is more, I am not aware of any psychometric tests, competency frameworks or similar that explicitly seek to inquire into the capacity of individuals in organisations to speak the(ir) truth, relative to role and context (suggestions welcome if there are). And…

A challenge to leaders and leadership development practitioners

My experience of working with(in) organisations and with leadership teams is that the desire for simple answers and certainty undermines those who make the case for slowing down to seek more data in order to establish what is real and not real, what is fact and not opinion. This desire for simple answers and certainty, delivered in as short a time as possible, places a primacy on an illusory form of truth. ‘Directness’ and ‘honesty’ are not the same as truthfulness, the essence of which is grounding in fact or reality, and means you are exposed to the possibility that reality may not be how you imagine it. So a couple of questions, relative to the taboos and challenges in your organisation:

  • To what extent do you know what is true (real), and based on what data?
  • To what extent are you prepared for the truth, whatever it is, or to speak a truth?
  • To what extent is your organisation ready for the truth?
  • What are the consequences, all of them, of speaking out and not speaking out?

Your move.

(Ed: This post was initially published on Undiscussables.com)


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The Real Value of Totems

We often get asked: “How do I know if a business I am working in is conscious?”

There are plenty of posts here, and on other sites, which attempt to answer that question by giving lists of attributes – behaviours, processes, statements of principles etc.

These ideas are very, very useful. But they also have limitations.

Our BHAG is to create more conscious businesses. That means change. Such analytical and diagnostic methods can help bring about change in organisations. But there are other ways to assist change – and to increase consciousness in a business.

For example, in our consulting practice, we often encourage our clients to create what we call ‘totems’. Another contributor to this site, Rob Warwick, has written about this topic too, but from a slightly different angle.

A totem is an object to which a society or group attaches a particular significance or meaning. It may become emblematic of that society or group.

For example, one of our clients created a pack of Top Trumps cards representing the strengths of employees. Another has a large banner which represents the future vision of the company.

A totem can be something physical, or it can be a ritual.

For example, at another client in the ’90s we started holding stand-up meetings. These meetings became an emblem of how things were done. Since then many other companies have come up with the same idea – it’s not a unique practice. By what it represented was unique to that group at that time – in that case innovation and the ability to do things differently, and better.

One of our long-term clients, NixonMcInnes, has at least two obvious totems. One is a ritual: The Church of Fail, which came directly from some workshops we ran for the company. The other is Happy Buckets, which was born a little more indirectly, but still by design.

The idea of measuring happiness in a business has been around for many years. Paddi Lund, for example, first wrote about it 1994. In fact, I borrowed the idea from Paddi’s book “Building the Happiness-Centred Business”. There’s lots of interest in the idea today, post-Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, and there’s even a Chief Happiness Officer!

Happy Buckets is very simple in principle.

When people leave the office they simply drop a ball into a bucket to show whether they are feeling happy or sad, or something in between. The number of balls is counted up every day. At NixonMcInnes the figures are reported back weekly to the whole team, and monthly to the management team for further consideration.

People often ask: “What do you do when the numbers go down?” “How do these numbers correlate with other business measures, like profitability?” “Do the numbers really measure happiness?” And so on.

Unfortunately, these questions miss the real point of this and many other totems.

The important thing from an organisational development perspective is what simply having Happy Buckets means. What does it mean to the group – the business team – and how will that meaning help effect real, lasting change in the organisation?

Clearly something like Happy Buckets means different things to different people. Meaning is constructed on the fly, and is related to context, our personal state and probably other things.

But we can make some guesses for the meanings people might construct. For example:

  • To some, measuring happiness every day signifies that the company cares about employees and their happiness.
  • To some it means that employee happiness is an objective of the company beyond simply making money.
  • To some it might simply mean that the company likes to measure things.
  • To some it might mean that the company values experimentation and piloting things.

And so on.

All these different meanings give people a story to tell, a narrative to follow. By telling the story and listening to it, we create meaning together. And we gain something to hold onto, something to ‘anchor’ around.

As long as it stays foregrounded, the totem begins to emblemise something about the company – something semi-permanent about the ‘culture’. As we construct the ideas in words and language, we start to ‘live’ it, and the ‘culture’ emerges.

At best that aspect of culture becomes ‘embedded’. Something is now different from how it was. A short cycle of change is completed. Or so the theory goes.

Of course, there’s probably more to it than that.

For example, I can also read Happy Buckets as a transitional object.

Businesses and society generally are stuffed full of such objects. It has been argued that work itself is something that we use to manage separation from our parental figures. Work, just like a teddy bear or a security blanket, helps us grow up, and gain our own adult independence.

So, perhaps, for some, totems like Happy Buckets operate in a similar way. We attach to them, and hold them as important, because they signify something that is important to us about a particular company.

When they represent a particular kind of relationship – a caring relationship between an organisation and an employee, for example – they allow us to foreground that relationship, and perhaps eventually integrate it.

By that I don’t mean move away from it, nor do I mean cosy up to it. I mean to bring the parts together and make a connected whole.

Over time, therefore, that object might allow us to step beyond a simplistic and dependent relationship into a realisation that we can choose to build caring relationships with other adults, in adult ways, in the company we work in, and beyond the company or corporation too.

That also takes us beyond a rather mechanistic view of company culture as something we can ‘build’ or ‘create’ or ‘design’ and into a more complex one – where culture is continually constructed by adults relating to each other. In complex and continually evolving ways.

That to me seems much closer to how life is.

As a way of thinking and being it also generates a ‘living flexibility’ that from a business and a human perspective seems more likely, at least to me, to give us the immediate and longer-term results we need.

What do you think? Does your business have totems? What do they mean to you, and your fellow employees? What are the obvious meanings, and the more subtle? Do they help or hinder people in ‘growing up’ and becoming more conscious?


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Too big to fail?

A recent post in the Conscious Capitalism LinkedIn group made me think about what happens when a group – a company – gets too big.

Is this the end for consciousness? Can large companies sustain the consciousness that small groups can?

As a young man I worked for a Fortune 50 company called Digital Equipment. (No relation to the much smaller and less successful Digital Research – the company that produced the operating system CP/M).

This was a company which grew organically from a $70,000 investment in 1957 to a $14bn corporation employing some 120,000 people. Eventually it faltered and was sold to Compaq in 1997 – in what was at the time the largest merger ever in the computer industry.

As some of you will remember Compaq itself faltered and was acquired by HP in 2002.

But my story is about growth. And demise.

Following its meteoric rise over 40 years, the hard fact is that DEC was a large company that faltered and eventually disappeared.

You could put this down to all sorts of reasons. Unseen flaws in what was a highly collaborative, innovative but also caring culture? Failure to adapt to a changing marketplace? Even narcissism amongst the top team? We can speculate endlessly.

Or maybe it just got too big.

But there’s a letter from a friend and colleague of mine in Ed Schein’s book on DEC (DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC – The Lasting Legacy of Digital Equipment Corporation).

Schein was a consultant with DEC for many years, and it was seemingly where some of his enduring ideas about organisational culture – and process consulting – emerged.

My friend’s letter suggests that when a big corporation disappears we can talk of death. But we can also talk of new life.

He suggests we picture a sunflower. When the flower is ready, the hundreds of thousands of seeds – the employees – spread far and wide, born on the wind. They take with them the DNA of the organisation.

And indeed look around the world today and you will find many ex-DEC employees still following the values that attracted them to DEC -we could call them ‘power’ and ‘love’ – and bringing them into their working lives with new colleagues and new companies.

I like this story – obviously, because it is little self-flattering. It also helps me make sense of what happened, and the loss – of great culture, great dreams, great experiences and great friendships.

But I also think it is a story worth telling. Because it reminds me that at core organisations really are only people.

Yes, something special can happen when a group of people coalesce together in a special way – a new matrix is formed. I think groups and companies are really important. I also think that we are attracted to groups that share our values anyway – that is why we get together.

Companies – groups of people working together (literally, breaking bread together) – give us strength and collective power. And that is good if linked with generative purpose.

But we can also sustain our values individually, even if we move from one organisation to another. Our identity as individuals continues.

In many ways it is harder – being together is great. But I think being alone also contains strength and power.

And sometimes it seems to me to better than relying on any one organisation – however comforting it may be – for our sense of identity.

I’d be interested to hear what others think.

Is the “great group” the be all and end all of working consciously?

Or is there something to be said (heroism, for example) for being alone with one’s values?