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I said in my last post that business was a powerful means to develop and grow people. I have been mulling this a lot lately, and have been wondering what it would mean if that was the entire purpose of business?
I can certainly see my own experience in that way. Working in business has brought me more challenges than pretty much anything else in my life. Firstly, the challenge of making a living. Secondly, learning to interact with all sorts of different types of people. Thirdly, doing all sorts of things I never would have imagined myself capable of.
Maybe that shows what a sheltered life I have led; but it truly has been challenging. Even balancing the demands of work with the rest of my life has stretched me physically, mentally and emotionally.
And yet at the same time it’s been a very safe place to learn. Scary at times, yes, but ultimately there has been little threat to life and limb.
Along the way I have also come to very much admire the people who run small and medium-sized businesses. It seems to me that they take more real risks than those in big business. In a well-salaried, very senior position in a large corporation, yes, you can learn a lot. And yes, you can lose your job. But you are unlikely to lose your house, or your personal reputation. You’re just too well cushioned by salary, savings and a network that protects its own.
Small business owners by contrast sometimes do lose everything, including their reputations with friends and family, and have to start again. There are few golden parachutes in the small business world.
But back to the purpose of business. I know what I am suggesting is not for everybody. Some people do simply want to make money out of business. Others want to do something really, really worthwhile. But for others, including myself, I think the goal is actually personal development and growth.
That may seem rather selfish. But I guess life ultimately belongs to each and every one of us. And we each have a choice to make, between what psychologists call hedonic and eudonic goals.
With the former we choose to make pleasure and joy our aim; and we avoid pain.
I understand the latter to be more about achieving a sense of fulfilment: a life well led, with real purpose and meaning, good relationships, good self-esteem and feelings of competence and self-control.
If this is your life goal, then why not make small business your training ground?
It will stretch you. You will need to learn new skills. You’ll need to become a specialist and a generalist – good enough at all things to be able to tell if you are wasting your own time and money.
You’ll need to be an expert in human relations. Money won’t always pave your way. So you’ll need to develop and rely on much more human strengths: passion, persistence, and the ability to persevere when others would give up.
You’ll need to learn new ways to lead – to help others discover their purpose and turn it into reality – often without recourse to coercive power.
And most of all it will force you to be really honest, to really be yourself; it’s hard to survive and thrive in small business if you adopt and hide behind a role. When things get tough you simply have to reveal yourself if you want to gain and build trust. Only honesty and trust will get you through the difficult times, and help you create something truly sustainable.
From this honesty and self-inspection you’ll also gain self-knowledge and self-esteem, and ultimately a sense of self-control and personal power.
Surely that’s worth shooting for?
Conscious business. Now there’s a term to conjure with.
We’ve had conscious consumerism. So why not something for the other side of the producer/consumer coin: conscious business?
What is it?
What does it mean exactly? Lots of things depending on where you sit.
If you read the wikipedia definition some people are talking about conscious business as if it is a type of business. That is, some businesses are conscious and others aren’t. Just like some businesses are profitable and others aren’t. Or good or bad.
I prefer a more personal approach. I think of it in terms of whether someone who is engaged in business is conscious or not.
Doing business (or anything) consciously is about being aware of what is happening as you do it. Being aware of your thoughts, feelings, needs and motivations. And being aware of what is happening around you too – in other people, and in the world.
(This isn’t “flow“. In flow, as I understand it, consciousness comes and goes. You can be so deeply in flow, so focussed on the task hand that you lose consciousness of what is happening around you.)
What’s it got to do with business?
I am told that many people operate from day-to-day with limited consciousness. And popular business role models seem to encourage this. “Successful” business people are portrayed in the media as single-minded – focussed on only one thing (often money) at the expense of other things (or people).
Intellectual prowess is also much celebrated – at the expense of emotional awareness, for example, although this is starting to change. And the goal is often seen to be more important that the process of achieving it.
For me the process we go through is all important. After all there can be joy, pleasure and learning in the process, as much or more than in the outcome.
Immanuel Kant wrote “Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.” For me, people, and their development, are the purpose.
All we achieve in business is worth little if we destroy people along the way. Turn that around completely and suddenly business is a powerful means to develop and grow people. And to improve the world we live in. A real force for good.
Sure we need money – it’s fuel. But it’s not an end in itself.
Conscious or Conscience?
Is doing business consciously the same as operating with a conscience? It depends if you believe that people have a conscience.
If you do, then increasing your conciousness means you are likely to become more aware of your conscience.
That doesn’t mean you have to act on it, of course. That’s still your choice. Of course, you’ll be more conscious of that choice too. (No one said it was easy!).
How do we do business more consciously?
Sometimes we are more conscious than at other times. So the aim is to be more conscious more of the time. This means becoming more aware of what is happening to us internally and externally.
Internally: thoughts, beliefs, feelings, sensations, needs, desires, drives, motivations and so on.
Externally: other people, our interactions with them (relationships), our physical environment – near and far, physical objects, the results and changes we create, and so on.
How do we become more conscious? By spending time reflecting on these things more ourselves, by inquiring internally, and with help from others, to get a clearer view of our patterns of thought, our feelings, our needs and so on.
By spending time discussing these things and trying to understand others’ perceptions and views too. Others can help us by giving feedback on what they see and hear – we can understand our own behaviour better and make guesses about what is going on for us internally.
To become more conscious we spend time on these activities; and we ensure we avoid the distractions that stop us seeing, listening and feeling clearly: other people’s noise (TV news?!), habits and addictions of many kinds, and our own fears.
It’s a personal view but my bet is that doing business more consciously will mean:
Great TED talk by Ray Anderson (from May 2009).
Watch it if you have any doubts about a) our responsibility as business people b) our possibilities (as people who can change ourselves and our impact on the world).
I also love his “impact” formula. It’s worth careful inspection.
As he says, adopting this formula, believing it, following it, would reframe civilisation itself.
It’s remarkable (to me at least) how a small change in how we assume the world (and economies, businesses) work could have such a remarkable effect.
It occurs to me that sometimes we confuse growth and development.
I have been reading Donella Meadows’ excellent book “Thinking in Systems“. In it she tells the tale of Jay Forrester, one of the early proponents of systems thinking, who when asked by the Club of Rome in the early 1970s to show how major problems of poverty and hunger, environmental destruction, resource depletion, urban deterioration and unemployment might be solved, alighted on a clear leverage point: growth.
Not just population growth, but economic growth. Growth clearly is the solution to many of these problems. What Forrester revealed was not that world leaders didn’t understand that growth was important. The problem was that they were pushing it in the wrong direction.
As has now become much more obvious than it was then there are limits to our resources, and growth has costs as well as benefits. For example, economic growth has led to increased CO2 emissions, and therefore risk to the climate.
So this raises a major question. Why in the face of knowledge about the dangers of rampant growth do we continue to push this lever in the wrong direction? Why are we so obsessed by getting back to rapid economic growth?
I’ll suggest a few reasons; you can probably offer more:
But we need to be careful. Growth can mean a lot of different things. As Nassim Taleb has said there is something not quite right when growth leads to extreme imbalances – for example, in wealth. For example, randomly gathering 1000 people then adding the heaviest person on the planet would only add perhaps 0.3% to the total weight of the group.
But doing the same thing according to wealth and adding the richest person would lead to much great variance. The richest person would be worth some 50 billion dollars versus a total of 1 to 2 million for all the others put together. As Taleb suggests, and recents events seem to have shown, these imbalances can greatly affect us.
So we need a clearer a definition of growth. And different types of growth: slower growth. No growth. Negative growth. Progress towards goals that matter, rather than just growth for growth’s sake. Development, in the sense of gaining maturity, not growth.
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.
For ages I have tried to get my head around sustainability. What a difficult and complex thing it is.
So it was great to hear of the launch of the Sustainability Project by Haus Publishing – the creation of twelve books written in an accessible way but based on scientific and other expert opinion.
It is a complex topic – so there is an introductory book then eleven others covering population, water, food, health, energy, the oceans, climate change, natural diversity, resources, economics, and politics.
You can see the whole list here and buy them as a set.
Or buy them individually from, for example, Amazon.
Now that is what I call summer reading!
I enjoyed listening to a talk at the RSA recently on consumerism. Five speakers gave an excellent introduction to the topic.
Neal Lawson, author and chair of the pressure group Compass suggested we need to more fully understand the impact on us of the “Consumer Industrial Complex”, and choose a point of balance that serves our real needs better. Neal had some very nice slogans such as “working harder for our Prada”. But, in the short time he had available, I thought it came across as rather reminiscent of “infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me”.
Matthew Hilton, Professor of Social History, University of Birmingham, gave, for me, the best of the brief talks. He suggested that we should reframe our dialogue about consumerism towards a debate about the real choices we have. This would be a broader conversation about the bigger goals of our society as a whole.
That society includes, of course, people outside the developed world. In his view, “worrying about consumption is as much a part of consumer society as consumption itself” and we should really be considering just what kind of world to we want to live in. He celebrates both the cooperative movement and consumer movement (a la Which?) as movements which have always held these deeper goals – of fairness and equity – at their core: “Let’s call the poor all around the world consumers too”.
Daniel Ben-Ami, another journalist and author, then spoke. Daniel seems to see economic growth as the solution to all our problems. His argument seemed to be in more or less complete opposition to Neal’s, and seemed to lack any of the more systemic analysis of Matthew Hilton.
John Naish, journalist and author of Enough: breaking free from the world of more took the perspective of evolutionary psychology to again address the bigger system problems, pointing out that Barack Obama spent $9 billion dollars rescuing the current system, rather than invest anything in trying to evaluate and re-design a better system.
I especially liked his suggestion that dropping the illusions of choice with which we surround ourselves might also lead to a rather more “interesting” society than the one currently inhabit. I loved his choice of word.
Joseph Wan, chief executive of the luxury goods store Harvey Nichols, seemed to suggest that consumerism, even extreme consumerism, is an inevitable human characteristic – and something that we cannot avoid manifesting. This, for me, seemed to be another version of a “there’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as well go along with it” mantra. A big element of raising consciousness is, for me, about intervening in our future. So that kind of (convenient?) determinism doesn’t sit very well with me.
What next? As ever, with this event, the RSA has done a great job of raising my consciousness of the debate around consumerism. Which is an excellent thing; conscious consumerism seems to me to be about increasing our awareness of the impact of our purchasing decisions on the environment and our lives in general. About introducing “intentionality” into our purchasing.
And, of course, business produces many of the products and services we purchase.
So what, then, is the role of conscious business in consumerism?
Matthew Hilton, amongst others, pointed out the importance of focussing on the bigger picture, and on the broader objectives of the system.
This is something I touched on just recently in another post. I wondered what business would be like if we set as our overall goal leaving a better world for the next generation.
If we were to do that, as businesses:
And most of importantly, what kind of overall system of production and consumption would suit us all?
I’d love to hear your views.
You’ve probably guessed by now that I am obsessed by the big questions. Questions like “what’s it all for?”, “why are we doing this?” and so on.
I came across a great paper the other day by the late Donella Meadows on leverage points for changing real world systems. I’d heartily recommend it – you can find it here on the Force for Good website. It suggests that one of the best ways to effect change is to focus on the paradigm – the set of assumptions – out of which the system and its goals emerges.
Our basic human paradigms seem to include fear and love – either we fear for ourselves and close down our efforts to help others. Or we put others ahead of ourselves and give as much as we can to them. There are other important assumptions I am sure, but thinking like this made me wonder again what the basic purpose of business is.
What if our purpose individually, and in groups, and even in whole generations was different from how it sometimes seems to be?
What if our purpose was quite simple and pure, and simply expressed: what if each of us, in each generation, made it our goal to leave a better world for the next generation?
We can debate that, but I’d rather just list some of the things that I think we would then do if we made that our goal. Sometimes I find it easier to accept a goal if I understand what I’d have to do to achieve it.
So if each of us, each business, each society and each generation had as our primary goal leaving the world a bit better for the next generation, then:
Our businesses would be designed to help us create this better world. We’d build strong businesses that were profitable and met our current needs. But we’d give up a little of our selfishness. And instead we’d all live and work in the knowledge that everything we did was helping those people who have yet to come.
Since Tim Sanders wrote the best seller “Love is the Killer App” (published in 2002) the word love has crept ever more widely into business usage.
But what is love? And what does it really mean in a business context?
People have been writing about love since …, well, since writing began, I’m sure. There’s even the beginning of a psychological literature on the subject, although perhaps not quite as much as you’d expect for such an important subject.
I don’t really know for sure what love is, but I want to offer an opinion and maybe start a discussion.
In my view, we’re definitely not talking about “falling in love”, that thing that appears at the start of a relationship, but quickly fades. Steve Jobs and John Sculley fell in love – at first they could see no faults in one another; but they quickly fell out of love too, and came to see each other in very different ways.
Yes, we are talking about giving, and caring for others, along the lines of Sanders’ book. But critically not in a co-dependent way. Co-dependency is where two people feed each off each other; where they get their own needs met from the other.
Sometimes supplier-client relationships are like that: there’s an imbalance of power – often the need for money is exploited by one party. Sometimes it’s more subtle than that: maybe the supplier has a lot of knowledge but simply needs to be heard. He or she may end up virtually giving away what they have.
So, for me, true love, “inter-dependent love”, is where both parties already have ways to get all their needs met. And where they are aware of their needs and choose for them to be met, at least partially, through a business relationship. Where they commit to the relationship, despite the inevitable short-term ups and downs, because they believe in the long-term mutual value.
Their awareness of their needs means they know how to stop the relationship swinging into co-dependency – in other words they can walk away when they need to, if the relationship becomes abusive.
This all requires “adult” behaviour, straight talking and agreement to work together symbiotically. For the best of both individuals, and as a pair. In the best relationships, both also choose to give a little more than they may take – to put money into the shared “bank” rather than always take it out.
This is all fairly simple to understand. But, boy, is it difficult to do.
Certainly, in my business life, there have been times when I have confused “falling in love” with love. Often with a project, and sometimes with a business partner.
There have also been times when I have not been aware enough of my own needs to be able to sit on them when I needed to. To be able to stop them driving my behaviour. Sometimes it’s been as simple as not being able to say “no”.
And I haven’t always had the skills to confront my business partners when I or the relationship needed it, in a way that protects and enhances the relationship rather than making it worse.
Many professionals, and not just those in the caring professions, do achieve this level of client love, I’m sure. In fact, maybe that’s what it really means to be a professional? To be always able to act in the best interest of your customer or client. Even if it hurts.
But wouldn’t it be great if more business relationships were built on this basis? Our businesses would have truly amazing customer service. Really fruitful account management. Great client relationships, and more successful, more profitable business partnerships all round.
Stimulated by reading something in a discarded newspaper by Jonathon Porritt, standing down this month as chairman of the government’s Sustainable Development Commission, I dug out their report “Prosperity without Growth“.
It’s long, over a 100 pages, and could do with a bit of editing. I think it was Greg Dyke who when faced with a difficult decision would ask “What would it mean for my mother?” My view is that if a bit of technical writing can’t be presented clearly and simply, then they may be a waste of all that brain heat.
I only managed the summary (pages 6-13). But the frustration and confusion leaps off the page. The author (Tim Jackson of Surrey University) seemingly can’t understand why others simply don’t get it, and he isn’t happy about it.
His point is that economic growth, in the way we commonly understand it now, is completely at odds with living on our planet in a way that gives all 6 billion or more of us a decent life.
The current macro-economic model doesn’t work socially (letting us all be happy people), environmentally (keeping our ecosystems alive), and economically. Economically it fails when it peaks and troughs, leading to the kind of financial “meltdown” we have experienced recently; but then neither does reversed growth, leading as it does to increased unemployment and so on.
I don’t pretend to understand the complexity of all this – I am no economist. But I do think it’s sad when minds are closed, as Porritt suggests they are, at some of our leading institutions.
Porritt claims that, in the Treasury, for example, there is “no readiness to interrogate the macro-economic model”.
I sometimes come across businesses who aren’t ready to interrogate their own local economic models. But after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, the realisation comes that without a sustainable economic model, the business won’t be around long. There simply has to be some kind of effective balance between what goes in and what goes out.
Anybody can see that, especially my mother. And I don’t want to live in a world with a broken economic model.
Maybe Porritt’s plan is to embarrass the Treasury into change. Whatever it is, I’d rather hear the news that all the intelligent people out there are working together, facing the facts, doing a bit of brainstorming, and coming up with some new, practical ideas about creating a new model that really does work.
I know it takes courage to challenge the status quo. But people are full of courage. So come on.