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I’ve been trying to get my head around conscious business ever since Pete Burden at Conscious Business People asked me to help with the conscious business community. I have subsequently been having a three way conversation with Pete and Steve Hearsum at Roffey Park Leadership Institute about what it is, how you do it and why, and how any impact is measured both qualitatively and quantitatively. At the same we’ve discussed, how it is and is not compared to Organisational Development.

It’s been hard to pin down Pete on what conscious business is, partly because he is reluctant for it to be seen as a thing:

“As soon as we reify [make something abstract more concrete or real] things we risk losing our original consciousness of them. They become schema to be followed rather than something that can help us navigate reflexively.”

That maybe true, but it also means that the idea may come across as being a bit nebulous, even incoherent, and lead to accusations of conscious business being little more than platitudes masquerading as truths. The other problem is that the term ‘conscious’ has different connotations as was obvious in the recent Guardian social enterprise hub discussion on How conscious business drive sustainability.

Interestingly, Sarah LaBrecque claimed that there’s a group of people who broadly agree on the definition of conscious business, even when the discussion she was facilitating suggested otherwise. For example, some like Sarah see conscious business as being explicitly linked to sustainability, where others like Pete appear to be saying that this is only a possible outcome of being more conscious (aware, responsive and purposeful) but is not necessarily the aim of being so. 

As the cultural thinker and writer Roman Krznaric pointed out, Pete’s articulation of conscious business doesn’t appear to have an explicit moral, ecological or political framework. He thinks that awareness is important, and ‘consciousness’ is important, but says we need to ask: conscious of what? He thinks the conscious approach to business really only makes sense if you can specify the wider ethical and social justice goals.

I tend to agree, simply because for most the term conscious business is equated to wider ethical, environmental and social justice goals, or at least as far as the 18 or so  people participating The Guardian discussion are concerned. This maybe because the participants mostly worked in areas like social enterprise, sustainability, and international development, or in areas like community development, organizational development, business transformation, academia and law that touch upon business ethics, sustainability, social impact, transparency, and accountability.

 My overriding impression was that the concept of conscious business is still underdeveloped, perhaps purposefully so, and that people’s understanding of it is reminiscent of the parable of the six blind men and the elephant, i.e. its interpretation may differ depending on the particular perspective of who is interpreting it. This maybe true of many more developed concepts that deserve capitalization like Organisational Development, but the interpretation of a concept like conscious business is probably a greater reflection of peoples’ hope and aspirations with regard to what the future of work might look like/need to be in order to solve the world’s problems. I’ve noticed very similar sentiment being projected on to areas like collaborative innovation, and underpin discussion in some digital business transformation circles (see Future of Work and The Responsive Organisation

I can empathise with this, but if part of being conscious is about being aware and awake then that also means taking into account how one’s hopes and aspirations can prejudice any critical scrutiny and analysis of the concept.

For example, one strand of conscious business seems to suggest that there is some kind of emergent consciousness at the business level brought about as a result of those working for it becoming more conscious. This seems reminiscent of Adam Smith’s metaphor of the invisible hand of the market in order to describe the self-regulating behavior of the marketplace. As explained on the wiki, the phrase has come to capture Smith’s claim that individuals’ efforts to maximize their own gains in a free market may benefit society, even if the ambitious have no benevolent intentions.

Conscious business seems to imply something similar along the lines of an emergent self-regulating behavior of a business brought about by those working for it becoming more conscious, mindful, etc. The belief being that this will in turn benefit society as a whole. It’s hard to see how society will benefit though, unless conscious business has the kind of explicit moral, ecological or political framework that Roman mentions above. It’s also hard to see how people being more mindful brings about any consciousness at the business level, let alone how you’d show this. 

I can, however, appreciate the personal benefits of being present, in the moment, etc, having studied Alexander Technique for several years. But it also makes me acutely aware of how difficult it is to maintain what is called Constructive Conscious Control in Alexander Technique, which I think is akin to what Pete means by being ‘conscious’ based on our discussions. As such, I think it’s over optimistic to think that the wider take up of people practicing being conscious or mindful alone will bring about any great chance in society as a whole any time soon, regardless of the benefits to them personally. That’s why I’m also wryly reminded of Will Fergusan’s novel Happiness™ that explored what would happen if self-help books really worked? And it’s why I empathise with Pete about being shy of framing conscious business in terms of spirituality as this will inevitably limit its appeal.

Lastly, there’s an inherent problem with Pete’s reluctance to reify conscious business as a thing, and that’s the ability to measure its impact if its not a thing. It also explains why some in the conscious business community think that if you need evidence that being more conscious at work is a good thing, you’ll never be persuaded. As mentioned in my previous post, I have no doubt in the ability of human beings to believe in something being good, but it’s not a very compelling argument for conscious business. Apparently, Paul Levy has done some work on measuring conscious business, but I can’t find this to be able to assess the methodology or link to it. I think that there may actually be other ways of measuring the impact of conscious business and it would benefit the community to look at others who are developing measurement methodologies for social impact, e.g. the SPM Network that connects individuals interested in managing and achieving the social mission of micro finance. This may require conscious business to become more of thing or an approach that can be measured, as well as making sustainability a more explicit purpose of practicing/doing it. Ultimately, I think doing so will help conscious business move closer from the fringes to the mainstream, as will the embracing of Roman Krznaric’s thinking on empathy.

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