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.
I’ve just participated in The Guardian’s social enterprise hub discussion on How conscious business can drive sustainability. Part of me finds it difficult to understand the purpose of the discussion, or what was really achieved.
But there was a great energy and interesting mash-up of ideas, even if the my overriding impression was that the different connotations of the term conscious being used makes it much harder to grasp what conscious business actually means compared to the likes of ethical business or social enterprise.
Using comments on The Guardian site isn’t an ideal format for an online discussion, so I copied and pasted the interchange and sorted the threads around the key questions and sub-themes.
Pete Burden, co-founder of Conscious Business People.
Roman Krznaric is a cultural thinker and writer, and has advised organisations including Oxfam and the United Nations on using empathy and conversation to create social change. His latest book is Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution.
Linda Holbeche: co-director of the Holbeche Partnership, a research based development consultancy. She has a strong interest in helping organisations and individuals achieve sustainable high performance.
Dan Gregory: head of policy at Social Economy Alliance. He has been working to support social enterprises for the last ten years, developing policy and delivering in practice at the grassroots level.
Will Day: sustainability advisor to PwC. An independent consultant, and Special Advisor to UNDP, he has helped facilitate cross sector engagement between government, companies and civil society organisations.
Zoe Olivia John: creative generalist and organiser at Good for Nothing, a community of thinkers, do-ers, and makers applying their skills and energy to accelerate the work of cause-led innovators and change makers.
Steve Hearsum: organisational and leadership development consultant at Roffey Park Institute. Steve’s work focuses on individual, team and organisational behaviour and culture change. He has a particular interest in whistleblowing and 'undiscussables', and compassion in organisations.
Sarah LaBrecque: Content coordinator, the Guardian
Grattan Donnelly: coach, facilitator, trainer
Claudia Cahalane: journalist covering social enterprise and social change for The Guardian.
Jaki Bent: coach
Nathaniel Whitestone: Sociocracy and organisational transformation expert
Clare Neilson: ?
Isabel Rimanoczy: Academic, Coach, Consultant and Founder Legacy Coaching
Alex Hope (Dr Sustainable): Senior Lecturer in Business Ethics at Newcastle Business School.
Matthew Kalman Mezey: Online Community Manager at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA)
Laura Jordan: attorney in Washington, DC. Formed the first benefit corporation in the United States. Benefit corporations are for-profit companies that voluntarily commit to higher standards of social impact, transparency, and accountability.
Around of 12,000 words of comments were generated about a whole host of topics, including: empathy, mindfulness, awareness, consciousness, spirituality, etc; (agile) organisational development, (open) leadership, employee engagement, learning/responsive organisation, reflective practice, etc; ethical business, sustainability, environmentalism, social enterprise, conscious capitalism, etc; and beyond.
I’ll do some further analysis when I have time, but here’s a quick overview of the key topics:
- What is conscious business?
- How does the concept of conscious business differ from social enterprise?
- Is sustainability a necessary purpose of conscious business, or is conscious business just about being conscious?
- Parable of the six blind men and the elephant and conscious business?
- Are social enterprises naturally more ‘conscious’?
- What systems reliably produce conscious people and how can we support those systems?
- Where do conscious businesses stand on profit?
- Are there examples of what conscious businesses are doing?
- Which industries could benefit the most from conscious business principles?
- Or how the world at large can benefit from conscious business practices?
- Is conscious business a developed enough concept to warrant discussion about what it can drive yet?
- Or wouldn’t most businesses would benefit from a more conscious business approach?
- What is the role mindfulness can play in conscious business
- And conscious business and spirituality
- Can business be trusted to become more sustainable, or is regulation required?
- The case for an empathy revolution in business?
- Is it important to normalise inclusion/engagement in conscious businesses, and how are conscious business robustly assessed/measured?
I was surprised to see that The Guardian’s sustainable business hub is hosting a live chat on Monday about How can conscious business drive sustainability? Participants include:
Pete Burden, co-founder of Conscious Business People
Roman Krznaric author of Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution.
Linda Holbeche, co-director of the Holbeche Partnership.
Will Day, sustainability advisor to PwC.
Zoe Olivia John, organiser at Good for Nothing.
Steve Hearsum, development consultant at Roffey Park Institute who I suggested to The Guardian.
I’ve posted the following question prior to the chat because I’m not sure that conscious business has been subjected to rigorous enough scrutiny to have been elevated to where it is now being discussed as a possible means of our collective salvation:
How can Conscious Business drive sustainability if there is no common agreement among its practitioners about what it is, how it’s done and why (its purpose), or how the impact of doing it (whatever that is) is measured either qualitatively and/or quantitatively?
- conscious business undeveloped concept: even one of the chat’s participants above described conscious business as not developed enough to deserve capitalisation, so more work needs to be done clarifying what it actually is before there’s any discussion about how it might help drive sustainability.
- definition of conscious business is circular: conscious business is described as about being more awake, aware, responsive and purposeful. But the definition conscious as an adjective is ‘aware of and responding to one’s surroundings’, which makes the term conscious business seem circular, i.e. a tautology.
- not clear if conscious business is about solving world’s problems or just about being more conscious: having spoken with Pete Burden at the consultancy Conscious Business People and those in the LinkedIn Group they run, there seems to be confusion about the purpose of conscious business. For example, Pete says that a lot of people seem to think that ’Conscious Business’ is about being ethical for some reason. But it is not - it is about being aware, and purposeful… In the process of becoming more aware and purposeful conscious businesses usually become more ethical but that is an outcome not the aim. For Pete conscious business simply needs to include a purpose, and for him that doesn’t matter whether it is a big purpose, such as solving the world’s problems. Or a small one like giving meaningful employment to a group of people. His intent appears to be about helping people make meaning and enquire, make better decisions, and break collusion. This is all well intentioned but not sure whether it’s a necessary condition for driving sustainability, nor even a sufficient one unless the specific purpose is to drive sustainability. Even if the purpose of conscious business is to help solve the world’s problems then it’s based on the idea of their being some kind of systematic effect or emergence as a result of more people being conscious that will eventually lead to changes in behaviour in society as a whole. That may just be wishful thinking unless it can be shown how one thing leads to another.
- conscious business lacks supporting evidence: if you ask how the impact of conscious business is measured there’s range of answers, including: those that need evidence that being more conscious at work is a good thing will never be persuaded; platitudes masquerading as truths; and there are lots of ways it can be measured. I’ve 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. If you ask for more detail about actual evidence then apparently there’s a book called Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose by Rajendra S. Sisodia, David B. Wolfe and Jagdish N. Sheth. It’s not clear, however, whether this books contains supporting evidence that has been peer reviewed or if the data and methodology supporting the book’s claims are available for more scrutiny… and that’s if doing so would actually be warranted. Lasy Lawless at Conscious Business People has also put some stats together that are presented as evidence for conscious business. But they are actually cherry picked from a number of areas that maybe related, but are also independent of conscious business, i.e. employee engagement, innovation, leadership, etc. This goes back to the problem of their being a lack of clarity about what conscious business is and how it is distinct from the likes of employee engagement, learning organisation, agile organisational development, innovation, open leadership, action learning cycle/reflective practice, etc, on one hand, and more therapy and development approaches like NLP, TA, etc, etc, on the other.
It’s interesting that both Pete Burden and Dan Gregory have questioned my intention with regard to subjecting conscious business to critical scrutiny. I’m not sure that the kid who pointed out that the emperor was naked had an agenda. That maybe an unfair comparison, and criticism. But either conscious business is not developed enough as a concept yet to warrant much in the way of critical scrutiny. In which case, it’s a bit premature to be having discussions about how it can help drive sustainability. If on the other hand it is developed enough to warrant serious discussion about how it can help drive sustainability, then it’s perfectly fair and reasonable to be asking questions about what is, how you do it and why, and how any impact is measured. You can’t have it both ways!
There’s also other questions about who is selling what here, however well intended, and what makes someone qualified to do so, i.e. is being an expert in conscious business something that is achieved through a qualification/training, or is it just something someone says they are.
Lastly, it is just not clear whether conscious business is some kind of management ‘science’ and/or a social/psychological one where the results asserted by proponents could be tested, given there’s more than enough pseudoscience out there. Or it’s just an idea or proposition where two words have been thrown together like ‘caring’ and ‘capitalism’, hence my concerns about there being any real substance behind it.