Collaboration – compromise or conflict?

I am sure that most of us work harder on the content of our business product or service as we do on marketing and promoting it. To me, marketing has always been a necessary evil but that’s very much a personal opinion. I have, however, trademarked the Ethiconomics brand and undertake what I consider to be acceptable, if not excessive, amounts of digital marketing. I have worked hard on my product and want to protect its status. I have also worked on the content; on the value and quality of the product. I think that differentiating the u-s-p is critical to attracting support and clients and ultimately, income.

I could completely fill my days and evenings supporting other businesses in particular non-funded, social or start up enterprise. I try to equally consider the “cause”, the partner(s), the time required and, realistically, the benefit/value to me and my business. It is rarely a simple decision. I inevitably end up prioritising and selecting only a few and this always leaves me feeling a little guilty about those that i am unable to commit to.

This magazine is a collaborative project which we have converted into a formal business model and one that reflected best the values and ethos of the business mission. We converted into a formal co-operative business model affiliated to the Co-operative group. Other projects that I have encountered have adopted different models. Some have created a completely separate organisation for the collaborators and encoded formal rules into the constitution, others have adopted a more fluid approach, a la CreativeCommons (if you are not familiar with this, please have a quick look) which has a completely open structure where work is done and offered to the “group” on a revenue-free basis. The motivation here is that the joy and satisfaction of adding value to the group and solving problems. Information is freely exchanged with the possible only kudos/benefit an added reputation as a solution-finder and authentic contributor. It is in its relative infancy as a model but appears at face value to be the evolutionary development of formal co-operative business models.

I find this intriguing as I suspect that we are witnessing the first tentative steps towards full knowledge sharing, to open communication, to new business models, contractual relationships and maybe even to the traditional financial measurements systems (Wall St be warned, the times they are a-changing!). So where do these fully collaborative projects leave us traditionalists? There are clearly many issues to consider but I will focus on just two; leadership and transparency.

I have heard several experts quote variations on the theme of “we need trust and transparency in Government/big business/banking. . . . . “. I do not fully accept this. We need either trust OR transparency provided that both are delivered with accountability. Proper, full, individual, open accountability. It’s is the same with collaborative business and is formalised under the co-operative models. It seems that we have lost trust in many of our traditional institutions but as yet we have not yet witnessed any great movements in transparency or accountability. Business models have to become more open and transparent, democratic even, and support the move towards collaboration and co-operation. The technology exists, the inclination probably not. I am not however suggesting that we throw the baby out with the bathwater. I would propose evolution rather than revolution (but only just!). I would advise anyone considering collaborative projects to work within a formal framework that details responsibilities, accountabilities, benefits and rewards. Making the “leaders” accountable to the partners/members/employees would be an obvious progressive step. And this brings me on to th second issue mentioned earlier; who leads?

We all know the jokes about committee decisions. We are all almost programmed to create some form of hierarchical structure and, at the end of the day, we like leaders. But what if we are not they? What if all of our endeavours to create and develop a business and brand does not allow us to lead a “greater” whole? How comfortable are we in adopting a supporting role? All leaders need followers so it seems to me that when considering a collaborative project we should not only build in accountability but also openly discuss who leads. The cause may be just, the funding available and the team responsibilities defined but if you cannot subserve to some degree to the leader then maybe another project would be more suited to your talents. The leader is the focal point and potentially the focus of attention so if you are used to leading and making final decisions and being your own business’ focal point then I would strongly suggest that you create an appropriate set of rules whereby you are able to adopt a fulfilling and rewarding role without actually leading the team. If your business and brand are more important than the project, conflict is almost inevitable. Compromise does not mean subjugation.

We will all have a personal view on where that balance should lie. On just exactly how much we are prepared to be fully collaborative and so I only have one further word of warning should all of the above be irrelevant or impossible. Beware those Pareto partners!

Collaboration – a definition



  • to work with another or others on a joint project
  • something created by working jointly with another or others

Generally speaking we all understand what collaboration means. Essentially it is an arrangement in which two or more parties work jointly towards a common goal. They co-operate and interact with each other in ways that can encompass a variety of actions, such as communication, information sharing, cooperation, problem solving, and negotiation, with a view to achieving their common goal.
Trade originated with the start of expanded communication in these ancient times. Trading became one of the cornerstones of growth and expansion for people, who learned to barter goods and services from each other, when there was no such thing as a standard currency. Due to specialisation and division of labour, most people developed skills in a particular product or aspect of production, trading this for other products.
Collaboration in business today has a multitude of forms, from the simplicity of a partnership to the complexity of a multinational corporation. Collaboration between team members allows for better communication within the organisation and throughout the respective supply chains. It is a way of co-ordinating different ideas from numerous people to generate a wide variety of knowledge.
Due to the complexity of today’s business environment, collaboration in technology utilises a broad range of tools that enable groups of people to work together. Broadly speaking, any technology that facilitates the linking of two or more humans to work together can be considered a collaborative tool. Many large companies are developing “enterprise collaboration strategies” and standardising on a single technical platform to allow their employees, customers and partners to intelligently connect and interact.

“Unity is strength… when there is teamwork and collaboration wonderful things can be achieved.”
Mattie Stepanek

And it is in the above mentioned “unity is strength” quotation that the potential of the aforementioned tools can be most seen in business today.
I can speak upon this subject with some authority. I have established several collaborative ventures that have used the individual skills and attributes of disparate individuals, with the increasingly dynamic and powerful internet tools, to create something that is far greater than the sum of its parts. As with any business venture there are associated benefits and potential pitfalls.
Some benefits are:

  • Increased creative input, we don’t have to have all the best ideas ourselves
  • Increased purchasing power from the collective entity
  • Potentially reduced fixed costs of buildings, etc, by utilising internet and web tools
  • Productivity by being able to specialise on each members individual core skills

Some potential pitfalls:

  • Commitment to the common goal
  • Equality of input and effort
  • Sharing of returns and profits

In my experience, it is vital to select the right partners and collaborators, and to consistently manage their respective input in exchange for the benefits. One more word of warning, however, collaboration requires leadership and there are always those individuals that operate with the maxim that “first among equals” has to be them. If you establish collaborative projects, communication to and management of all parties is essential. Be clear, firm and consistent.

Essentially, collaboration works but only if all parties want it to.

There are other reasons why collaborative working can be the perfect solution for you and your business.


  • builds contacts and networking opportunities without the need for long drawn out contract agreements and negotiations
  • can be done on a quid pro quo basis
  • allows for the strengthening of relationships by building trust
  • creates synergy between else-wise remote products and service providers
  • forms a group of businesses with like minds and values without formal structure and costs
  • allows for flexibility and freedom of the individual to develop personally without “out-growing” the organisation
  • develops a kind of “brains trust” between members, so reducing the need to outsource or conduct lengthy tender processes

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
Charles Darwin

So go ahead, collaborate – make your contacts your partners and create something that is greater than the sum of the component parts, including you.

Above article is an edited excerpt from “An A-Z of Ethiconomics” by Philip Birch
Available on Amazon, Waterstones and W H Smith Online

How we think is not enough and what we think won’t matter

Today, (October 2nd), David Milliband will address the Labour conference and project himself as “an ordinary bloke” that went to a comprehensive school in an attempt to present himself as one of the people in contrast to upper-class elitism, a tag attached to the current Cameron regime. The plebs versus the posh. In other words, traditional labels and stereotypes that we have created and entrenched into our own society over decades; centuries even.

So, rather than encouraging the next generation to perpetuate these divisive representations and to adopt our own rules, maybe we should encourage them to make their own. In business and in society. How do we break this cycle? How do we protect our own assets whilst allowing in a new World order? How do we retain the “good” without perpetuating the “bad”? How do we ensure that the next generation can create, innovate and develop a better business ethic and social conscience?

There is not enough time and space to cover all of the issues involved and I am not, as ever, preaching, but I would offer the following by way of a starter.

I remember a post-Sunday lunch dinner discussion that I had with my brother some 20 years ago. I was doing quite well climbing the corporate ladder and he was, and still is, in teaching. He has, in fact, spent the vast majority of his working life in special-needs teaching. My points were generally as follows:

– that we should stop teaching “facts”

– that we should “teach” children how to think,

– that we should “teach” children how to act

– that we should “teach” children how to communicate

Following a rather emotional debate about teaching methods, measurements, management and policy, it was clear to me that my points were seen as idealist and not pragmatic. My position, however, remains largely unchanged and I have retained the integrity of this in my management and leadership roles (to the extent that I was permitted) throughout my career as director, manager, “leader” and coach.

I will elaborate.

Facts – do we actually ever get them? “You can’t handle the truth” may be fairly easily translated into “you can’t handle the facts” in the way that we are delivered “news”. Editorial, selective presentation, bias, commercial implications, funding etc all influence the presentation of the “facts”. Examples are endless and simply by reading the same story in two different newspapers or watching two different TV news programmes will confirm this. Does anyone actually know and understand the “facts” of the investigation into Blair and the Iraq War?

So, facts are not always clearly available. Data, however, is. Data is more accessible and available than ever before. The “youth” of today have more data available to them, free and streamed directly to them, than any generation before could have dreamed of, but what to do with this data? Well, we have to create new systems and methods of turning this data into useful information. This requires the searching, filtering and prioritising of data. It requires the reducing the content of this mass data by the application of context. Information is contextualised data. From this information, they need to create knowledge. Knowledge is developed information; more context, less content and then hopefully they can develop this knowledge into their own wisdom (applied knowledge). They have the tools so we need to create learning and development environments in order that they can turn this into wisdom of their own and this approach needs to be encouraged after the education system has “finished” with them. That is, within the working environment.

How to think, act, communicate?

It seems to me that there is little point in attempting to change the economic climate by perpetuating the economic models. We no longer have an Empire, but we trade. We no longer have work houses but we manufacture. We no longer have the slave trade but we have service industries. Everything changes and we may be facing the greatest changes for decades so by encouraging and supporting new business models, new career paths, new terms of trade, new democratic business environments we can allow in the next generation of value creation. The era of the golden handshake has, to all intents and purposes, gone for most of us. Career paths are at best like crazy paving. In a recent meeting on Permaculture we discussed the fact that some of us had up to 5 “business” activities that ranged from extended hobby to volunteering, from social enterprise to “full time job”. This, I believe, is the future. Preparing the next generation for such an economic climate may be the best legacy that we can leave. Not everyone can be Alan Sugar (thankfully) but if we embrace the possibilities of multiple roles and multiple income streams, the internet business and the part-time volunteering job, the weekend hobby-job as well as traditional “career” options, then maybe we can encourage even more flexible, varied and enjoyable ways of working (and living). I would also hope that we can also see the folly of our ways in chasing the “yankee dollar” – money is NOT happiness, a whole generation of baby-boomers on Prozaic are testament to this. Well-being, social value, community integration, relationships, fulfilment and sharing are being increasingly recognised as being as valuable and meritable as simple financial assets. Maybe we should spend the remainder of our time in charge delivering this message. It is NOT all about the money.

I am sure that we all remember our first day in the office. From education into the “real World”. We wore our best suit (uniform), sharpened our pencils and waited for tasks. We also had to conform to the expected behaviour – internal politics, status and structure, seen but seldom heard. I believe that this mentality also needs to be resigned to the bin. If we were, for example, to soften our views on dress code this does not mean that we instantly bring in dis-respect and dis-order. I am no more or less “unruly” these days because I choose not to wear a tie than I was when I “blue-suited and booted” my place at the corporate table. Simply speaking, I believe that companies have a duty of care; not just the HR policies, CSR statements and measurement criteria, but a duty to invest in and develop all their employees. To value them and to create an environment whereby they can feel secure, recognised, valued and fulfilled – happy even! (A happy workforce is a productive workforce). I also believe that each and every employee, young and old, has a personal responsibility to perform. We should be creating business environments into which the next generation are aware of both sets of responsibilities irrespective of formal measurements, organisational structure, roles and rewards. Behaving responsibly and being protected and rewarded responsibly – authentic action from both parties.

Communication is, I understand, something of a catch-all. However, the increasing use of media tools – social and business – means that how and when and where we communicate our “self”, express our self if you will, is far quicker and far reaching than we could have imagined even 5 years ago. Our Facebook “tags” are as likely to appear across the interview desk as is our formal CV. We have many facets and if business does not find a way to accept and embrace all of these facets without applying the “old rules” then not only do they run the risk of becoming a dull and dead environment in which to work but they also run the risk of missing the most innovative, creative and expressive talent. So who hasn’t had a drunken photo taken? Allowing the next generation to form its own business rules and regimes that cater for the many ways in which we communicate and collaborate may be the saviour of our business systems. Encourage open communication, suspend generational judgements, create and environment of sharing knowledge and of free-exchange of ideas. THIS is the new World order; embrace it or die.

If you think that your business will fall if you allow Facebook or Twitter activity “at work” to happen, or because the next generation wear jeans to work or if they use terms and jargon that you don’t understand or if they are not interested in your rewards system or if they fail to accept the standard rules for communicating their ideas, then it will! Why? Well because this is the new order. This is the new World.

The new generation is already here. They are already using tools, creating, sharing, networking, communication and thinking in ways that we did not. Every generation feels threatened and disillusioned (to some degree) with the one that follows; we cannot allow this to happen now. Our business climate, our business models, our business systems will not work in the future and the future is pretty much here. Rather than developing the next suit we should be actively developing the next generation of entrepreneurs. Free in spirit, expansive of thought, democratic with knowledge, responsible, authentic and innovative. We need to address the system of business and let the individuals create value both within and without it. We are change-makers and change always threatens. It is US that need to be educated; it is us who need to change. The young entrepreneurs will succeed and fail on their own merits but we can create an environment that nurtures and develops them not one that tries to squeeze these eminently round pegs into our often very square business holes.

By way of closing the loop, my brother is now a Head Administrator of 2 special needs schools and spends all of his time on budgets, measurements, scorecards and policy; I spend all my time coaching and developing others to be authentic, individual, unique and creative. Mmmm, food for thought?

Fifty Shades of Black and White

When we focussed on this topic some months ago I concentrated on the value of values and the role of values in establishing a new way of doing business.

“What underpins these traits is attitude. Values, if you will. . . it said that women have a greater propensity towards nurturing and sharing whereas men are more inclined to personal achievement and competition”.
I would like to develop this theme.

In a recent discussion on Radio 4 on the numbers of women in senior positions in corporate enterprise, there were 2 protaganists; a “female entrepreneur” and an academic man that had just undertaken an year-long analysis of the subject. Their relative positions should be fairly obvious! The discussion settled on 2 main points;
that in his analysis, the vast majority of businesses that had consciously appointed women into senior positions have actually seen a fall in profitability (the number quoted was in the region of 80%)
and the issue of quotas.

My views on quotas has not changed. I am not a fan. Essentially, if business is “forced” to accommodate women in the boardroom to merely to meet statistical requirements then there is a risk of a reduction in quality. The quoted statistics would tend to bear this out (although I am well aware that statistics can be made to support almost any position taken on a subject; look at the way that the Government delivers “improvements”!). These senior positions MUST be filled on merit, not gender. For this, a change in the openness of selection would, I am sure, help to redress this apparent imbalance At present, we can very rarely see the criteria used for selection. Maybe the “best” have been selected all along? I doubt this but I think I make my point? Quotas are like dropping a huge, unknown weight on one end of a see-saw and expecting it to immediately balance the weight on the other end. True, it MAY settle into some form of equilibrium in time but more likely is the result that the opposing weight will fly off into the atmosphere in a multitude of direction! If not, you are likely to have to wait for some time to see if the see-saw ever balances again. Not recommended.

It made me think, though, about the whole system of balance; for I believe that balance has to be established and maintained. A Yin/Yang balance and NOT a forced equilibrium. Maybe those companies that showed a fall in financial results showed great improvements in other, less “popular” measures? Maybe staff motivation was hugely improved? Maybe more co-operation and communication projects were in place? Maybe the longer term wellbeing issues were being addressed without yet necessarily being reflected in the short term annual fiscal reports? Maybe productivity and wellbeing were improving exponentially but we are yet to see the benefits?

So what? Well, maybe we are looking for the wrong answers? Maybe we are asking the wrong questions?

I am forced to draw upon my own experiences and to set the scene I have no shame in resorting to quotation; I hope that you will indulge me a little:
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”

Far be it from me to dispute the wisdom of the above but I would slightly reorganise the above “process”. I believe that it is your values that influence your thoughts. Our values and overall “belief” system filters, influences and guides our thoughts. What we deem important and significant within our values subconsciously moulds how we construct our thoughts and subsequently our actions. If something ahs little or no significance or influence on our “self” then we are less likely to “give it much thought”.
So; where am I going with this?

Well, IF women have a greater propensity for sharing, communication and co-operation then maybe we need to measure this. The whole business of business is based around financial performance but in my opinion this is out-dated, restricted and open to too much manipulation to be taken on trust (e.g how can Amazon pay virtually no tax?). I refer to my point above: maybe if women are to change the way that business is conducted, maybe we have to re-assess the whole system of measurement? Maybe we have to measure the impact of the business on its stakeholders not just its shareholders? This is something that I am passionate about and is the basis of most of Ethiconomics.
Secondly, there were no statistics provided for “all women” business ventures and their respective population of men in senior positions. Are you in a glass house throwing stones? Do as I say, not as I do? From my perspective I have only been asked to present to 1 womens only group once in 5 years. (Thank you WIRE). It could be that I have nothing relevant to say? It could be because there were better, more relevant speakers? It could be that womens groups only want to speak and interact with women? I do know that there are a multitude of coaches and consultants specifically aimed at supporting women; I have never seen one that specifically only deals with men! I do not know but I DO know that I walk my talk. I have built and developed this magazine with Karen on the back of a personal mission to get more “feminine influence” into business. Those attributes and talents that women are accepted as being better then men” at. I don’t like generalisations but the facts seem to stack up. Are you recreating a business that is simply a mirror image of the system we are trying to change? Will you become the restrictive, bigoted, biased, self-perpetuating tyrant that many men become in these senior roles? Unfortunately these tyrants are, in my experience, more often men but not exclusively so. The role, it seems, creates the person whereas I would much prefer that the person creates the role; in this way, we can permanently change the entire system.

So, back to Ghandi and my slight amendment:.
Your values influence your thoughts, reactions and behaviour. “Values are both personal and universal and are irrespective of role and gender.”
Behaviour is inextricably linked to our values and values indisputably influence our core thought processes and belief systems. Essentially our attitude is the result of our values and beliefs and our behaviour flows from these.

I think that we have to address the system of appointment and not just the numbers: we should be considering why girls still tend to achieve better exam results but by the time that they reach “management” age, they appear to have fallen off the chart. I know that much good work is being done here but clearly it is not effective enough yet. If you do have a business, consider a new approach to measurement and reward. Do you measure your success in any other terms than fiscal? Are you creating a new “system” of business or a new business in the “old way”. What are you actually doing in your work that is fundamentally different to the model that “men in business” have propagated and protected for decades? Are you, in fact, a mere reflection of the male model in reverse?

50 shades of black and white?

I have witnessed and worked with some exceptional women; their numbers are similar to the exceptional men that I have worked with – very few! The system of business dictates a certain type of person with certain characteristics with the ability to deliver standard results. Whether a man or a woman. My earnest and passionate hope is that as we change business, as we change “the system”I hope that we do not simply create the same type of “successful” individual that just happens to be of a different gender!

Your thoughts and values are meaningless without action. Action is the key to change. We have discussed , analysed, reported, debated and even raged against the machine but it is the machine that is broken. We need a new machine, a new system of production if you will, that focuses on values and merit. The right person for the role irrespective of gender and if and when we influence the balance of women on top it will be because you are better than ALL the competition.

I will close with what I think is the most appropriate quotation on this issue that I found:

“Belief means nothing without actions”
― Randa Abdel-Fattah, Does My Head Look Big In This?

We have had the honour and pleasure of working with some wonderful women through our work with this magazine; I know that there are many of you doing many great things but I do believe that it is all too easy to call kettles black when our own bottom is somewhat discoloured!

In summary, we CAN change the system. We WILL change the system but please lets not just recreate the old one. Lets look at the way we integrate thoughts into action. Action into change. Together.

It’s not your money, it’s not all about you, you don’t know everything

It goes without saying that you have read many articles on Leadership. There are many blogs, journals, books, and such, all offering “tips from the top” and “how to make £-gerzillions in 12 months” or “leadership is a mindset” type of perspectives. It is true that many of these articles do indeed offer quality advice so why is this one any different? Well, in its intention, to provide possible ideas to assist the lonely life of the leader, is very much the same. Where this one differs, and hopefully succeeds, is that the cases and references contained herein are based on actual situations, actual events, actual people in actual businesses. And recent too; these are not gathered from the expanding archives, nor dredged from the files of the 70’s and 80,s business records, but refer to recent events.

I mention this for two reasons; firstly to assure you that they are genuine and secondly because some of the issues and practices that I reference here could easily otherwise be mistaken for archaic and archane “pre-elightenment” practices before the time of philanthroprenuers, social enterprise and The Big Society.

I will provide them in order of some personal priority but the order is fluid and by all means juggle the content as you so prefer.

It’s not your money.
Before horror, denial and indignance set in, let me expand.
You are the Leader. Incidentally, by “Leader” I mean in the context of “leading others” – if you are alone then these comments may have less resonance and relevance. You had (and maybe shared) your vision. You invested your time, energy and money; well done but, put simply, if you are providing all the funds for your business after its initial set up and are not recieving income from customers and/or investors then you do not have a business, you have a hobby; and possibly an expensive one. So, back to the point; the money providing funds for you and your business should be from you successfully providing your product to people willing to pay for it. It is your customers who are funding your business; this is not “your” money it belongs to the business and has materialised as a result of the efforts of ALL your staff. Treat it as such. Your staff and partners have contributed and deserve some recognition and they should expect that the “we are all in it together” theory to at least hold some truth for the work they do. Pay yourself how much and how often you like in accordance with the performance of the business but do not strip your business for personal glory and bling. You are the custodian of the funds; treat themand your partners, respectfully.

Its not all about you.
You lead, we know that, but to do that you need followers; if you do not have followers then you are not an inspiring leader of peoples, but are an eccentric performer operating on the fringe of business reality. So, followers it is then and to get followers you need to engage them. I know this may sound somewhat zeitgeist but it holds true for all ages. The “tip” here? Engage them in their own terms, not yours. You may be driven by money, they may not. If they are young and keen then money may well be a priority (to fund the first steps on the property ladder for example) but if they are maturer then longer term commitments such as pensions and investments may be more relevant or social impact and community involvement may motivate them more. Essentially, think about how to engage them in terms that are important to them and not just relevant specifically to you or to the business mission. (Although I would strongly recommend that some social values and objectives are integrated directly into your mission statemnent from the outset.!) An engaged and motivated workforce is far more likely to deliver ALL of your objectives so communicate and listen to their personal requirements and create ways that you can all benefit in terms that are appropriate to all.

And more, detachment will probably allow you a better perspective; standing back to see the wood AND the trees.

You don’t know everything
If you employ people then it makes sense that you believe that they add some value to your business. It follows that you are prepared to let them perform these duties but here’s the rub; just how unhindered are they actually. If you have to make all the decisions; if you have to sign every cheque; if you have to attend every meeting, if you have to check every task that they complete then let’s be honest, they are considerably hindered. Essentially you do not trust them to do their work. The answer; trust them and prove this by your actions. Delegate, communicate, share, support them; inspire them to be creative and innovative. They probably know more about what they do than you do so create and environment that encourages this knowledge and innovation and a culture that supports it. Trust is something that is better shared and the only way to test trust-worthiness is to actually trust someone. If they can trust you to lead them, you should be able to trust them to follow.

Essentially, detach, empower, trust. Business is about people. Your u-s-p is made all the more unique because of the definitive uniqueness of you and your staff. An innovative product or incredible service will always differentiate you from you competitors but it is your relationship and leadership of your partners and employees that will really drive home your uniqueness. As a leader you have a duty to support your followers as much as they have a duty to behave responsibly and be trustworthy with your business. They have a self responsibility, you have a “collective” one.

There are innumerable tools and techniques on the market but these, above, I hope are examples of a few fundamental truths. Detach, empower, trust. What can be the worse that happens – you can always go back to the “old ways” !!

So you think sustainable business is just about being green?

I love words. I particularly like the way that old words are given new life and meaning when deployed in a new context. Employee “engagement”, “responsibility”, business “ethics” are examples and so too the current vogue with “sustainable” business.  I view sustainability from a broader perspective, however, than carbon footprints and recycling, and I do not wish to over-simplify or undermine the whole “green” business agenda; far from it actually; I am passionate about “green” business practices and they form an important part of my holistic (and there’s another for you!) approach to “sustainable” business.

So what is the Ethiconomics view of sustainable business?  Essentially, there are 6 key areas;

  • People and profits
  • Self and collective responsibility
  • Collaboration and competition
  • Stakeholders and shareholder management
  • Influence “Up” (ethical investment)
  • Ecological thinking.


These areas are the very building blocks of ethiconomical business and THAT is sustainable business; I shall briefly elaborate on some of the above.

Firstly, a business has to be profitable. In the short term there may be the option to run at losses or to supplement revenue with loans and grants or shareholder investment but in the long term, profits allow for re-investment into the business (as well as paying wages etc) and cannot be ignored. Ok, some business models, charities for example, are spared some of this fiscal responsibility, but investors, including fund raisers and philanthropists, require that an investment is being managed professionally and commercially astutely. In my experience there is too little “social” in commercial enterprise and too little “commerce” in social enterprise. Far too often I come across well-meaning people with a socially-valuable idea but with no concept of business management and entrepreneurs that pay lip-service to social responsibility. Sustainability means effective profit creation and management.

People are key here. It is the attitude, skills, motivation, fulfilment, creativity and inclination of the people in your business that will drive it forward (or at least create the differentiator between you and your competitors). People ARE business; make no mistake about that. If you want your business to grow, you and your people must grow too. If you want your business to last, then a long term view that incorporates the culture and values of your business must be developed so as to encourage development of you and your people.  Everything changes and continuous improvement, a key to sustainability, must involve people development.

Another cornerstone to sustainability is responsibility; personal and collective, which, in more familiar parlance, can be recognised as “corporate responsibility”. If you say it, do it! Too many companies, which at the end of the day means too many people, talk about corporate responsibility but fail to integrate it completely into operational strategy. Spin, rhetoric and PR. The whole issue of corporate responsibility is, in its own way, very much part of the zeitgeist but how much of these “policies” is actually delivered? How much is it put on the back-burner because of the “economic conditions”? I would argue much. Corporate (collective) responsibility is more than a policy for the cupboard or a cheque to the local cricket team. Here again it is people that matter because it is people – shareholders, directorate, management, staff et al, that make and deploy these policies. It is the values of the individuals who are ultimately responsible that dictates the genuine commitment to corporate responsibility programs. I can tell you one thing that is an absolute truth here; responsibility is NOT for someone else. You are responsible for your own thoughts and actions. You are responsible for your performance. You are responsible for your values. You are the agents of change – if you want it that is – and if you do not, then be prepared to be replaced. Replaced by others that ARE prepared to be authentic and who are committed to genuine values; those are prepared to lead change. Sustainability means evolving to cater for change. In fact, to protect in any way against the vagaries of the economic climate then a whole new way of doing business must evolve and responsibility at a personal level is, I believe, key to this evolution. Consider how you trade, who you trade with, what values they represent, how they conduct themselves. Do they truly reflect your values or are you compromising for the short term gain? Sustainable business means surviving and growing so I recommend that you understand your values and deploy these in all of your working relationships. Walk your “ethical” talk and find partners, staff and investors that share your vision. Do not be tempted by the short term; sustainable businesses are in it for the long term.

That brings me nicely onto my third topic; that of collaboration. I have written in this magazine previously about this and recommend that you search out the full articles but essentially sustainable business requires sustainable business models.  Innovative models, if you like, but not necessarily new ones. Collaboration itself is not new and neither is competition but in a global economy where job stability is reduced, where change is increasing at a pace never known before, where competition can come from thousands of miles away (via the internet etc) and where cheaper labour in the emerging markets is threatening the whole base of the Western trade, collaboration will become increasingly important. Whether this is a joint venture, short-term partnership or a long term strategic alliance is a moot point. We, you, will have to find increasingly creative and mutually beneficial arrangements to sell your products and services; the times of competition based on price will not sustain you. Understanding your unique proposition, your unique value and values and then finding like-minded partners will become increasingly important to your long term survival whether these partners were competitors, suppliers or previously unknown to you does not matter. What matters is that you find ways to work together, with the required mutual sharing of input and rewards (which do not always have to be strictly financial) will allow you to enter markets that you alone would not be able to crack.

Finally, a quick word on how to do this, which incidentally brings my piece full circle, so to speak. Think “ecologically”. What does this mean? Well, it’s simple; just apply this quick test.

  • Is this good for me?
  • Is this good for my group? (business, family, etc)
  • Is this good for my community?
  • Is this good for the environment?

Ask yourself these questions and be honest with your responses.

Sustainable business means a business that can survive. It means a business that can evolve. It means a business that is aware, responsible and ethical. A business connected to its values, to its stakeholders AND to its environment.

What do you believe ?

If you listen to the news, business and otherwise, then the picture is one of desperately seeking silver linings and blame for why we are where we are. It was consumers, Labour, Blair, the Banks, the EU policy on the Euro nations, Ireland, Greece, Spain et al. Inflation is increasing as is unemployment (I don’t accept the number-manipulation that purports to tell us that unemployment is falling at the same time as the number of available jobs falls too).

If you get your news from the internet and avoid the spin and rhetoric from a stream of unqualified and incompetent “experts”, then there are certainly islands of hope and calm within this maelstrom of Western economic meltdown. Germany is doing OK thanks. China and Russia, not to mention India, are growing aggressively. Even our lacklustre Government is making hundreds of millions available for small businesses and huge investments in the country’s civil infrastructure; or so we are told.

Me? Well I don’t watch the news. I want the facts not an editorial based around spin and opinion. I want to know what is actually happening. This, I know from years of ego-driven Government, greed-driven banks and the media turning into some bizarre combination of seedy spectacularism and fake celebrity, is not easy to find out. The truth IS out there but it will require more than X-files-dedication to find it. Molder and Scully thought that they were confronted with cover up, distraction, conspiracy and lies. Ha! A mere bagatelle compared to establishing the facts in a “down-turn” – apparently it is not a recession – single or double dip!

So, what do I believe?

I believe that we have to find a new way in the global economy. We will not be able to compete with the growing nations for manufacturing output and will be paying a premium for raw materials and energy. We will not recover, or be able to manage a global economy by playing the same game with the same rules. The game has changed and so must we. We must find a new way of competing, of doing business in general in fact, where we do not hold all the cards in the pack with a couple of aces up our collective sleeves. We may even not get invited to play let alone set the rules of the new game. I believe, however, we have an outstanding opportunity. It is far from being all doom and gloom and it will take commitment, flexibility, creativity and co-operation. We will have to create new and innovative business models as well as products and services. We will have to embrace new technology – like social media and digital commerce. We will have to re-evaluate why we do business and how we do it. We will have to consider alternatives to pure profit. We will have to invest in ourselves as much as our business and measure our “success” on different terms. We will have to change and be prepared to keep changing.

Some suggestions then.
Co-operate. Create co-operative and collaborative business ventures that focus on projects and relationships rather than simply the bottom line. I have tried this on several recent occasions – it works if all parties are committed to the “whole” and not just to their personal gain. It is generally better to have a smaller portion of a bigger proposition than to get 100% of nothing! Collaborating and co-operative models invite a democratic approach to strategy and management and also invites you to work closer with your staff, supply chain and community and potentially even your competitors. What you may not win alone, you may well win together.

We need to influence “up”. We need to be able to influence investors in the social or community benefits of our business models and encourage an environment of legacy. This is tricky as we invariably face the “old school” mentality still presented by the so-called business “Dragons” (or “Angels; depending upon your experience I guess). Ethical investment is not a new concept but it is one that still needs to be embraced. Not every investor is a natural philanthropist!

We need to invest in training and development. Too often business cuts its training budget in times of cash shortage. Wrong! Investing in yourself and your people will future-proof your business and support it being genuinely sustainable. You may have a good product, you may have a huge mailing list and networks of thousands but it is you and your people that operate your business. Personal and professional development is essential for long term (and continued) success. People not just profits.

We need to think ecologically. What do I mean? Well, basically review your business strategy against the following;
is it good for me? (the usual and “accepted“ first criteria)
is it good for my group (business, social, familial etc)
is it good for my community? (local supply options, collaboration, etc)
is it good for the environment? (carbon footprints, re-cycling, local supply etc)
If you re-evaluate your strategies and objectives along these lines then how many would you change? How many of your current business “drivers” are solely financially-based? Is this working?

Finally, and most importantly perhaps, we need to be responsible; personally and collectively (corporately). Too many time we can slip into the “poor me” scenario or allow difficult times to take the blame. You are responsible for where you are today, what you are doing and where you want to be. Grab your life and take responsibility for it. If you don’t like it, change it. If you cannot change it immediately, invest in your own future. If you cannot do either (and I am sure that you can to some degree), then find something about your current position that makes you happy and provides sufficient sustenance. Your employer may not be able to invest in you or to make to feel valued and content, but you can.

Whether you are an independent business owner, the leader of a huge conglomerate or struggling “manfully” in the face of the worstening storm, you DO have the power to change. You do have the choice. You do have the chance to evaluate your business and life on different terms – your own terms. You are unique so step back, think again, listen to your intuition and keep focussed on your own rewards. So you have not yet bought that Caribbean island retreat but so what? You are just finding a new way to get there; your way. The leader of Bhutan states that he measures his country’s success on its GHP not its GDP; this is the gross happiness of its people not its gross domestic product; how wonderful. What if you ran your business on the same grounds? How happy are you? How happy do you want to be? How much does just money really matter to the quality of your life?

Just a thought!

Is there is enough social in enterprise

Is there enough “enterprise” in social enterprise and enough “social” in commercial enterprise?

The Big Society is two years old later this month, and in her article in Social Enterprise LiveWire, Daniela Barone Soares makes the following, and I think extremely valid, points;

“the missing trick is the first step (in the process of social business enterprise) the relatively minuscule committed investment in the capacity of the most innovative and effective charities and social enterprises.”

This, she further argues, creates two possible scenarios:

“One scenario is that the social investment vehicles it will fund end up indistinguishable from ethical investors, providing capital to businesses that do no harm, but not much good either. Worse, social investment might distort the funding environment so that voluntary and social sector organisations are pulled away from their primary missions and towards activities that generate a return, but no social value. In this scenario, nobody benefits except private finance.”

As far as the Big Society is concerned, my personal jury is out. Daniela appears to echo some of my concerns.

I do have others though. Having completed numerous talks and delivered many business strategy presentations, to Start Up programme and self-funded budding entrepreneurs, I have been disturbed by the general level of basic business (commercial) acumen. I am also concerned that people, hugely ill-equipped in many instances, are being encouraged into private enterprise without full knowledge of the risks, time, and money involved in running your own business and, possibly even more importantly, the possibility of failure. Why is this relevant? Well because up to 50% of these individuals wanted to set up “social” enterprises, delivering services into the gaps in the Public Sector. I was always in admiration of their passion but regularly left these meetings with a sense of dread and foreboding for essentially well-intended and positive individuals.

It made me think at the time that most businesses fail. Many re-invent themselves and re-emerge stronger and wiser, that indominable enterprising spirit, but is this “start and fail” trend healthy for social enterprise? Should social enterprise have to complete other, more long term reviews and receive more commercial support because of the likely dependency of some recipient of these services upon the business providing the service? Should we test more, but give more (including but not restricted to funding) to social enterprise?

An idea.

Would it be reasonable to formally incorporate responsibilities into the statutory requirements of corporate directors; to provide time and support to social enterprises?

Can we “make” the big bosses and experienced professionals that flourish in the commercial sector commit to social enterprise; in advisory or Non-Exec roles, as formal mentors and business consultants?

The emotions that still surround the various banking and corporate bonus scandals are not just running deep because of the sums of money being paid to senior executives in a society that is supposed to believe that “we are all in it together”, but also because of the blatent disregard for others – customers, the public and society as a whole. Their apparent devotion to personal wealth and obsession with greed has undoubtedly contributed to the worse UK depression for decades.

I am not a “rules and regulations” type. I would prefer that people be given boundaries and guidelines to work within and that they let their own sense of duty and responsibility guide them to acceptable “performance”. I also try to allow that as much authority and freedom to innovate accompany the responsibility. This I find is on the whole a healthier and more fulfilling approach to work but maybe one that allows for too much temptation. Can we really cope with huge decisions and social impact? Additionally, in these times of “who can I blame?” society is becoming increasingly litigious and appears to be less “public spirited”. I would much prefer that corporate directorate offered their time and experience; I am sure that some do. However, if we cannot encourage these better off, better experienced, better prepared individuals to support social enterprise, then maybe we have to legislate it. I am currently working with a chap called Paul Moore; the HSBC whistle-blower, in his new social venture, The New Wilberforce Alliance

One of it’s worthy goals is to banish the pursuit of greed and one way that he is attempting to do this is to propose legislation regarding the fiduciary responsibility of corporate directors. I would like to take this example further and introduce social responsibilities also.

I am not talking of ineffective “corporate social responsibility” documents. I have little time for those. I am talking about legally-backed, formal social responsibility of each and every senior executive to provide time and service to the social sector and to social enterprises in particular.

What would this achieve?

Well, quite simply it would ensure that there is extensive and experienced “commercial” support regularly and permanently available to social enterprises and that each and every executive has personal “social” responsibility above and beyond the general corporate social responsibility of their company as a whole.

It seems to me that far too many executives forget why they do their job or get caught in the profits trap. Why not encourage them to serve more people, to leave a lasting legacy and to develop sustainable social enterprise within their very own local communities?

As I said, just a thought!

Fred Goodwin; a lesson in Responsibility or lack of it for us all?

We all know the latest today I am sure. The stripping of the honour presented to banking ex-head, Fred Goodwin.
I have heard such statements as “catalogues of failures”, “as CEO, he was and is responsible”, “direct cost to taxpayers and business”. Questions about integrity, responsibility and due process. Personal activities, such as tantrums if the biscuits weren’t pink, his jet and huge pension and clear disregard for his Board members do not suggest a responsible approach to his business. He may be a scapegoat but he IS clearly responsibile to a large degree for making lots of money for himself, misery for many investors and a huge influence in the financial crisis.

I have attached below the section on responsibility from An A-Z of Ethiconomics.

Responsibility and Referral (self)
• the ability or authority to act or decide on one’s own, without supervision

We are completely responsible for everything that we do. I accept that you may view this as a little contentious but I believe it to be true. We cannot always control the thoughts that we have. We cannot always manage our emotions effectively and how we feel has a strong correlation to how we think but, and it is a big but, we can and do control how we act; how we behave. You have both the ability and the authority to decide how you act (behave). It is in this context that I mean “self referral”. An example of this tendency towards denial of self responsibility is the growth in the litigious society; someone else is always to blame; it is always someone else’s fault. We are increasingly handing over responsibility for our actions (and lack of them) to others, be that other individuals, the state, corporate enterprise or some abstract sense of “religious” instruction and worse, blaming them for the outcome. Personal responsibility, it would seem, is a responsibility too far. Not so, say I.

“Whenever we seek to avoid the responsibility for our own behavior, we do so by attempting to give that responsibility to some other individual or organization or entity. But this means we then give away our power to that entity.”
M. Scott Peck

We are the result of the sum of all the decisions and actions that we have taken to this point in our life. It is nobody else’s fault. Nobody else should be blamed. Stop absolving yourself from being responsible for your own condition and take control of it. Once you accept a mind set of personal responsibility then you are in a position to change your life completely; keep looking outside for reasons and excuses and you can stay where you are forever.

Many great men and women, leaders and great minds, have recognized this for generations. It is our generation that is drifting into a dangerous pattern of external blame and lack of self referral. It is a dangerous path we tread. I am not suggesting that I am in some way perfect here, merely that I have recognized that responsibility for myself is critical to my own personal development.

“In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.”
Eleanor Roosevelt

Once again, personal responsibility for our behaviour is solely and absolutely, ours.

“You must take personal responsibility. You cannot change the circumstances, the seasons, or the wind, but you can change yourself. That is something you have charge of.”
Jim Rohn

We set the standards for others to follow and by adopting a position of self responsibility and self referral we can develop our passion to live our lives to the full; to accomplish our dreams.

“Man must cease attributing his problems to his environment, and learn again to exercise his will – his personal responsibility in the realm of faith and morals.”
Albert Schweitzer

So what better time than now? It is a relatively simple task and requires nothing but a change of mind. The past is the past and we can learn from it but not be controlled by it. The future for us all is for our own creation so I simply urge that you be responsible for your own.

“We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.”
George Bernard Shaw

Will we learn from this?
Will we, as individuals blame bankers when we ouselves spend beyond our own means?
Will we let business leaders be hung out to dry?
Will we be personally responsible and take this integrity into our business?

Diversity; vive la difference

• the state or fact of being diverse; difference; unlikeness
• variety; multiformity

Diversity has become something of a business buzzword and as such has attracted attention, created policies and guidelines and even established organisations specialised in promoting its inherent virtues. At the highest level this is a little confusing because, if you simply take the definitions above at face value, then there is a simple truth. We are all different, none of us are exactly alike and variety is a simple truism.

So why the big issue and how does this affect you and your business?
To quote from the National Centre For Diversity:
“Diverse means different. We are all different, therefore diversity includes us all.”

“There never were in the world two opinions alike, no more than two hairs or two grains; the most universal quality is diversity”
Michel de Montaigne

Diversity in the workplace addresses the subject from the perspective that in a global marketplace, a company that employs a diverse workforce, meaning both sexes, multiple age groups, varied ethnic and racial groups and such like, is better able to consider the details, demands and demographics of the market, and is thus better equipped to succeed.
As a business person this makes consummate sense because if we are only employing one specific type of resource and addressing only one specific section of the community, then our chances for expansion and growth are inherently restricted. Typically, however, application of the principle has associated benefits and challenges.

Diversity is beneficial to both the organisation and its stakeholders (you, your customers, your shareholders, your community etc). It potentially allows for substantial benefits such as better decision making and improved problem solving by encouraging creativity and innovation. The variety of diverse inputs naturally creates a wider range of potential outputs and results. This is particularly relevant, but not exclusively so, when considering product development and marketing to different customers and market sectors.

By embracing diversity in an organisation you can:
• help link the variety of talents within the organisation
• allow for those employees with these talents to feel needed and have a sense of belonging, which in turn increases their commitment to the company and
• allow each of them to contribute in a unique way
• provide your company with the ability to understand and
compete in global markets.

“Diversity: the art of thinking independently together.”
Malcolm Forbes

Companies that embrace and utilise diversity have the potential to be more successful as long as there are appropriate and inclusive methods of communication within them. This becomes clear when we understand that people from different cultures, backgrounds, age groups and even personalities perceive messages in different ways. Poor communication within any environment has the potential to compound normal operational challenges, but in a diverse workplace it could present even greater challenges.

There are many challenges which face culturally diverse workplaces, and a major challenge is mis-communication within the organisation:

• native and non-native speakers are exposed to the same messages, but may interpret the information differently
• cultural and behavioural differences may require to be integrated and assimilated into the company

There is a final perspective on diversity that would like to consider; that of quality. When I worked in corporate world the company that I worked for prided itself on being “equal opportunity”. It stated that it recruited irrespective of race, creed, colour, gender. Inevitably, the numbers never quite stacked up. There was a reasonable representation of women in the workplace but mainly in administration, training and the canteen! There were only 3 female engineers and no senior management. After a few years away, I re-joined in a different division and the balance was a little more healthy with women in more sales and marketing roles, accounts and IT; only one in senior management. The “cultural” mix of the company in no way reflected the mix within our society but the “equal opportunity” message was still trumpeted from the towers of power. I have two observations that may well provide some justification, or at least explanation for this.

Firstly, equal opportunity means just that. I do not agree with forced equality. Quotas mask the issue. Recruitment and promotion to keep the numbers balanced is ill-advised and pointless. Ensuring that opportunity and development are available for all members of our community should be the duty and intent of every socially-focussed entrepreneur.
Secondly, it is about value, attitude and behaviour NOT gender, race or colour. One of my little quips in these times was that the company was in fact an equal opportunity employer but it had taken the principle one step too far – it recruited irrespective of ability too! Business has a social duty but it cannot support that duty effectively by employing staff to meet quotas to the detriment of the overall performance of the team and the business. We all have a personal responsibility to invest in and develop ourselves. If we are not genuinely good enough on take on a role with all the rigours and challenges then we should not get the job. Simple as that.

My view is that IF you are good enough, you are good enough, and if not, then no balancing of quotas (gender, race, ethnicity or whatever) should be allowed to corrupt or falsely achieve “balance”. As leaders and entrepreneurs we should ensure that the opportunities exist, that assessment is fair and that the support is available, other than that it’s up to you as an individual. Make sure that you are good enough. Make sure that you invest in yourself.

I am pro-diversity with a passion and I am ante-discrimination – positive or negative. Diversity is natural. Embrace it, use it, and benefit from it. Vive la difference!