A Conscious Enterprises Network

by Dr Roy Woodhead

The idea of a network of conscious enterprises sounds great, but what does that involve and how can any sense of progress or improvement be achieved? The very words “conscious enterprises” implies some sense of ‘enlightened enterprise’.

In general, the idea of enlightenment tends to focus on an individual. There are retreats, courses, even online resources to help us as individuals to participate in some developmental journey, deemed as a path to enlightenment by some expert. There is often a fee involved which links to a business model.

What if a collection of enlightened individuals were to form a group? Groups of enlightened people have been held as a possibility such as in Plato’s “The Republic”. Plato did not believe in democracy as he thought the majority of voters would easily be swayed by the influencers of the day, the “Sophists”. He put forward the idea of ‘philosopher kings’ to lead us. They would not be allowed material gains but would be well looked after; their economic neutrality and lack of vested interests were seen as very important for effective government by the philosopher kings.

If we look at some collapsed large corporations such as Enron, we can see how a more enlightened cadre of leader would not have made the blunders they did. This raises the idea that if we can increase the level of awareness inside a corporation, or in any other group, we should expect to see wiser decision making, if and only if, awareness is built in authentic ways and not subject to biases and persuasive agenda that benefit a few, but not the many.

No group, company, or even society exists in isolation. We are all connected to natural systems, economic systems, political systems and so on. This means a development in one system causes a change in another. From Covid-19 to Brexit, we live in functioning systems that influence the conditions we exist within. Can we enjoy greater prosperity through the sharing of information, knowledge, and experiences and hopefully more wisdom?

To advance the idea of a Conscious Enterprises Network, a collection of organisations that connect with each other to improve shared mindfulness, we first we need a theory of how groups can systematically achieve some form of higher consciousness, some form of enlightenment.  We could look at the emergence of Network Science and consider what might be possible if groups of more enlightened people were better connected within a single organisation, and if that more-enlightened-organisation, connected with other enlightened-organisations.

The idea of groups such as society evolving their consciousness was a central theme of the philosopher Georg Hegel (1770-1831). A key theme in Hegel’s philosophy is that history repeats itself but at higher levels of sophistication, an oscillation between the consolidation of wealth and power and its distribution. One of his students, Bruno Bauer, taught Hegel’s views to Karl Marx (1818-1883). Through Bauer, Marx took Hegel’s ideas and set about trying to bring them to fruition. For Marx, the idea of socialism and communism were evolutionary steps in a progressive societal advancement.

Looking at various attempts to bring about ‘Communism’, from Stalin’s ‘Five Year Plans’ to Moa’s ‘Permanent Revolution’ shows how Marx’s seminal ideas had to deal with far more complexity than he envisaged. This is important to acknowledge for I suspect we are seeing a similar change-resistance happening to the environmental agenda. To avoid a similar naive blunder, we need to explore and understand the complexities so that we can create plans that have more chance of being effective and successful, whatever those words actually mean.

Let me try and make this ‘real’ for you. Even if you may not be explicitly aware of them, you have experienced transformations in your life. The person you are today, reading this article, is a much more sophisticated person as compared to when you were four-year-old. You are more aware of complexity in the world today than all those years ago. This is what consciousness is, a widening and deepening of awareness that hopefully leads to better decisions and engagement with reality.

The development of higher levels of consciousness can stall; we are all different in one way or another. For example, if we consider two humans, one born in a loving and caring environment in a middle-class environment in say the UK and another born in extreme poverty, orphaned in a most brutal way in war torn Syria, then they are unlikely to evolve from childhood to adulthood in a comparable way. Their inner-experiences will be moulded by the conditions thrust upon them in external outer-contexts.

We need a way to understand the complexities a change agenda might meet for the individual, the group, the organisation, the society and so on. There is so much complexity involved, this article can only ever hope to start further exploratory conversations. It cannot be the definitive answer, nor does it pretend to be.

There are numerous approaches and methodologies offering advice on how to become more enlightened. Each sees things from a slightly different perspective and for a particular context. For example, Otto Scharmer’s “Theory U” is a way of talking of layers of awareness from the perspective of a change agenda and is useful for organisational leaders and project managers. Frederic Laloux borrows and adapts from other views to give us a narrative around “Reinventing Organizations” that is useful for self-organising employees in ‘leaderless organisations’.

Ken Wilber, an American philosopher, attempts to unify different philosophies in what is known as “Integral Theory”. An attractive idea that will ultimately struggle with the key problem, not everyone is on the same page at the same time. And there is the key problem, we are all on different pages.

In this article I will pick one such methodology to explore a more complex view of reality, not because it is in any way superior to other views, just that it is an easy way to explain one way to step back and see how things might be working. I ask you to simply consider it as one view amongst many and the more views you consider, the more you become sensitised to the myriad nuances in reality.

My philosophical position needs to be declared. I believe there is one reality outside us but through flawed human faculties we cannot fully comprehend it, a Kantian view. I think this is pragmatic too as it means when someone else says something such as “entanglement is causation at a distance” I must not dismiss them because this is counter to my experience, I need to try and understand their insight and from their perspective.

Our development as individuals can been mapped to stages. Some psychologists argue there are seven stages of human development, others offer a different number of stages. A similar ‘fuzzy’ mapping is possible for the history of dominant philosophical paradigms. This is leading to a proposed framework to organise our thoughts about reality and help us gain insights, but we must remember our framework is just a simplistic impression; seeing the contour lines on a map is different to panting as you walk up a steep hill.

Spiral Dynamics is the framework I will base my explanation on but will adapt it in parts to explain it better. This framework of how humans cope with existential problems was originally put forward by an American psychologist, Clare W. Graves. It was a theory that sought to explain belief systems shared by groups of people and its relationship to the external conditions. For example, why do youths in tough neighbourhoods carry knifes?

Don Beck and Christopher Cowan popularised Graves’ theories in a book published in the 1990s.  Since the first edition, their core view has been elaborated and extended. I will try to explain the states in ways that are easy for you to relate to. I hope this will make it more meaningful and help you critique the descriptions others offer, so you can surface your own deeper insights.

Please get a scrap of paper and build this model as I explain it so you ‘get it’. First draw two vertical lines and at the top of the left one write, “Focus on self” and at the top of the other write, “Focus on others”. See the final version (See Figure 1) for guidance but please do draw it so that you get the model before we add more complexity to it.

Figure 1: Final model we build one step at a time

Starting at the bottom of “Focus on self” write “BEIGE: Animalistic”. This is a very primitive level of consciousness. You experienced this as a new born baby. You could not comprehend anything outside your own internal world that was limited to blunt ideas of happiness and pain or discomfort. Under certain conditions some adults can revert to this primitive way of being.

On the other vertical line of “Focus on others” just a little up from the bottom to imply a wider awareness than the level Beige is on, write “PURPLE: Tribal”. This is where a sense of belonging to a group larger than self starts. Your first experience of this was as a baby, when you cried for food or to have your nappy changed, it was your primary carer that appeared in your awareness to ‘put things right for you’. As we will see, and straight out of Hegel, you will return to these ‘ways of experiencing’ but at a higher level. One only has to think of football fans chanting on the terraces to see a tribal state of shared awareness at work.

Next we come back to the “Focus on self” vertical line, a little higher than Tribal. This time write “RED: Egocentric”. This is where the ego often overshadows the contemplative moments. As a baby, the first time you probably experienced this state was in your ‘terrible twos’.  As a Beige becoming aware of the tribe that looked after you, for most that would be your mother and father, you learn that every time you cry you get the reaction, the service, that you wanted. There comes a point when the demands on the tribe are too much and service is not as forthcoming as wanted, so frustration leads to tantrum. One only has to think of tweets made by President Trump to see how this level of consciousness can be with us into late adulthood. In industry we called some managers ‘gun slingers’ because they would shoot from the hip without pausing to get a more complete understanding.

What is important to realise is that we must experience each stage before advancing to develop fully. Beck and Cowan call this “Transcend and Include”. When we are in one level of consciousness we must transcend it but always include it. This takes years rather than the quick fix claims of those selling instant enlightenment for thousands of pounds or dollars. There are cases where when faced with difficulties, some people retreat to the known comfort of a previously experienced level of consciousness rather than lean into the next one. Some people miss out on a step and it can cause issues later in life. In a documentary about Steve Jobs, the early ‘belonging to family’ did not happen well for him and later in life this seemed to affect his view of various relationships, especially to his daughter as a father.

For the sake of explanation, we discuss the various levels of consciousness as if they are discrete stations on a train line. That is not how they work though. They are more like pots of paint knocked over one on top of another so that the last colour might dominate but the others are there too.

From RED, we now oscillate back to “Focus on others”. Write “BLUE: Rule based belief systems”. My words are different to Beck and Cowans because I want to show how BLUE is an evolution of PURPLE. As a child you were taught how to comply with rule-based systems such as at school, wearing a school uniform and so on; it was an evolution of tribe. For some, this sense of ‘belonging’ and of the value created becomes very influential in future career choices. People who go to church regularly seem to submit to their view of higher laws given by God and so on. From nurses to soldiers, some professions are a good fit for people in this way of experiencing and making sense of the world.

Up to this stage, the role of magic and superstition has been implicit in how the levels of consciousness discussed so far have played out. From a tribe sacrificing a goat to church goers praying for an end to Covid-19, non-scientific beliefs are a part of how people have coped with being in the world. The next level of consciousness breaks with that link and emerged out of the ‘enlightenment’ era. However, just as Karl Marx’s idea of communism underestimated complexity, so too did the main protagonists of what would become known as ‘Modernism’.

Moving back to the left line titled “Focus on self”, write “ORANGE: Cause-Effect manipulation”.  This is the mind set that dismissed superstition and tried to explain reality as the bare bones of cause and effect relationships. This is the paradigm that calls for science and technology to solve all our problems. The rational thinker is encouraged not to trust their emotions and consider only the facts. Michael Corleone in the Godfather Two movie lives in his head and eventually orders the assassination of his own brother, like the planning of a chess move; in the next film he transcends this cold calculating paradigm. It is from this paradigm that many sources of innovation have emerged from drugs that save lives to humans landing on the moon. At the same time, the idea of ‘progress’ has seeped into our consciousness in the form of achieving continuing economic growth through the never ending pursuit of ‘efficiency’. The modernists have brought us material advancement but at a cost to powerless humans and the planet’s natural ecosystem. This asymmetric power between technocrats and the people gave rise to a reaction known as ‘Post Modernism’.

We now swing back to the line on the right titled “Focus on others” and this time write, “GREEN; Pluralism”. This level of consciousness sees holistic interconnected relationships. Whereas in ORANGE, experts were ‘right’ because they advanced a ‘one dimensional’ explanation proven with statistics, this new level of consciousness accepts the possibility of multiple perspectives and from different levels of awareness (i.e., Pluralism). People like Greta Thunberg driving an agenda of more environmental awareness operate in this level of consciousness. However, like all the levels of consciousness we have discussed so far, those in GREEN fail to understand why others “simply don’t get it”.

What we have discussed so far is called Tier 1. In Tier 1, those experiencing the world in a particular paradigm tend to dismiss others operating out of a different paradigm, as somehow inferior; if you don’t see things the way my paradigm sees them then you must be dumb kind of thing. As a consequence, no single paradigm can dominate as they are often in conflict before any discussion can start. For ORANGE they cannot get “Tree huggers” as burning fossil fuels is an economically superior option whereas for GREEN burning fossil fuels is killing the planet. For ORANGE manipulating variables is how you achieve progress but for BLUE it is all about trusting our leaders.  For RED it is about ignoring others and seizing an opportunity whereas for BLUE it is about fitting in with what others believe. We are all on different pages at the same time.

The next tier, Tier 2, is where we become aware of the levels of consciousness and see them as a natural part of the world we live in. Draw a horizontal above GREEN and title it “Boundary between Tier 1 and Tier 2”

Moving back to the left vertical line called “Focus on self” and in Tier 2, write “YELLOW: Systemic”. I break away from Beck and Cowan’s view here. I see this as the level of consciousness held by the likes of heads of state and senior Civil Servants who draw the maps of countries as territories are carved up by say military action.  To my mind they are Tier 2 and like the conductor of an orchestra create the conditions and stimuli that others in Tier 1 react to, puppet masters and puppets.  However, they put a notion of self-interest above consideration for others. This may be a wider sense of self than for say RED that only thinks of themselves. If we consider colonialism we clearly see an idea of patriotism and one power exerting its influence over another nation with exploitative “us and them” relations.

There seems to be a new level of consciousness emerging in reaction to YELLOW which examples exist for. If you move back to “Focus on others” write “TEAL: Purposefulness”. This is where the different levels of consciousness are accepted and rather than trying to play them off against each other as in YELLOW, here they are aligned to the pursuit of an outcome that is deemed worthy and ‘just’ by all involved. Frederic Laloux’ s book, “Reinventing Organizations” gives us some insights into this emergence. I have explored this paradigm and found a lot of ORANGE consultants talking as if they are TEAL in order to drum up revenue, caveat emptor. However, I think that might also be part of the evolutionary process where we become more aware of how to recognise those we should and should not pay too much attention to.

Picture by Scott Webb

I will stop here and pose the question, how can we authentically help organisations move up at least one level of higher consciousness? To my mind that is what a Conscious Enterprises Network should be about.

About the author

Dr Roy Woodhead has a varied career starting as a bricklayer before achieving a first at Sheffield City Polytechnic. His interest in innovation led to a PhD at the University of Leeds in complex inter-organisational decision making. As an academic at Oxford Brookes University for over ten years, he was an innovation consultant on many projects within upstream oil & gas and other industries. He left academia to work in the enterprise compute industry for EDS, HP, HPE. This spanned the decline of IT outsourcing, the cloud wars, the rise of managed services, IoT, AI, ML, and the realisation that digital technology was driving profound changes in society though new means of communication. He now investigates Business Analytics at Sheffield Hallam University’s ‘Business School’ as a key skill to help businesses to adapt their business models and transform the way they create value as an enterprise.

Dr Roy Woodhead can be found on LinkedIn at: Roy Woodhead | LinkedIn


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