Blog > Giles Hutchins

Addressing Current Insanity Starts with Silence

Giles Hutchins says many people already innately know what he unpacks in his book on the need for business and society to learn how to thrive from nature. “The challenge for them is how do they make it relevant for today; they know it, but they’re still in this paradox of having to meet the next quarterly returns,” Giles tells Axiom News.

A management consultant with more than 15 years’ experience, Giles says he’s seeing his role as helping create space and time for people to reflect on these ideas, giving them stories of inspiration of other companies that are doing it, that are being more resilient and are being more successful as a result; “so they can see it’s about good business sense, rather than “gosh, a new paradigm to get my head around.”

Axiom News spoke with Giles about his book, the Nature of Business, what brought him to this subject, and what gives him hope that ideas such as those he offers can in fact regenerate our economy and society.

What’s the commitment you hold that brought you to explore the subject you do in your book The Nature of Business?

Giles: From an early age I recognized that there was a significant problem with the way that we were behaving. Whether it was in seeing exhausts coming out of a car or sewage draining into the sea, things didn’t seem quite right and I hoped that we had a strategy up our sleeve and so went about trying to find what that strategy was.

And what I recognized as I got on with it was that the relationship between us, humanity, — or at least the prevalent paradigm of humanity — and nature was the root cause of the challenges that we face, so that whether it be AIDs or poverty, climate change, whatever, it all came back to that root cause.

So my love of nature, which I probably had from birth, combined with an understanding of business, as I was engaged with KPMG, then Atos a global IT firm and more recently in sustainable business, took me to looking at how we could go about creating a bridge between business and nature, which spawned the thinking of the book.

How can we move beyond this concept of just sustaining, doing less bad, to actually going into a place where we can be proud of what we do because it actually helps us thrive and it helps life on earth thrive?

What surprised you most in doing the research for this?

Giles: I think there was the fact that I started uncovering the need for a paradigm shift, which wasn’t what I originally set out to look at.

And what was interesting is that there were a number of gems in a whole variety of disciplines that were tackling this from different angles.

So for example, biomimicry with Janine Benyus, organizational design and the learning organization with Peter Senge; leadership itself and the relationship with the ego and how we engage with more volatile business environments building on concepts like Theory-U and Otto Scharmer’s work. I also came across eco-literacy itself, so how can we look at the way ecosystems work and apply that to society and business; things like deep ecology which has been around for a bit longer, psychology and eco-psychology, so how we can engage and gain wellness from our relationship with ourselves and also nature. I also looked at ancient wisdom and saw there’s a lot we could learn from the way indigenous cultures live and have lived; they don’t talk about sustainability, they just are it.

So I think seeing all these different areas surprised me in that they’re all kind of touching on an underlying truth which is that the answer is all around us.

It’s just that in our current bubble we find it difficult to look outside.

So I suppose what surprised me is that when you look outside the bubble it’s obvious that the bubble that we’re in is insane. I don’t think there’s any other word to describe it. It’s detrimental to all aspects of life.

But when you’re in the take-make-waste paradigm or however you refer to it, you can’t see beyond it. But once you start seeing aspects of what’s beyond it, it becomes easy to start joining up the pieces and recognize it’s not just the pieces themselves; it’s the whole paradigm, which on the one hand is perhaps daunting, but on the other hand can be immensely liberating.

For so many organizational leaders, the notion of transforming their operations and/or structure to that inspired, taught or modeled after nature’s principles likely sounds right, but the initial “how” can be daunting. What would you suggest could jumpstart the process of change?

Giles: I talk in the book about leadership and seven basic steps that I engage business people with that are simple things we can all do and don’t cost anything.

The first one is silence. A profound expression is that the success of the intervention depends on the state of the intervener.

So this is about understanding our authentic selves and the way in which we relate to ourselves and each other and perhaps coming from our heart and with love, a word seldom heard in business.

So that concept of silence really helps; as they say, the present is always insufficient until you are sufficiently present.

It’s being present in that moment, which is kind of difficult in a busy environment, but can be done with techniques that lots of business people have introduced on how to protect time and space in the working environment to allow that creativity, that new thinking to come, and also to encourage other people around you to unlock their creative potential.

The second step is sensing.

Often we engage in social media or the Internet or reading, and, of course, they’re immensely stimulating, but it’s important to recognize that if you effectively listen and tune into your environment, that everything is there that you need.

So it goes hand and hand and builds on silence, which is sensing and being aware and empathizing.

And then strategy. And by strategy I don’t mean a detailed business case; I mean, a clear understanding of how to navigate your way forward in what is an increasingly volatile and uncertain future.

And so that is about values; it’s about understanding what resonates with you, yourself, what are your strengths, what are your passions and using those to navigate what your path is.

Other ones I talk about are small steps itself.

Mother Teresa said we can’t do great things; we can only do small things with great love.

I think that’s really important to recognize when we try and change the world or try and transform our business, it’s just to get to some small steps and as long as they are with the right intention and with love then it leads to other impacts which can then create a positive vortex of change.

Another step I talk about is the importance of recognizing a diverse group of stakeholders not just — as we’ve done in the current model — focus on shareholders with short-term returns.

Understanding things in systems and seeing the interconnection of things, so shifting from this kind of linear approach, this sort of thinking of things in straight lines to recognizing that everything is interconnected, is another part of the process I include.

The final "s" I talk about is solutions. Obviously there are lots of problems in our business environment and the world, but let’s focus on some solutions that can get things moving forward. Those can be incremental; they don’t have to be radical; they can be incremental just to gain momentum. But fundamentally we’re talking about making radical change; new ways of operating and coming up with solutions.

A simple technique I refer to that can help in this respect is just using “yes and.” So in conversation rather than using “no but” or “no and” or “yes but,” actually saying “yes and.”

This response can give energy to the other person and from there you can build on it and then critique and add to it and move forward.

When you consider our economy today, what it’s recently come through, as well as where it appears to be headed, what makes you most anxious?

Giles: The fact that we haven’t got a vision.

We’re not investing much time and energy and effort in a positive vision of the future.

We are investing and pumping vast energy, resources, time and money into a broken system.

And so I liken it, just because it’s a shocking picture, to a heroin addict.

We are fixed and we are pumping more and more heroin into our system because we think it gives us a better high and as a result we might be better off, but actually the come-down, the cold turkey will be more and more painful.

Here in the UK we’re pumping billions of pounds into the UK economy and it’s going to turn us into Greece quite quickly.

In the U.S., of course, there is a massive problem and it’s not just economic.

So the heroin addict shouldn’t be concerned about the scabs on her skin; she should be concerned about her whole approach to life, and how can she seek a far better, more happy and healthy life. This isn’t about doing with less; this is about having a far better understanding and a far healthier life.

A lot of the sustainability talks focus on no growth, doing with less; and decreasing consumption, which does not play to the positives of what human nature is all about.

I think growth is immensely healthy; it’s innate to life – good growth that is not toxic and harmful but growth like that found in nature, beneficial and balanced growth operating within limits.

And so I think that’s my biggest anxiety, is that we’re pumping so much into the system that can only lead to a massive breakdown; though I’m sure a breakthrough will come from that too. I’m an optimist.

What are you also seeing that suggests society is poised to make the most of different ideas such as those you mention in your book?

Giles: They say change comes for two reasons. One is that we have enough information that we want to change and two, that we have been hurt enough that we have to change.

I think we’re facing both of those.

We’ve got more than enough information to know that we’ve got to change. If you need danger signs, we’ve got plastic islands in the Pacific Ocean growing by the day; the reduction in the size of the Amazon Rainforest; the 40 or so dead zones in our oceans; the reduction in biodiversity; our soils, seas, air and land — every aspect of life.

So I think the information is there.

As I said, what surprised me is how many pioneers there are in these different fields doing great work and many of them for many years.

I don’t think we have a lack of wisdom or understanding; it’s more moving this into desire to actually change. The problem in part, I think,  are incumbent positions of power that hold that wish to preserve the status quo; and partly, I think, because many of us in developed countries are desperately unaware of the scale of destruction.

So is society ready for transformation? I would say there’s lot of danger signs; what’s happening Europe in terms of protests, and I think you’ll see that more in the U.S. as the cuts start coming in and austerity has to take root because there’s no other way out. The system has to start breaking and therefore people will become more aware of the problems, and then hopefully move to solutions rather than just going into fear. That’s the challenge for people.

So I think those two reasons for change are now amidst us.

Imagine you wake up and it’s 10 years from now. Let’s say many organizational leaders and intrapreneurs have taken ideas such as those you mention in your book seriously and earnestly begun to implement them. What does an economy that’s begun this shift look like?

Giles: Can I give you two pictures? One picture is that we hold ever tighter to a model that’s broken; the heroin addict continues and it becomes messy; increased wars, tensions, people fighting over power, over control of things like water and food.

So that’s likely and I think that some of that will have happened  looking back 10 years from now.

But at the same time, I do believe really believe in the innate, creative potential of us humans to adapt, evolve, innovate and to get together as groups.

You see that in communities in some of the poorer areas of the U.S., how they’ve got together and started setting up alternative governance systems in a very effective way to work together as groups.

So I think the other picture is one that is beyond sustaining.

This isn’t about sustaining the heroin addict; this is about regenerating us.

And that has to be about starting to put healthy stuff back into ourselves, our communities and our environment.

And so I have three “r’s” I refer to in my book that relate to this.

The first is the redesign of business and society; I call it redesigning for resilience in the book; but I would actually call it now redesigning for regeneration.

So an example here in the UK is the Kingfisher Group, a retail business that has just unveiled a plan to be regenerative, net positive over the next 10 to 15 years. How can they start giving more value back to society and the environment and the economy than they take? It’s no longer good enough just to reduce our emissions. We have to start understanding our relationship and our sense of place with our stakeholders.

So that’s the first “r,” and I think that brings with it immense opportunities and creativity to reduce unemployment, to get people really engaged, to give us a sense of purpose and wellbeing.

The second “r” is about reconnecting, with ourselves first off, our neighbours, our sense of community, and of course with nature, which a portion of us have lost.

An example would be Natura, a Brazilian company where the president Pedro Passo set up culture in his organization which builds resilience in his business; it’s very much rooted in a sense of us all being interconnected within a rich fabric of life, which of course we are.

The third “r” would be rekindling our wisdom.

How can we bring some of that wisdom which we know is all around us, whether it be in nature, whether it be in eco-literacy, eco-system thinking, whether it be in some of the indigenous cultures, all of that, bringing that together and helping take that into our societies and our business.

So a company like Weleda in Germany, which operates in over 50 countries around the world — has introduced an anthroposophical approach rooted in how they celebrate the whole being, the way in which they interconnect with the whole of life.

So I think there are examples out there, and I think as that pain or that information increases for us to change and transform, we could create a picture which is around us regenerating, where we get together and we work for very different reasons than short-term profit maximization.

In fact we’ll look back on how we behaved in that respect and realize it was an aberration, or perhaps a phase like a teenager goes through a certain anti-social phase.

Click here to read a recent UK Guardian blog by Giles.

Click here to learn more about Giles' book The Nature of Business.


Blogger Profile

Giles Hutchins's picture

Giles Hutchins is a management consultant who guides business and organizations through the process of redesigning for resilience in challenging times. Drawing on a range of theories and practices such as biomimicry, cradle-to-cradle design and industrial ecology, he develops solutions which take inspiration from nature to create sustainable business transformation. He is the co-founder of BCI: Biomimicry for Creative Innovation, formerly the global director and head of sustainability solutions for Atos International, and a speaker on the subject of sustainable business practices.

Latest Blog

It is becoming more obvious that we need to transform our ways of living and operating. The biggest inhibitor to our transformation is our disconnection with life/nature.

The economic, social and environmental volatility now facing business means organizations have to operate in a dynamically transforming landscape.

Business has historically operated a "take-make-waste" philosophy, but a radical transformation is now needed.