Sustainable Business Learning Community Conversations, January 2014 - February 2014

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February 13, 2014 Topic: Managing Risk

Comments from last week' conversation about Competency:

  • It’s less about the level of competency you bring into a business, than the rate at which you can learn or acquire the new skill. When you’re in a small business, you will always have to be learning new skills; running a business is never a stagnant thing.
  • Are you willing to work hard and attack that learning curve? Even if you don’t like doing a certain task, you still have to figure out how to get it done whether you do it yourself or you hire someone.
  • The difference in competency levels exists in a timeline - some people are simply further along in the learning process than you are. If the passion and work ethic are there, then achieving competency is just a matter of time.
  • Effort and motivation will move you along that timeline faster than other people will. Some of us are better at some things than others naturally, and you tend to be quicker and better at some tasks that you like than those you don’t like.
  • In business, when you evaluate people, you tell them what they need to work on, where they are deficient and need to improve. Why not focus more on what a person likes and are good at doing? As business leaders, we will have a greater chance of success if we focus on peoples’ strengths rather than their weaknesses.
  • Sometimes you have to do the tasks you don’t enjoy doing in order to achieve a level of understanding of those tasks. Then you’ll be able to recognize others’ competence in those areas because you yourself understand what is involved in doing that work.
  • Know your own skills; know when you know you can’t do something.
  • Competence is a relative term: you might complete a task and be happy that you did so, but it might have taken you 10x as long as someone who has a greater level of competence.
  • What am I doing because I have to do it for my business and what am I doing because I like doing it?
  • Incorporate learning into your work. You don’t always need a class in order to improve. Think about self learning - make learning part of the work you do every day. Incorporate time and space into your workday for learning.
  • Failure can be a good thing: Our society sometimes sets up barriers to learning because we consider failure in a negative way instead of as a normal part of the learning process. Fear of failure can hold you back - remember you can learn from failure.
  • Build competency by breaking tasks down into smaller, manageable pieces.
  • Can some of your other peripheral skills help you to improve a skill you haven’t developed so well?


Today’s topic: Managing Risk

  • Risk exists around variation. Deming taught us that there is variation in everything and that it is normal. Risk is a way that we can move within that variance. There are no risk-free answers, but there is a way to manage risk in our businesses.
  • We have very little language for risk because we don’t like to talk about it even though it is all around us. There is risk around revenue, cost, quality, schedules, for example.
  • One of the largest areas of risk in business are in relationships, even though relationships don’t appear on a balance sheet. How do we manage that? Lehman brothers went under in 2008, not because they had no money, but they lost trust and the whole business collapsed within 48 hrs.
  • What is the risk of not having the competencies that we promised someone? That could have a huge impact on your business, risking community, reputation, income, or the entire company.
  • What about environmental risks? How do changes in environment present risk to our businesses?
  • Risk and the triple bottom line: As a sustainable business, you have to be able to manage your community and environmental risks while you are managing your financial risk. What if you do something that will benefit your company financially, but you destroy your good will in the community in the process? What does that cost you in the end?
  • Image risk and the ripple effect: If your product or service gets a bad reputation for some reason, then people will be less likely to hire you, and those you are connected to through your business may also suffer.
  • Business always involves risk, every time you put yourself out there, so managing risk is vitally important. Doing business in a sustainable way sets you apart, but it also includes a level of risk.
  • Sustainability is all about interconnectedness. Risk needs to be seen and understood through this lens of interconnectedness. If money were all that mattered, then risk would only be centered around money. But because we also consider things like quality, safety, environment, community, we realize that everything is interconnected. All of these factors have to be considered in the choices we make in our business and in deciding which risks we are willing to incur.
  • It’s impossible to mitigate every risk, so choosing which risks you’re willing to incur and those you are not, is important. Some people are willing to take a risk because they like a challenge. With risk there is also reward.
  • The Tragedy of the Commons: Are we getting to the point where we are moving beyond thinking about just ourselves as individuals and thinking instead about our society as a whole? Can we come together as a community of people to think about what kind of risks of we are all willing to take together and which we are we not willing to take?
  • There is a larger conversation to have around risk aversion rather than risk tolerance. Some risk aversion tactics have prevented businesses from providing the really best quality product/service that they could have provided.
  • Accountability: if you accept a certain level of risk, then you need to be accountable if something goes wrong.
  • Scenario testing: what ifs? Try to anticipate what might happen and plan how you would react and what actions you would take.
  • Build solid working relationships with others who can agree on both the types and degrees of risk you are willing to incur and how to handle problems that might come up.
  • There is a legislative (litigious) mentality in our culture today that is interfering in normal human interactions. People are afraid of behaving the way we normally would for fear of lawsuits. In over-legislating, we may be creating more risk than we are even aware of.

February 6, 2014 Topic: Competency

Comments from last week: Conversation was centered on how to identify red flags that trust was at risk - how to know that a business relationship is about to run into a trust problem.

  • Evaluate relationships on an ongoing basis.
  • There are often many red flags but we have a tendency to overlook them. Pay attention to what is going on and learn from your mistakes.
  • If trust is broken in a relationship but the problem is dealt with positively, this can lead to an improved relationship through building a stronger base of trust.
  • Often, trust is broken because of a miscommunication, or someone is in over their head, or through honest mistakes. People who are really intent on cheating you are few and far between.
  • Being in business, there is always a certain level of risk that you will have to accept. It ends up being less stressful to assume people are trustworthy and get cheated a couple of times, than to assume that everyone is out to cheat you.
  • There is always context around risk. You may be able to trust people on a personal level but not be able to work with them, or trust them to do one job, but not another.

Even in a trustful relationship, you can still have work to do in order to maintain that trust; do your work and planning in a way that doesn’t allow that trust to falter.

  • Map out your agreements so that your understanding is the same as the other person’s understanding - make sure that both of you are on the same page. What you are agreeing to should be clearly expressed and written down. If things aren’t spelled out and are confused, it can create problems with even the best of relationships.
  • Communication: You have to be able to sort out a contract, or how can you really work well together? Say, here’s what I need, you may not need this level of understanding but I do, so can we agree to work this way?


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Topic for today: Competencies

Competence is one of the least understood areas in small businesses, and it affects so much of what a sustainable business is about. If business is a living organism, competency is like photosynthesis - it’s how stored energy gets transformed into value.

How many conversations do we have about competence when we are starting a business? Do we even know what competence really is?

What are the foundations of competency and how is it related to sustainability?

  1. Skill
  2. Knowledge
  3. Experience

Skill without knowledge and experience won’t be enough.

  • Businesses have to have competencies both inside and outside the organization, and a business leader has to be able to recognize competence in others.
  • This is particularly tough for small businesses because they don’t often have the broad competencies to deal with the myriad issues that will undoubtedly arise. Many business owners might not even be aware of what skills will be necessary for them to successfully run their business.
  • Competency, learning and hard work are what make a business successful, even more than the “good idea.” Competencies can turn a good idea into something of real value. You will always run into problems and you will have to have the knowledge and ability to be able to deal with them, so the ability to learn quickly and to pick up new competencies is key to sustainable business.
  • Knowing how to hire the right people is a type of competency. So is knowing how to motivate people.
  • Understand where your own skills lie. Recognizing what you’re good at allows you to understand where your competencies lie and where they do not. You have to know at what point you might have to go outside to find someone with a competency that you don’t have.
  • Know what your goals are - how far do you want or need to go in developing your skills?
  • Difference between understanding and competence: In a small business, you need to have a basic understanding of a number of things, many of which you won’t be competent at, but which you must still understand the importance or ramifications of.
  • People have been developing businesses for a long, long time, but why don’t we have a list of competencies necessary for running a business? Because we don’t talk about competencies! We need a list and it’s going to be a lot longer than we imagine. You have to, first of all be good at what you’re going be selling - are you?
  • Many people open a business either unaware of or not wanting to do many of the tasks that will be required.
    • Begin by identifying the core competencies that you will need to be in business (ex: Opening a brewery? You need to know well how to brew beer. Opening a bike repair shop? You'd better know how to repair bikes and do it well!)
    • How good do I need to be at “X” to be able to have people pay me for this product or service? Recognize that you have to be on a certain level to be able to open the doors to your shop.
    • Ask yourself honestly: Do you even know what will be involved in running the business you want to open, both core competencies and other competencies?
    • Do you have the discipline to take the time to learn a new skill well enough to say that you achieved some level of competency in that skill?
    • Do you have a clear understanding of what skills you are looking for in another person?

What do we even mean by competency?

  • Does it mean a high level of skill and knowledge in a certain area, or is it the absolute minimum threshold to successfully complete a task? Maybe different levels of competency are then measured in levels of proficiency.
  • A community can help balance out your deficiencies. If you have a large supportive community, you can rely on them to help you where you need it. If you are extremely competent in many areas, your reliance on community may be reduced.


January 23, 2014 Topic: Building Trust in Your Business Relationships

Comments from last week's Taxes Workshop:

  • Important: Remember to file on time. If you have questions or problems, don't do NOTHING!!
  • Always work with an expert to help you set up your taxes correctly. Also get them to do your taxes at least for the first year.
  • It's almost impossible to do all the accounting and run the business at the same time. Get the appropriate expert help.



How do we build trust?

Today's Topic: Building Trust in Your Business Relationships

The foundation of every relationship is trust. How do you build trust? As there are different types of relationships in business, how do you establish the appropriate level of trust with all these different people? What are the fundamental things that we always need to be doing to accomplish this?

  • Listening: You don't necessarily have to agree with the other person, but if you are truly listening to one another, even if you disagree, you can establish a foundation of trust.
  • You can't hurry trust. Building trust takes time; there's no way to make it happen quickly. Entrepreneurs are often in such a hurry, but it's important to take the time to build relationships and allow trust to develop naturally. Invest in long term relationships.
  • Consistency builds trust: Do what you say you're going to do, be dependable and consistent.

If you can't do what someone expects of you, being honest and letting them know ahead of time is very important. Build a reputation for integrity and consistency (Effort - Intelligence - Integrity).

  • Expectations: If your expectations are not met, it can make you lose trust in another person.
  • Understand what is important, what matters to you and to the other person. If you have a good grasp of that, people will feel that they can trust one another.
  • Communicate clearly - If you do not, there will be confusion. How can you talk to people across the table without clarity?
  • Be honest and open with others - Pride is the enemy of integrity. If there's a problem, be up front about it. If trust is broken, regaining it can take some time. Have you built up a high enough level of trust that an infraction can be overcome?
  • Accept people as they are.
  • Never ascribe to malice what can be explained by accident. None of us can always do what we might have committed to because there are things outside our control that sometimes occur. If you have a healthily relationship with someone, this will be understood. Sometimes, a breaking of trust will increase trust in the future - you show that you're willing to improve, problem solve, do better.
  • Trust is foundational. There are relationships in which trust must exist. Are you trying to build too much on too little? Maybe you need work done that requires you have a high level of trust in the other person, but you don't have the foundation of trust in place yet. In this case, it's perhaps better to break the work down into smaller, more manageable jobs.
  • Some relationships are simply transactional and a deeper relationship, a deeper level of trust, is not necessary. In this case, it's just a matter of weighing the risks.
  • Trust yourself - know when things are working well and recognize when they are not.
  • When you do your best and bring your best to the table, you will establish a reputation for quality work and integrity. Even if you don't get the return right away, it may pay off later because others, aware of your good reputation, will want to work with you.
  • Mistakes are learning moments.
  • Internal trust: There needs to be a culture of good leadership and trust within an organization where it is safe for employees to have initiative. Your employees should be an extension of you. Being a good leader isn't the same as being a good manager.
  • What do you do when your organization fails to be trustworthy - or doesn't perform to a level that you think it should? Take objective information and customer relations information to your superiors - real data can be helpful.
  • In small businesses: trust can be more complex.
    • If someone doesn't meet your expectations, remember that 85% of failures are due to failure in management - and that's you!!
    • Have realistic expectations of success - only about 1/3 of your business decisions will be correct. Try to have the right people with the right skills in the right place - put them into a position to succeed.
  • Power of the word NO - let people know if you don't have the capability or capacity to do work they ask of you.


Bob's take away:

  • No rushing - no time line
  • Consistency
  • Clarity of intentions and actions
  • Understanding and respecting others opinions, even if you don't agree.
  • Proactive communications - if you mess up, acknowledge it
  • Be accepting of others
  • Honesty
  • Long term relationship require a high level of trust

January 9, 2014 Topic: What's on Your Mind for 2014?

Take-away from last week's conversation on Community and the Customer:

  • Curt on Bob's email: Bob said, "the goal is to get people to be contributors". To some extent that's true, but you need to find a balance in how much people are involved in your business - it needs to be within reason.
  • Tom's breakthrough: We seem only to think about the community as the need to be "customer-focused." But there needs to be balance between your customers and those others who can contribute to the sustainability of your business.
  • Can't be myopic: If you focus only on customers and not on others who can contribute to the sustainability of your business, you risk losing so much that is valuable - also that these people might become future customers. Also, don't alienate people by treating them as customers if they don't want to be customers.
  • Be sensitive to what is going on around your business - not just focused on customers.
  • Provide helpful information and share without expectation of anything in return.
  • When you join a community, join with the idea of helping, not of taking, otherwise you are a fraud. There's an authenticity when you go in to help.
  • A healthy community has in inherent accountability to it.
  • Membership in a community exists on a spectrum. Some are more involved than others. Communities needs spectators just as well as participants and contributors. You can't force people to participate and contribute to a community, but should respect their involvement at whatever level they choose.
  • Hard to tell in a community where the leadership is going to come from on any particular job. Letting a natural process take place works well - needs will be met. People find where they are comfortable - in the middle, at the edges, etc.
  • Awareness is key: Be aware of your effect within a community.
  • Major shift as companies grew larger and became public - there was a disconnect from community. Small businesses were embedded in their communities - their customers were also their neighbors.


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Today's Topic: So, what's up for 2014???

Ken F: Trying to be less judgmental when he begins a new relationship with someone - building new relationships from the heart. He wants to get away from all the transactional relationships and build real connections. CONNECTIONS is his word for 2014 - real true relationships. Without the patterns as in A Pattern Language, he doesn't know if you can really have healthy community.

David B: Focus on helping the people who are in the game to move forward. Wants to be a better coach - continue to find joy in helping people. Also, learning to say NO when necessary.

Curt: Wants to work less. Not too much time available to do creative work if he's working too many hours. Vows to pay less attention to the news - it takes up too much time.

Bob: Wants to learn more about how we build trust - what is it that helps us build trust with one another?

Adrienne: She wants a shower in her house. Wants to understand about how her intuition works - wants to lean less on her personal intuition and think more deeply about things, rely less on an emotional reaction. Leave the phone at home.

Tom: Balance. Each quarter, he's gonna have one week with no meetings - his "think" week. When we're involved in changes, you need to give brain space to operate on a different level than when we're over busy. Needs time for deep fluid thinking. Also, wants to start to put into practice many of the ideas that came out of the Community conversations.

Suntae: Wants to begin to speak out in meetings before Tom asks him to. Also, as he is now at the end of his PhD program, he doesn't want be dominated by everything going on this year, especially his need to find a job. He wants to keep his focus on his original intentions of doing doctoral studies, until he has completed them.

Nic: Trying to reduce the chaos in his life. Trying to figure out what career path he wants to focus on. There is a lot of change and disorder in work and home life, so he's trying to sort it all out.


January 2, 2014 Topic: Community Impact and the Customer

Bob's Thoughts on the Community and the Customer:

Regarding the Customer versus Community, here are my thoughts. (I’m not sure if this is “right” or even what it means. It’s just the thoughts that appeared during our discussion.)

  1. Communities are naturally created when people share common interests.
  2. An organization usually belong to a number of communities and, if they want to stay in business, one of their communities better be comprised of people who are interested in their products or services.
  3. Communities are comprised of three or more layers:
  • Spectators – people who are interested observing/browsing (low or no “trust” required)
  • Customers – people who are willing to make a purchase/financial investment. They must have some level of trust in the business as a member of this community but they are receiving a perceived quid pro quo for their investment, so the trust might focus around the businesses ability to deliver the promised product/service
  • Contributors – people who are interested in building/expanding the boundaries of this interest-community. Contributors usually have a high level of trust in the “interest community” as they are willing to provide feedback, insights or develop new products/services without any assurance of a return.

A person can belong to more than one layer but before someone will “invest” as a Customer or Contributor, they need to have built a level of trust. Trust is built by a process of caring, sharing .

The key points, for me, are that communities are based around common interests and that businesses need to be Contributors to their respective Interest Communities. That these businesses need to be leader in these communities and nurture trust. If they do this, they will naturally move other participants from Spectators to Customer and (hopefully) to Contributors. The latter being the invaluable person who shares ideas on how to improve your business to better serve the customer’s and communities interests.


David B: suspect - prospect - customer - influences


Tom's Thoughts:

  • There are so many people in the community that enrich our business and who are not just "vessels of money".
  • We want to invest time and energy into these relationships, too.
  • We must understand the broader community and the diversity of people that are necessary to keep your business vital.


Other thoughts from the group:

  • Be a helpful part of the community; contribute to the benefit of the community without expectation of reward.
  • Building networks within a community is critical and can be so beneficial.
  • Community can lead you to think about redefining what you do; seek out community to help define yourself.
  • Accept dependence upon one another; this is enriching rather than depleting. The further up the ladder you go, the more you are encouraged to be independent. But it's much more rewarding to nurture interconnectedness and interdependence.


Questions: Does community work the same way in larger businesses or certain other kinds of businesses? Can they have similar goals and interests? How authentic a desire is it to want to create and nurture relationships that are outside of the financial/economic one? Can you realistically expect to develop relationships with people who are not paying customers on the same level as those who are?

Response: Think of a business is a living organism. If all you do is define the business by an income statement and balance sheet, money coming in and out, it would be a very narrow view. Because our relationships here at the GG are so much more than that, we are able to build real community. Ideas are energy, love is energy, help is energy, openness to be helped is energy. Just because a business is doing well financially, energy can still be lost and the business can become unhealthy. It's healthier to see a business in a multi-dimensional way, beyond only financials. At same time, financials are important; at the GG, if we don't have enough people paying lease payments, we can't function, either. But if that's all we do, then that doesn't produce enough energy to keep things going.


  • Earl used to travel all the time so his business community was completely disconnected from his personal relationships; it was hard for him to bring the two together. Now he's trying to connect the two more. You should always be doing good things - you never know what good might come out of a contact, a relationship that you form.
  • You will get so much more in return than you put in if you put energy into nurturing the relationship/spiritual side.
  • Who you interact with helps define who you are, whether or not you do business with them. It grows YOU.
  • The new mayor of Detroit has said that he wants to give each resident a sense that he/she is an integral part of this community. Once people are exposed to the idea of cohesive community, they will really want to belong to it and nurture it.
  • Make community an active element of design from the beginning of your business formation; boot just an awareness of community, but part of the integral design of the life cycle of your business.
  • Many companies pay other companies to learn how others perceive them out in the community because they don't have any idea; they are so disconnected from their own community that they are completely unaware.
  • Working in Detroit from a newcomer's point of view: The level of impact of one's work in Detroit is so very clear. It's easy to see the effect of your work and the growing optimism. Also, there are so many free sources of information; people here are so willing to share.
  • If you enjoy a community, think about sharing the community with your friends and acquaintances. Let a healthy community spread out!
  • A new era in Detroit: It feels like we're at the beginning of a new era, a new way of thinking - we just can't go back to how things were 50 or 100 years ago - we live in different times. So we are developing a new way of thinking. We are creating new kinds of social infrastructures. Detroit is rebuilding community and we are at the beginning of this process. The city has an opportunity to develop a "civic spirit" with businesses that aren't formed on secrecy but on sharing and openness and trust.
  • Community as cult? Sadly, the only image that many people have of community is a cult - they have no other image in their mind to bring up when they hear the word "community". How do we work to change that? Americans used to have "community habits" but many have these have been lost. We need to develop new community habits. This image of the self-reliant person has overwhelmed the real need for us to rely on and help one another.
  • If you do the work that you want to do, that you're interested in, community will develop naturally around you.
  • We don't have a very nuanced language around the idea of community. Our language just doesn't allow for variations in meaning.
  • Words of wisdom: Work towards something that you would like to be part of, because if you don't want to be part of it, then who are you building it for?