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One day in the late 1990s my colleagues and I were approached by one of the fast-rising young leaders of a major global business and asked a powerful question: “You have given me a wake-up call in today’s workshop,” he began; “I realised that I am two people: the ‘Corporate Leader’ and the ‘Family Man’. Today I saw that they could became one!”

Then came the question: “How can we take my family leadership style and blend it into the ways I lead my people at work?”

What we discovered was that our client had been thinking, when at the office, as a leader of thousands. At home he was a co-leader of half a dozen. We began to talk through his epiphany and made some profound realisations. At home, decisions were messy, often painful and hard to reach, even over apparently small matters like which child got to choose the bedtime story that day. Yet these decisions were often more satisfying.

Today that man’s children are young adults, making their mark on the world: prospering, learning and growing. And many of his former employees are world-class leaders in their field too. And he is now one of the most highly respected leaders in the world as Prime Minister of one of the world’s most admired and successful democracies.

What this client had seen was that in order to inspire passion, performance and self-leadership, people needed to be led by those who wanted the best for them in every part of their lives: mentally, emotionally, materially, interpersonally and spiritually.

We have been working on that basis with our clients ever since. Click here if you’d like to learn more about our employee wellbeing and engagement leadership programme.

ABOVE: Bloomfield House (or ‘Bloomers’), where Bloomers may bloom…



A sign of the times: Nigel Farage said, in a City of London speech:

“In many, many cases, women make different choices in life to the ones that men make simply for biological reasons. If a woman has a client base and has a child and takes two or three years off work, she is worth far less to the employer when she comes back than when she goes away because her client base cannot be stuck rigidly to her.”

We, on the other hand, believe the parents of young children (particularly, in these days of Farage, Brexit, Trump and May, the mothers of young children) represent a vast, under-recognised force for beneficial change. If you have children and wish to celebrate, commiserate, live, love, laugh and leave a world-changing professional legacy, you may be a Bloomer. We invite submissions from those of any career background who, between nappy changes, school runs, bedtime stories and marmalade fights can write, code, pitch, facilitate, present, close and consult. We would also like to speak with lawyers (especially in Intellectual Property, Gain-Share, Social Impact Bonds and other complex contracts), as well as statisticians and actuaries who agree that measures must be taken to address climate change, injustice and poverty (see what we did there?).

We work in environmental and social responsibility. Our consultancy, Groundswell, was born in 1989, at almost exactly the same time as our first baby (well, within months). We went on to have five children and to co-launch several more social and eco-enterprises, among them an eco-guest house, an eco-artisan bakery business, a monster composting company and the UK farmers’ markets movement. All of these enterprises, like the children, have grown and matured and are thriving.

We have always worked from home; we only do stuff that feels meaningful; we have built careers while being around the family throughout. Now the children are fledging: three have their own homes, the fourth is at university and our youngest daughter is finishing her A-levels. We are now ready to grow our other child, Groundswell, to the next level.

Not only do we believe the parents of young children can change the world, we believe that becoming parents brings a vocational passion to doing so. Certainly this was our experience. If the human race is to make a U-turn and find a way out of the evolutionary cul-de-sac we’re in, it seems obvious we’re going to have to find solutions for climate change, the growing poverty gap, neo-liberal economics, terrorism and the other sui-genocidal problems of our time. As a legacy to our children and grandchildren, these apocalyptic horsemen do not seem optimised for surviving and thriving. Hence the need for what we call ‘evolutionary enterprise’.

Our home – which is also the eco-guest house – is Bloomfield House, a slightly eccentric 18th-century pile in Bath, one of England’s most beautiful cities. The family know the place as ‘Bloomers’. We also call the parents of young children ‘Bloomers’ if they are part of the evolutionary solution. We would like to bring together a group of Bloomers at Bloomers!

Working with NHS leaders over the last two years, we have developed an evolutionary enterprise model that improves health and social equity outcomes, reduces environmental impacts and yet also significantly reduces costs. In fact our clients’ return on even their more modest investments can range from 10x to 40x. The model works equally well in other sectors too. Right product, right place, right time.

We now need a team of proactive, self-responsible, far-sighted professionals to help us roll out and continually improve this evolutionary system. We don’t aim only to train our Bloomers in the Groundswell evolutionary enterprise system, however. We would like to build a mutually supportive community of people looking to do what we have done for 27 years:

  • Make their own decisions as to how, when and with whom they work
  • Identify, learn and teach each other the skills we need to flourish
  • Support each other in individual, team, company and client evolution
  • Build careers around, among and in the best interests of our children
  • Change the world for good before it’s too blooming late

If you believe you are a Bloomer, please contact karen@groundswell.co.uk or robert@groundswell.co.uk and tell us how you can help. Thank you 😀

Almost every day we see scary headlines about the imminent financial collapse of the NHS. But could the media be looking at only one side of the coin? We think we’ve found an important part of the solution – and our NHS clients seem to agree.

Groundswell’s NHS social and environmental responsibility team has identified ways to produce considerable improvements in health outcomes at very little cost to the NHS. In fact, using the bootstrap model we have developed, even modest investment from the health system can produce remarkably rapid improvements and up to forty times the return. Not only that, these timely investments can help to future-proof the NHS so that improvements continue to increase long after our team has moved on.

In a sustainability study commissioned by one NHS trust, we discovered a hidden goldmine of superb environmental improvement initiatives already going on. All that was needed to increase the return on these existing investments was to ‘join up the dots’. We went on to facilitate sustainability innovation groups and a whole range of inspired new ideas came to the surface from among the trust’s own employees. In these cases, all we need to provide is facilitation and initial project management while in-house teams are trained to take over. These ‘quick wins’ free up money for more ambitious projects that can improve healthcare and finances on a larger scale.

The media doesn’t make money by telling us good news; this means that we don’t hear much about the huge strides made by the NHS in delivering some of the best – and some of  the best value-for-money – healthcare innovation in the world. The US healthcare system, with its private sector-led, for-profit model, spends almost twice as much per capita as the NHS and achieves less successful outcomes[i]. (Rightly or wrongly, we are also spending significantly less than our European neighbours – but that’s another story.[ii])

In a sense, the healthcare system is a victim of its own success: we now typically live fifteen years longer than in the late 1940s, when the NHS was founded[iii]. But better management and medical science are not the only things that are counter-intuitively creating challenges for the health service.

It’s true that the NHS is struggling to make ends meet but the responsibility for this lies, to a very great degree, on our wealth and our behaviours. These can be improved enormously by introducing what we like to call ‘evolutionary enterprise’. It costs very little and pays back handsomely and quickly.

Some say that Britain is under-investing in its health service as part of an insidious plot to privatize the system. Again, counter-intuitively, we have found ways to persuade private sector partners in other sectors – like food retail, sport, construction and leisure – to fund community health improvement initiatives as part of their corporate social responsibility programmes. They are then paid back in other areas, such as reputational capital, staff pride, productivity and innovation, all of which have been proven to be capable of increasing net profits considerably.[iv]

These ‘win-wins’ in turn free up more funds for even more ambitious schemes which we call ‘pioneering wins’. PWs can be truly transformative and we’ll be talking more about them in later posts.

The NHS then simply leverages all this social investment in a deft strategic move that helps to avoid the risk of privatisation. The savings made from environmental improvements, community-based preventive health measures and elsewhere can then be continually re-invested in an ever-evolving NHS that is better placed to do what  it was always designed for: to provide healthcare for everyone, regardless of wealth, free at the point of delivery.


[i] http://www.forbes.com/sites/danmunro/2014/06/16/u-s-healthcare-ranked-dead-last-compared-to-10-other-countries/#a34db651b96f

[ii] https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/blog/2016/01/how-does-nhs-spending-compare-health-spending-internationally

[iii] http://www.localhistories.org/life.html

[iv] http://engageforsuccess.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/The-Evidence.pdf


Most people have heard about biomimicry research and astonishing products based on spider silk, with six times the tensile strength of steel. But how about CSR performance based on ecosystem mimicry – with ROI at 20x to 30x!

There is a phenomenon in systems theory we call Edge Effect. Among other things, it refers to the potentially enormous boost in productivity that occurs where two different worlds meet. On a riverbank, for instance, in the area where soil and water meet, one can find as many as ten times the diversity of species: there might be sedges, reeds and mallow, otters and wading birds, newts, toads, kingfishers and dragonflies – all drawn to the place because of its having both elements present. Weeping willow trees thrive at the edges of waterways because they require huge quantities of water; as a result of this, they can produce as much as twenty times the biomass growth rates of their landlubber cousins like oak or walnut. Other riverside plants are massively pollinated and their seeds spread over great distances because of the increased numbers of birds and insects at the earth/water margin.

Why am I writing this modern-day ‘Tales of the Riverbank’? Because Edge Effect can boost performance equally well in CSR strategies. A warning, however: one has to learn how to manage edge effect for benefits – as this is also an area where some significant challenges can appear. The interface between siblings, business partners, genders, generations, nations, departments and market sectors are areas where enormously rich potential exists for collaboration, innovation and breakthrough  – or conflict and breakdown.

In both research and in practice, my colleagues and I have been working with the Edge Effect for some time and the results can be quite remarkable. In one example, we put a major construction company’s procurement team together with their suppliers to explore sustainability and community issues in a hospital construction project. In the past, the procurement team had always focused primarily on minimizing costs with each contractor. In this case, however, they discovered unexpected win/win situations. The roofing contractors, for example, would never have been able to double the insulation thickness, as the cost would have made them uncompetitive and they would have lost the contract. In this case they were able to do a deal with the plumbing contractors, who, as a result of the increased insulation, were now fitting much less heating and cooling equipment and everybody gained. Energy and cash were saved, awards were won, post-construction maintenance contracts became much more competitive.

Next came the exploration of the boundary between hospital and community. The following is a ‘dream outcomes’ sharing from a participant in one of our Sustainable Healthcare Innovation Programme (SHIP) groups:

“When it was noticed that the hospital site comprised around ten acres of buildings and many more acres of parking space, one bright spark suggested that we speak with the local bus company. With each outpatient issued with a free bus pass, vehicle journeys to and from the hospital could be cut by almost half. This not only means less need for car parking space, it also cuts local vehicle emissions, thereby reducing the incidence of child respiratory diseases needing treatment at the hospital. The number of road accidents and injuries is also reduced with yet more savings for the Accident and Emergency Department (an area of huge cost and system stretch), not to mention a great deal less suffering among local citizens. Finally, the acres of redundant car parking space were now free to become an organic food-growing facility within the grounds of the hospital, providing training and employment for local young offenders and fresh nutritious food for patients, which has been shown to shorten recovery times, thus freeing up beds for more patients.

The combined outcomes of these Edge Effect-based changes were worth millions of pounds in financial benefits alone. They also helped considerably in winning these companies numerous lucrative contracts and many other significant competitive advantages for years afterwards.

And all because the edges between company, community and contractors were explored at the beginning of the construction process!”

Many of these dreams have not yet come true – but we are working, right now, on some of them and results are brewing!

One of the most important sets of disciplines in exploring the benefits of Edge Effect in CSR programmes is systematic analysis, planning and measurement. We usually begin with a ‘Risks and Opportunities Mapping’ process which helps to pinpoint the most productive breakthrough areas. We also put in place appropriate metrics for measuring outputs and outcomes using both narrative and numbers.

Additional measured ROI boosts tend to occur in places such as Human Resources, Marketing, Investor Relations and Public Affairs. Benefits accruing in these areas are also mutually compounding. Thus, for instance, when a tripling of ROI occurs in three compounding areas, a simple 3x3x3 formula gives a 27x ROI figure. The synergies occur across internal, interdepartmental boundaries as often as between the organization and its external stakeholders. The key discipline is known in systems theory as Boundary Spanning.

So all you need to increase your ROI on CSR budgets by 20x to 30x is a set of Boundary Spanners in your toolkit!




Surely we all want fairness and sustainability, don’t we? When you look inside yourself, are you happy with, on the one hand, conflict, resentment and anger OR, on the other hand, shame, guilt and a terrible reputation?

We’ve seen some extremely angry rhetoric in recent times about the policies and behaviours of our corporations and governments. “Corruption, abuse, injustice, greed, incompetence, blind self-interest, cronyism!” the impassioned accusations and the splenetic rage continue to seethe.

Yet here’s a counter-intuitive fact: the very thing in themselves that makes the critics so angry is the same thing that causes the behaviour of the leaders they are so angry about. Both accusers and accused are suffering from the same misunderstanding. That misunderstanding is called “myopia”. Myopia is a condition in which we can only see things that are directly in front of us – that is, we can’t see the bigger picture. And this is precisely the problem we have when we see only symptoms and not causes, in business, government, economics and society – and ourselves.

I doubt that many people grow up thinking “I’m going to become rich and famous – and I’m going to do it by committing fraud, exploiting the under-privileged and destroying the environment.” What seems to happen is that those who seek prosperity or influence are drawn by the dominant paradigm of our age into a bigger picture that, for the most part, they cannot see. The MBA simply promises them “insight and success”; the NGO recruitment ad describes “equality and justice”; the party manifesto proclaims “social improvement and economic freedom”. What all of them tend to miss is the complex, interdependent reality that is impacted by their single-minded pursuit of compelling but simple goals.

I suggest that, in our deepest being, we are all seekers of harmony, balance, mutual interest and the increasing benefit of the system of which we are parts; apart from anything else, enlightened self-interest drives this tendency. Inevitably we all suffer wounds in life – emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically – and when wounded many of us lash out at others. Ultimately, however, none of us seeks hatred, antipathy and stress.

At its most aware, the dialectic of “adversarial” politics seeks out solutions better than either party could have seen on its own. Other things being equal, the battles between competing enterprises tend to produce better solutions for customers. When we lash out at perceived injustice it is because we all want justice; when we rage against “corruption” we are crying out for the honourable behaviour in which we all wish to participate and from which we all wish to benefit.

The great systems thinker Gregory Bateson, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1973), defined wisdom as “a sense or recognition of the fact of circuitry”. In this powerful thought lies the answer to two problems: the self-destructive behaviours of our leaders towards society and the environment and our rage and regret at these behaviours.

As we begin to see more clearly the longer-term (post hoc and ante hoc), more distant consequences and causes of our thoughts, feelings and actions, we will see something else too: we will see the means to achieve prosperity, power and influence by SOLVING social and environmental problems. Fairness, balance, global systemic health and wealth are in everyone’s interest and are inevitable consequences of a systems view of the world.

When we can all lift our myopic gaze from our temporary near-sighted focus on only what is directly in front of us and see how we all contribute to the rich and complex mix of interrelated phenomena that we are, we will stop being angry and stop doing harm. There will no longer be the accuser and the accused – because they are one thing, divided by a misunderstanding of how reality actually works.

I have just found perhaps the best brief description of the role we play in clarifying and explaining complex global issues for business leaders. I found it in a superb book by Margaret Heffernan (Wilful Blindness, Simon and Schuster, 2012), quoting Gillian Tett of the Financial Times, she says, on pages 322ff:

“‘The banking world became very siloed in part because it all looked very complicated and geeky and boring,’ says Gillian Tett, one of the few journalists who was willing to work through banking’s complexity to see what was going on. ‘But there are lots of issues that are like that – like global warming and poverty and science – and these are really going to affect our lives! We can’t afford to delegate knowledge of these things to experts because that’s how those siloes get built. And not just in business but in our lives, in our society.’

Her point is well made. As long as we back away from subjects we find too complex or too complicated, we keep ourselves blind, abdicating responsibility. The banking collapse could happen, Tett argues, because we let it happen by our decision not to question financial instruments we did not understand. ‘You need cultural translators – journalists, academics, thinkers who can interpret a lot of technical information,’ Tett concedes. ‘You need them to make these subjects accessible, so that we are all thinking about them. We have to ask ourselves: How many siloes are there that I am shutting my eyes to? We need constant monitoring of those siloes and a lot of checks and balances so that they cannot get so isolated.'”

In addition to my own thirty years of researching, writing, teaching, speaking and practising in sustainability, social justice and social enterprise, I am lucky enough to have alongside me a whole multi-disciplinary range of specialists in all the related fields with a combined few centuries of expertise and deep understanding of these crucial issues. You could think of us as the ‘Social Equity and Sustainability for Dummies’ crew!

Addicted to Gold?

I was at the ‘Trust and Integrity in the Global Economy’ conference at Caux, Switzerland. It was attended by 300 people from all over the world, many of them very senior indeed (at one point I found myself speaking on stage immediately before Kofi Annan!), in business, government and the civil sector. There is a growing sense that we are at a jumping-off point: if we don’t change the way we do human enterprise, the system at large will force a change upon us. And if the change is forced upon us, it will most likely not be pleasant at all. There are potentially disastrous tipping points accelerating towards us, economically, socially and environmentally, and if we don’t take decisive action, nobody is going to get out of this unscathed.

As with all ailing systems, the problems tend to compound each other: falling government budgets mean that social and environmental problems are getting worse. As they get worse, we need more – not less – tax money to fix and prevent them. So they get worse at an exponential rate. This (unless you’re in the business of burglar alarms, sensationalist media or mood-enhancing drugs) has a downward effect on business success.

So we have a Catch-22, right?

Wrong. The answer is to enable businesses of every kind to boost profits by solving social and environmental problems, rather than, let’s be frank, by causing them.

There is, in fact, a small number of very large businesses who are achieving this – and, surprisingly, they are not only in renewable energy or carbon sequestration. Indeed, some of them are in industries that have generally been viewed as the most villainous of all. Using extremely innovative business models, they are turning the downward spiral of decline into the upward spiral of social, environmental and economic recovery.

Email me and I’ll tell you the secret…







Twenty years ago I was brought in with a couple of colleagues to help boost the sustainability quotient in a new hospital being built near Swindon, in the West of England, by Carillion plc. We had a ball. There had been a very similar-scale hospital built by Carillion (before the de-merger from Tarmac Group) in the Southeast immediately before this. Loads of really powerful changes were made and the ripples from that project are still making a difference now.

What we weren’t able to get through, however, were our proposals to turn maybe ten acres of a very, very large parking area into a community farm. The benefits – to patients, to the community, to the taxpayer, to the companies involved – could have been colossal.

Well, a hospital in the USA has now done just such a thing and it totally rocks!

Watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JBLqBdgXnyg and you will see the future of authentic healthcare (as opposed to disease-care).

I’m looking for a visionary health industry or food industry leader who can work with us on a business plan to take this into public or private health care in the UK. A pilot would not only be potentially huge in changing the way we do healthcare, it may also bring great economic benefits to its funders. We have a model for making this so.

Any takers?

Monty Python - The Visible Foot

Reading this interview with Tomas Sedlacek I suddenly saw an important thing: we are trashing our world and our species with well-meant but dangerous philanthropy. Adam Smith believed that if we all looked out for our own best interests, the ‘Invisible Hand’ of the market would efficiently distribute the proceeds to all areas. If I maximise the profits of my business and spend them with other businesses employing other people, the markets will ensure we all end up with an appropriate share in an optimised prosperity. This, like Darwin’s work, has been used in a simplistic – perhaps even cynical – way to justify red-in-tooth-and-claw opportunism, greed, ruthlessness and much of the consequent damage and injustice. Of course Adam Smith had actually produced a much more nuanced and sympathtic assessment of the human economic condition. The outcome, however, has been less than ideal.

What Sedlacek helped me to see, though, is that there is also a flip-side to the Invisible Hand – the back of the same coin. I will therefore call it The Visible Foot. There are philanthropists, NGOs, foundations, volunteers and other wonderful people doing all sorts of great things to alleviate pain and prevent social and environmental problems. They are a tiny minority, however, in a culture that has mostly come to believe that greed and unenlightened short-term self interest is not only good but necessary and even inevitable. What these people are inadvertently doing is to create a situation where everyone one else is getting on with being part of the problem in the mistaken belief that the guys in the white hats have got it all covered.

In fact we need more or less everyone being part of the solution if we’re going to get out of this alive. Just as I need all the organs in my body supporting the whole-system-that-is-me to enable me to remain healthy, we need all of society doing the same in the interests of society itself and thus of all its parts. If one organ isn’t doing its job, the organism is going down and that means the end of all the organs. So if we let ourselves believe that there is just this one little societal organ making sure the whole organism is healthy – especially if that organ is being starved of nutrients just as the organism is getting quite unwell – we are going down.

We need the public, private and third sectors – and all parties – to pull together in unprecedentedly creative and innovative partnerships to attend to some very big cross-party issues. And we need it now. Or it will be too late. The Visible Foot could be the thing that causes us to be crushed.


…or a great opportunity for growth and development?

One of the biggest problems suffered by drug addicts is having to work so much harder than everybody else. In order to hide their problem, they often have to tell a lot of lies and half-truths. Addicts often find that their expensive habits push them towards the murky world of some of society’s shadier characters too, with all the hard work and danger that entails. It must be exhausting always covering one’s tracks, remembering what one has said and to whom, getting the story straight, staying under the radar of public attention and trying to look innocent to everyone all the time.

The important thing to remember here is that addiction is an illness. It is a problem in the system-at-large. And some individuals are more susceptible than others; and some individuals are more exposed to the conditions in which the illness is contracted. The most practical response is not one of blame, resentment or recrimination but one of understanding and activating the solution.

The same is true on all scales. When organisations have become victim to the illness of out-of-control growth-at-any-price, they find themselves in the downward spiral of the addict. They need ever-larger doses of the drug and their lives begin to unravel. Not only do their standards become corroded, they find themselves working increasingly hard just to present the appearance of healthy normality – to shareholders, to customers, to staff, to the media, sometimes even to the law.

The result of this, just as with the individual addict, is that massive amounts of time, cash, energy and other resources are wasted – resources that could have been put to use developing and growing healthily.

All of the above might be said of what was going on in the early-21st-century economic bubble. Many companies were sucked into the vortex of this relentless, drug-crazed party and lost sight of normal life. As the fight for market share forced them to climb to ever-higher excesses in an “ever-expanding market” some found themselves irretrievably hooked; their moral codes inevitably suffered. In order to sustain the costly addictive habits they had acquired, they were forced to stoop to behaviours that once might have appalled them. A number – like Lehman Brothers – overdosed and died. Others – like Lloyds and RBS – survived but got into serious trouble and had to be bailed out and sent to rehab.

One or two, like Barclays, realised the errors of their ways, ditched their more disreputable friends, got into a programme of addiction recovery and began to make amends.

I predict that these sober, recovering addicts will be the most successful and prosperous. Watch this space.

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