Bubble Chamber CIC

The Four Horsemen of Social Enterprise

It may sound a bit over-dramatic to refer to the big issues facing social enterprises as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” but, having spoken to hundreds of social enterprises in the last few years, I feel justified in doing so. These four evils can scythe down everything in their path, stopping you in your tracks and having a serious effect on your impact as an organisation.

What shall we call them? How about:





Not quite as hard-hitting as the original four – Pestilence, War, Famine and Death – but it’s just as deadly when these marauders invade your business.

What do I mean by them?

Well, Confusion is A Lack of Clarity about your strategy and where you’re going as a business. This is the deadliest of all because without it you can’t go much further and your decision-making, your ability to take advantage of opportunities and deliver impact will be clouded by confusion and, ultimately, inaction.

Famine, in a business context, is A Lack of Resource, which means that you just can’t achieve what you want to, even if you’ve got your strategy sorted out. This can apply to time, talent and, of course, money. You have to be fully resourced and sufficiently funded or the going will be, at best, slow and soul-grindingly frustrating. In the absence of having unending resources at your fingertips, it’s vital to maximize those you do have.

Failure can mean lots of things but here I mean it as A Lack of Enterprising Culture. Social Enterprise leaders have expressed to us many times that they sometimes feel alone in developing their business as just that – a business, where sustainability and even, dare I mention it, profit are key features. This problem can be found even among CEOs themselves who, despite the commercial acumen they undoubtedly have, sometimes still shy away from seeing themselves as business leaders.

And, if it’s not coming from the top, you can’t expect anyone else in the organization to be switched on to the harsh realities of surviving in the world of business. A key to tackling this is developing what we call The Core Habits of Enterprise – Effective Communication (Understanding, Being Understood, Challenging and Transforming Conflict), Plan Do Review, Personal Productivity, Coaching and Being Comfortable with Numbers.

And then Ineffectiveness is A Lack of Social Impact. We’re all in the social enterprise sector because we want to make a difference but how easy is it to prove that you’ve done that?   You can work incredibly hard over many long hours but what does it all amount to in the end? What we find is that there is a lack of clarity on how social impact is actually defined and measured. I’m not talking about spending 1000s on measurement, just something that is appropriate for the scale and complexity of your organisation. Understanding the impact and change will ultimately ensure you deliver better quality services and provide the evidence for your communications and for funders, when you’re seeking investment.

So, taking all of these issues together, we can see that good intentions are all very well but are not enough. They have to be backed up by systematic planning and a set of solid foundations that mean your business is sustainable and the difference you make is real and long-lasting.

Where do these Four Big Issues come from, you may ask? I haven’t made them up. Talking to many, many social enterprise leaders over the last few years, my colleague Ben and I have heard these concerns repeated again and again. On Purpose, who also work with social enterprise leaders, have based their CEO Programme around very similar concerns, based on research they’ve carried out on the sector.

These issues stand out as the biggest challenges that face social enterprises and come from real-life entrepreneurs who are struggling to make that vital difference. So often, soc ent leaders we talk to are in danger of becoming disheartened or overwhelmed by these all-pervading issues.

And these challenges are not confined to the social enterprise sector. All business leaders face them and that is a vital point to remember: Soc Ents are in the same boat as everyone else and trying to survive the same conditions that entrepreneurs are facing in the commercial arena. The aims may be slightly different but we’re all subject to the same forces of nature in all its destructive power.

These Four Horsemen of Social Enterprise have given us the pillars of what we do at Bubble Chamber.   Our approach to business growth is founded on:

  • clarity of purpose (the starting point for everything that follows)
  • developing an enterprising culture throughout the organization
  • scaling up and becoming sustainable
  • delivering social impact

If you can hear the distant thundering of hooves, don’t ignore them but talk to us about the tools we use to help you un-horse these devilish riders and build a positive and effective future.

PS  If you’re wondering about the picture, it’s from the 1921 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse but it could have been taken in some offices we’ve visited!

The Value of Values

Before I took up running I used to play proper grassroots Sunday League football back in the day. I may not look it, but I’m a sportsman through and through (or I’d like to think I am).

Every Sunday, before the match, our so-called manager would pin up the team sheet along with some tactics for that week – a few pearls of wisdom, alongside some formation and set plays, to ensure that this time at least we’d get the badly-needed points. We’d all gather round and study the piece of A4, misspellings and all, and go out onto the pitch all fired-up and ready to win.

The trouble was when we got there it all went out of the window. We’d run around haplessly and there was no sign of any strategy or working together and the results were inevitable – a slow slide down the table. You see, the problem was, although the manager had spent, ooh, at least 5 minutes committing his thoughts to paper (and they were essentially always the same, so consistency wasn’t an issue), we didn’t have a way of turning the principles into practice.

So often, it’s the same with a company’s values. We all work in the Social Enterprise sector because we’ve got a passion for what we do, and values, and that’s a great thing. We may even have spent hours articulating exactly what they are and have come up with a carefully-crafted mission and set of values as a guideline to how we want to work and be in the world. And then someone in the organization goes and does something that completely contravenes the rules; not because they’re a bad person but because we’re all human and it’s very difficult to hold to your principles, especially under stress.

How many people in your social enterprise can tell you, without looking, what your professed values are? And how many live them on a daily basis? Do you? If the answer’s yes, then bravo, you’ve got it cracked. But the chances are, you’ll say “sometimes” and feel just a little bit frustrated that your values don’t infuse all your activities at all times.

So, what’s the secret? Let’s begin with some clarity on why they matter so much.

Values matter because they define your company’s culture. They affect how you recruit, how you deal with your stakeholders (from employees to customers, suppliers and the world at large); they enable you to make better decisions and be consistent in your behavior, creating congruence between your personal intentions and your organizational actions.

But values cannot be taught; skills can be taught but values can’t. They have to be lived and the big question is HOW DO YOU DO IT?

By using them; every day and in every decision we make until, like brushing your teeth, they become a habit. Consider how your values influence the product you offer to your customers to help them address their problems. How do you use them in dealing with your employees? Would they agree that your behavior is consistent with what you say? How often do your Board or Senior Management Team reference them at a Board or Senior Management Team meeting as you implement your business strategy?

One of the things that makes the Social Enterprise Sector unique is that it looks to put values front and centre, as it seeks to grow. But to do that successfully it has to learn to bring them alive.

For the team’s performance on the pitch to reflect the aspiration of the coach, it takes patience and constant application at all times in everything you do. It’s not just a piece of A4 paper stuck on the wall.

We all work in the social enterprise sector because we want to improve the world. Values, clearly defined and consistently applied, allow you to do that in a systematic way. If you basically want a Win/Win in all aspects of your life, values are key and they become the link to partnership building and alignment within the sector. They also make your life, and that of the people around you, more pleasant and fulfilling.

To discuss how you can put Values at the heart of your enterprise, call or drop a line to us at Bubble Chamber ; it would be great to have a chat.