By: Jennifer Lyn Simpson
This article is excerpted from the KOAN method: Breakthrough Leadership for a Divided World, the newly released book by Integrated Work owner and CEO Jennifer Lyn Simpson. Available now.
“Transformation is not accomplished by tentative wading at the edge.” ~ Robin Wall Kimmerer
Think about the last time you completed a bureaucratic or process-oriented task — updating your address, visiting the doctor, renewing your license — that went smoothly and created joy. The fact that it may be a challenge to recall such a positive experience speaks to the barriers and complications that typically arise in organizational systems.
While policies and procedures can help scale solutions, they only work well in situations where the range of potential problems that may arise is both predictable and fairly static. In a dynamic world, when both the challenges and their potential solutions shift and change much faster than any good policy manual can keep up with, it’s much more effective to have a clear direction and guidelines that allow people who are close to the work to make smart choices in the face of dynamic conditions.
That’s when the ability to be Adaptive can hold powerful potential for individual and collective change. As the third principle in the KOAN Method — a way of leading and organizing designed to help accelerate impact — being Adaptive means fostering and encouraging flexibility and operating from principles rather than policies. When people can see how their contributions connect to the mission, they can better prioritize, shift gears, and evolve what they spend their time on to reach a desired shared result.
Remaining anchored to the past is one of the greatest inhibitors to organizational agility. Instead, when we operate in the “right now,” we are able to adapt more readily. As shown in the example below from my book, the KOAN method, examining existing practices and coming up with alternatives is easier in systems that are also open and where information is readily accessible to make nuanced and thoughtful choices.
Adaptability in Action: An Innovative Approach to Cost-Cutting
Several years ago, I did some consulting for a large insurance company that had just gone through an organization-wide process to define a new vision for its future. After many years of profitably providing traditional health coverage, they set out on a mission to focus more of their services on lifelong wellbeing — betting that focusing on improving the health and wellbeing of their members would be better for business in the long run. This was a clear shift in the company’s mission, and senior leaders put a lot of time and energy into communicating the bold new intentions to the organization at-large via meetings, promotional materials, and live events.
At the same time, as a publicly traded company, the organization had financial targets to meet. Recognizing that their shift in strategic priorities would create some temporary revenue gaps, they set about a cost-cutting initiative that would allow the company to transition to the new mission-driven work without going into the red. For this initiative, each department leader was asked to come up with a reduced budget. While most responded with traditional methods like headcount reductions and salary freezes, a senior finance leader (we’ll call her Linda) got creative.
Her approach was very KOAN and also ahead of its time. Taking the company’s new commitments to heart, Linda pulled her team together and invited them to consider how they could coordinate better or differently to cut costs in ways that were mission-aligned. Could they save money while improving customer wellbeing? Could they cut $1 million from their budget without resorting to staffing reductions they knew would undermine the mission?
The first move was to get the finance leads of individual units in conversation with one another. After several weeks of transparent information-sharing and ideating, the team identified ways to reduce the length of a person’s wait time in the call center, shorten the time it took to resolve claims, and standardize some of the technical systems used across departments. The team projected these changes would increase efficiency and save more than $1.5 million without layoffs.
Proud of her team and their ability to devise an agile solution, Linda enthusiastically presented the approach to the executive team who were, initially, excited to see her bringing an even greater savings to the table than had been asked for.
In the weeks that followed, however, traditional methods of budgeting and reporting got in the way. Linda’s innovative solution was treated as a one-time opportunity rather than as a recurring savings effort, which removed much of its actual saving power (not to mention its connection with the long-term mission). When Linda and her team argued that their collaborative method of organizing and brainstorming could be used in other departments to save even more money, they were dismissed in favor of more familiar strategies, namely salary freezes and layoffs.
Is Your Organization Ready to Realize the Potential of Breakthrough Leadership?
In developing her solution, Linda took all of the KOAN principles to heart: she was Kind in genuinely caring about her team and demonstrating that they mattered both to her and to the organization; she was Open in her transparent sharing of the challenge of needing to reduce costs, and in the way she encouraged cross-functional information sharing; she was Adaptive in the way she involved her team in creative problem-solving, and in finding a solution that would serve the evolving challenges of an organization in transition; and she brought forward a solution that had Network implications for how to better connect the dots across lines of business.
Sadly, these well-informed and well-intended efforts collided with older ways of organizing that undermined these mission-driven benefits. Well-worn notions of how to achieve cost savings interfered with an ability to seize the opportunity to test a new way that might have modeled new possibilities for the future.
Ultimately, Linda was asked to use a more traditional form of saving money and make staffing cuts. Not only was this at odds with the well-being mission and demoralizing to the team that had been proud and excited to deliver a strategy that avoided the need for such cuts, the layoffs she was ordered to make delivered fewer dollars in savings to the bottom line.
The situation went from a mission-driven win-win to a mission-damaging lose-lose. The mission wasn’t the problem; the systems meant to carry it out were. Examples like this are far too common as our ideals for leading in more purpose-driven ways collide with the calcified systems and outdated structures of our organizations.
If we want to make the most of mission-driven leadership and achieve the full measure of breakthrough impact we believe it can have, we need to move beyond developing individual leaders and look seriously at how we are organizing and rewarding people to get good work done together. Linda and her team’s efforts highlight both the potential inherent in breakthrough leadership and the pitfalls of applying its methods inside organizations that haven’t yet updated their systems to align with mission-related strategy.
While Linda and her team were ahead of their time — early adopters on their organization’s journey of transformation — over the next several years, that organization took their new commitments to heart to deliver breakthrough results.
Leaders and teams made meaningful changes to how work got done to foster exactly the kind of innovation and leadership that Linda had modeled from the beginning. Her methods of collaborating across departments to find those early savings became more widespread. Even more importantly, the mindset of using the mission as a filter for critical financial investments and decision-making became more and more common.
Examples like Linda’s demonstrate how those who can best respond to big changes likely have already invested in strong and trusting relationships, and have built systems that bend and flex well. Rigid systems are not resilient, but those who have built agility into their DNA — so they can adapt — find that disruptions in the external environment become catalysts for organizational evolution.