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 for pre-order now.
“There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth. Not going all the way, and not starting.” ~ Seth Godin
Can you think of a time when you had to make a decision without having all of the information that would have been helpful to you? Did you ever choose to not share data that could have helped someone else make a better decision? Has anyone ever found out that you kept something from them? What effect did these concealments have on trust and relationships?
We tend to think that there is a competitive advantage to withholding information, but that is only true if we subscribe to a win-lose scarcity model.
Ultimately, secrecy serves to divide and separate, instilling a sense of superiority for those in the know and spawning elaborate schemes to restrict the free flow of information. The drive to be superior builds a world where we are either scrambling to be on top or working to hold on to that position. These secrecy moves are inherently separation moves and reinforce a false belief that we can build a good life in a world of winners and losers.
By broadening our focus beyond short-term individual gains, we can shift toward encouraging and building solutions that create healthier systems. Getting great work done together and freeing breakthrough thinking requires a foundation of trust that empowers individuals to bring their best thinking forward in service of the whole. This is where the second principle of the KOAN method comes into play: By fostering Openness and sharing information broadly, we can encourage and amplify new voices, perspectives, and ideas that help shape innovative solutions.
Inspired in part by years of observation and consultation with organizations, the KOAN method’s guiding principles — Be (K)ind, Be (O)pen, Be (A)daptive, Build a (N)etwork — blend time-tested wisdom and recent research to help leaders instill confidence and build credibility. While cultivating Kind cultures creates the conditions in which bravery can occur, fostering truly Open systems requires a sufficient foundation of trust for team members to take personal risks and build common-good solutions. However, many organizations can’t shake the longstanding habit of withholding critical information, which mutes creativity and disempowers team members.
Cultivating Trust to Encourage Openness and Drive Breakthrough Ideas
A vast amount of research shows that operational transparency increases trust with both customers and employees. When people understand how decisions are made, they have greater faith in systems. Yet transparency and privacy also operate in a delicate dance with one another, especially in environments where power is unevenly distributed.
If we expect transparency without creating a foundation of connection, we may foster inhibitions and increase conformity as people strive to fit in or seek approval. Cultivating trusting relationships makes It easier to share information and be open to its influence. Finding the sweet spot where people can access the information they need to do their jobs and make decisions, while allowing for that same information to be viewed by different people with different perspectives, is a critical ingredient in unleashing innovation and fostering breakthrough solutions.
Harnessing the power of Openness requires giving more people access to relevant information that can fuel breakthrough insights and foster the conditions that allow those ideas to come forward and influence decision-making. As shown in the example below from my book, the KOAN method, breakthrough leaders cultivate the trust required to do this well.
Using Open Networks to Drive Progress on Global Challenges
IDEO was founded in the 1990s by David Kelley, a pioneer of the process we now call Human-Centered Design — a true user-first approach, rooted in empathy and bolstered by a willingness to prototype and iterate a lot. This approach creates optimal conditions for contrasts to emerge as we see what does and doesn’t get us where we want to go. IDEO’s Creative Difference model has helped to spur the development of innovative products like wearable breast pumps, vertical farming, pharmaceutical pill packs, and even a smart jacket developed collaboratively with Levi’s and Google to help both cyclists and truckers access common technology needs while minimizing device use on city streets and open highways.
This product is a great example of companies moving beyond rigidly guarded trade secrets and intellectual property to co-create a product that solves a problem. Recognizing the need for people in motion to safely access and navigate information technology, the two iconic brands teamed up with IDEO to design a jacket that was fashionable, comfortable, and practical and that seamlessly integrated gesture and touch to control key device functions.
Originally born out of the same tenets on which the Stanford Design School was built, IDEO had a front-row seat to the magic that comes from co-creative imagination as they helped organizations ideate, prototype, and iterate their way to one innovation after another. Now, the Open IDEO platform allows people around the world to collaborate for solutions to some of our stickiest challenges. When tackling complex issues — from curing cancer to solving food insecurity — varied ideas lead to better solutions. The Open IDEO platform makes it easier for more people to lend their creative thinking to the problems most in need of innovation.
The Open Innovation model on which the platform is built begins from the belief that “to solve today’s complex problems, there need to be better ways to come together, share ideas, and coordinate action around the globe… [this model helps] people worldwide break barriers, find support, and iterate on the ideas of many to create real change.”
The challenges this open-to-the-global-public environment is set up to solve are not issues that can be addressed inside the walls of any one organization or remedied by a single country’s government policies or interventions. Systemic problems like improving childhood immunization, promoting menstrual health around the world, or decreasing global food waste need to be anchored in the best scientific data and tailored to the unique cultural, geographic, and geo-political circumstances of local communities.
How has this open model worked in real life? In 2019, Open IDEO and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation teamed up with more than 18,000 changemakers from more than 128 countries to answer the question, “How might we empower caregivers to seek and fully utilize immunization services in their communities?” The proposed solutions resulted in accelerator funding being delivered to 31 prototype programs that coordinated the services of 3,450 caregivers all around the globe.
Having launched just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the newly established networks of connection and communities of support allowed these programs to pivot quickly and leverage existing relationships and resources to advance pre-existing goals, while also tailoring and adapting them to the massive changes and health impacts caused by the pandemic.
Openness Helps Create Connections to An Organization’s Larger Purpose
While those examples of Openness involve large challenges, they also demonstrate how transparency and trust can help encourage innovation in organizations of varied sizes. Whether at a small startup or a large corporation, leaders can help to create environments where members feel safe and can share relevant information.
Creating an environment of mutual trust opens people up to want to do their best work and gives them the tools to do so. When people are connected to a larger purpose, their sense of contribution increases along with their capacity to make insightful decisions that serve and support a shared direction.
As Simon Sinek has said, “We are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe. Their ability to make us feel like we belong, to make us feel special, safe, and not alone is part of what gives them the ability to inspire us.”
Leaders who do this well help their teams articulate a clear vision and chart a viable way there.