The KOAN method in Action: Leading the Way with Kind, Open, Adaptive Networks

The KOAN method in Action: Leading the Way with Kind, Open, Adaptive Networks

Oct 26, 2023

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.

“We are a part of everything that is beneath us, above us, and around us. Our past is our present, our present is our future, and our future is seven generations past and present.” — Winona LaDuke

Change has begun. It is ours to build. That is the spirit behind the KOAN concept: if we can stay in the discomfort of uncertainty and not-knowing long enough, and with enough curiosity, breakthroughs will find us.

It turns out that most of the challenges we face aren’t that different from organization to organization and community to community. In all cases, meeting uncertainty with curiosity is the birthplace of innovation. With that mindset, we have explored how to leverage the KOAN method to get big things done together in a dynamic world:

  • Be Kind: Center humanity and treat others with empathy and compassion to nurture loyal, engaged, and innovative teams. It’s important to note that creating kind cultures is not about “being nice.” It’s about creating the conditions for creativity that can unleash the kind of imagination necessary to solve any problem.
  • Be Open: Establish a foundation of trust that empowers individuals to bring their best thinking forward in service of the whole. By fostering openness and sharing information broadly, we can encourage and amplify new voices, perspectives, and ideas that help shape innovative solutions. 
  • Be Adaptive: Develop resilient systems that foster and encourage flexibility and operate 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.
  • Build a Network: Recognize our interdependence and lean into the partnerships that will produce innovation. When we see ourselves as interdependent and interconnected, we can both tap the collective wisdom to come up with better, more resilient, common-good solutions from the outset and make change easier as people feel supported, connected, and less alone as they step into the future.

Loosening Our Grip to Make Way for New Insights 

In Zen Buddhism, a koan is a riddle or a paradox that helps us remember that all stories and explanations are partial and incomplete. There isn’t a right answer to a koan, but if we sit with the questions long enough, our grip on what we believe to be true tends to loosen enough for new insights to emerge.

Solving today’s biggest challenges requires this kind of openness to discovery as we work to build a flourishing future where more people can thrive more often. The how-to manual for this new way of mobilizing people to do great work together hasn’t been written yet, and that’s as it should be.

Nevertheless, I hope that the principles outlined here will inspire leaders to move beyond individual or interpersonal changes and take a meaningful look, alongside their team members, at how they organize. I believe the principles of the KOAN method can help us navigate this paradox at work by building Kind, Open, Adaptive Networks of people working together to reach shared goals.

One example that is near to us at Integrated Work is the Certified B Corporation community. At the start of 2023, Integrated Work became one of thousands of companies around the world that are using the power of business to build a more inclusive and sustainable economy. B Corp Certification proves a business is meeting the highest standards of verified performance, commits companies to their mission for the long term, and provides a framework for continuous impact improvement. 

The B Corp Certification is the only certification that measures a company’s entire social and environmental performance with the B Impact Assessment, a tool created by the nonprofit B Lab. The assessment evaluates how a company’s operations and business model impact its stakeholders: workers, community, environment, customers, and governance. 

Shifting Business to Benefit the Common Good for the Long Term

In the KOAN method, I highlight the nonprofit B Lab that oversees B Corp Certification as an example of networks and models that are leading the way by envisioning new possibilities. B Lab was founded in 2006 by a group of friends who had achieved success by traditional measures. After selling their startup to a larger conglomerate, they wanted to create a vehicle to certify and hold companies publicly accountable for the ways they benefitted workers, communities, the environment, and customers. 

They believed that one of the biggest ways in which systems are stuck is in the primacy placed on shareholder returns in many large companies. This drive to achieve a particular kind of profitability on very short timescales virtually demands short-term maneuvering at the expense of more thoughtful or holistic solutions that might be of greater benefit to the common good in the long term.

Since then, thousands of companies have gained B Corp Certification around the world — amending their operating agreements to place people and the planet, alongside profit, as a business driver, and creating conditions for leaders and organizations of all kinds to reimagine how to build systems that create positive impacts to that triple bottom line. As the network has grown, so has their potential for impact.

Patagonia is one extreme example of a B Corp demonstrating what is possible when we throw out the old playbook and adopt an anything-is-possible stance. Founder and longtime CEO Yvon Chouinard was long fond of saying that he never intended to be a businessman, having gotten his start making climbing gear for himself and his friends in a workshop. From its earliest days, the company stood out for nontraditional work practices like encouraging staff to drop work when the surf was up and treating work like play.

Over the years, as the climate impacts on the natural environment that Patagonia employees and customers most loved to play in became more and more apparent, they centered their purpose on saving our home planet by donating 1% of all proceeds to charitable causes and becoming both a B Corp and a California benefit corporation. Then, in 2022, Chouinard went even further by declaring that “the Earth is now our only shareholder” and donating 100% of the company’s voting stock to the newly founded Patagonia Purpose Trust, while all nonvoting stock was given to the Holdfast Collective, “a nonprofit dedicated to fighting the environmental crisis and defending nature.” In making this announcement, Chouinard declared: “Truth be told, there were no good options available. So, we created our own.”

Evolving Organizations to Meet the Challenges of a Rapidly Changing World

Every day there are new examples of breakthrough leaders looking beyond the divisions we’ve taken for granted for too long to imagine new ways of leading and organizing. At Integrated Work, we’ve been experimenting with the KOAN method for several years now, taking the best of what we have each learned from successes and setbacks both here and in all of the other places our talented and diverse team have worked at, led, and contributed to over the years. 

We’ve partnered with clients to help them reimagine new futures and learned from their ingenuity along the way. Every day we experience ways in which old impulses to divide, segment, and silo interfere with the future we are trying to build and help hold one another to account for not staying stuck there long.

As we look at how to continue evolving our organizations to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world, we invite other mission-driven leaders to join us in building a more inclusive world where human-first principles and a commitment to transparency and curiosity fuel our ability to amplify our impact together.

I hope you’ll join us on the path toward imagining something new. Click here to download a free introduction to the KOAN method and sign up for our newsletter, where we share ongoing inspiration and insights about unconventional leadership. Or order your copy of the KOAN method and read about my thoughts and experiences — gathered over 20 years in the field — about new paths for breakthrough leadership.