The KOAN Concept

KOAN Concept

by | Nov 7, 2022 | Concepts

In Zen Buddhism a KOAN is a mantra that reveals the inadequacy of logic for reaching enlightenment.  A simple version is “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” OR “if a tree falls in a forest with no one to hear it, does it make a noise?” There isn’t a “right answer” to these questions, but if we sit with the question long enough, our grip on what we believe to be True tends to loosen just enough for new insights to emerge.  Solving today’s biggest challenges requires this kind of openness to discovery.

The way we have organized human activity in the name of “progress” has shifted many times over tens of thousands of years with change generally prompted by the need to accomplish something new that old ways were poorly suited to.  We’re at one of those inflection points again now.  Today’s problems are too complex to solve in isolation and a divide-and-conquer strategy is poorly suited to a deeply interconnected world.

Yet, the world FEELS more divided than ever—full of friction and conflict and large-scale existential threats. History, culture, and biology have primed us to attack or avoid things that aren’t familiar or “don’t make sense.”  What was adaptive for survival thousands of years ago, however, is poorly suited to the dynamic, ever-changing and highly interconnected world we now live in.

What if that moment of friction or frustration when tensions seem at their highest were the very moment when the breakthrough was closest at hand?

That is the spirit behind the KOAN Concept: if we can stay in the discomfort of uncertainty and not-knowing long enough, with enough curiosity, breakthroughs will find us.

Where we once could live out the bulk of our lives in relatively confined geographies interacting mostly with people from the same families, tribes, and clans, today we are able to travel the world and, whether we chose to venture far afield in our lifetimes or not, we interact with people at great distances and with vastly different backgrounds and experiences every day.  That means that the challenges we face require divergent thinking to solve and the once-adaptive “fight-flee-freeze-fawn” response is now an act of self-sabotage, getting in the way of achieving the positive progress and outcomes we want and need.

I’ve spent the last 30 years studying organizations and how they operate and working both in and alongside some of the biggest and most well-known brands in the world one week and in some of the most underserved communities the next.  I’ve worked with global banks, and consumer product companies, with telecom giants on multiple continents, and across the spectrum of healthcare products and services.  I’ve worked with charter schools working to reimagine education and with environmental organizations out to solve both the physical and social science of climate change.

It turns out that most of the challenges that humans face aren’t that different whether you are working with a multinational bank, a local environmental or educational non-profit, a telecom giant, or a community health center providing safety-net care to the underinsured.  In all cases, meeting uncertainty with curiosity is the birthplace of innovation and so I’ve turned the KOAN concept into a method we can employ to get big things done together in a dynamic world:

Be Kind: listen and act empathetically, meet differences with real curiosity
Be Open: trust people with information that impacts their lives and work
Be Adaptive: develop systems that are resilient and agile; and
Be a Network: lean into the partnerships required to meet our mission

Today’s biggest challenges can’t be solved by doubling down on the strategies that created them and none of us can see all the facets from all the angles necessary to come up with truly novel ideas. If we really want to achieve breakthrough results, we’ll have to learn to loosen the grip on our tightly held individual Truths to build Kind, Open, Adaptive Networks of people joining together to build a common good.

All of the KOAN Creatures and Creations on this site are designed to feel at once familiar and provocative—reminding us of familiar patterns, pointing out the sad and silly ways that things can break badly, and offering up seeds of hope for a better way of building brighter tomorrows, together.

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Jennifer Simpson

About the Author & Artist

Learn more about Jen and the creative journey that brought KOAN to life.