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Organizational Kintsugi: Turning Brokenness into Resilience

Robert Greiner
Robert Greiner
7 min read
Organizational Kintsugi: Turning Brokenness into Resilience

The following post is something I really haven't shared before. But, it was on my mind during a recent 20 hour road-trip with my family and I had some time to process while everyone was napping so here we go.

The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places. -Ernest Hemingway

One of my earlier professional core memories was working for the US division in a large technology company as a software engineer. I remember thinking it was really cool that we were at the top of a sky-scraper and I had fantastic views of Dallas and the surrounding area. It was also the first job where I was the expert on my team. Everyone else was focused on back-end development and I was the only one that had competence developing front-end web applications. Pair that with free catered lunch every Friday, and I was content with life. Cool location, open modern floor-plan, prestigious company, ability to practice my craft, smart coworkers, autonomy in my day-to-day, and great perks. What's not to love?

All of that came crashing down one Thursday morning in early 2011. At around 10am, the IT director came to one of my coworker's desks and asked him to get up and follow. Strange.

About 15 minutes later, same IT director, different person. It took about an hour for me to figure out what was going on. We were in the middle of a massive layoff, in the middle of a wide-open floor plan, in the middle of a year where we were performing well as a company. By the end of the day, half of my floor was gone, including most of my closest friends at the company - it felt like a dystopian ghost town.

I remember feeling (and still feel as I write this all these years later) a wide range of emotions. Fear, was I next? I was newly married and we were talking about buying a house, was this the right time? Shock, why did this happen, everything seemed fine (it wasn't, more on that below). Sadness, most of my team was gone, my friends were gone, the whole place seemed like a shell of its former self. Guilt, I felt bad that people I knew and cared about lost their jobs and I didn't.

Finally, anger. By this point in my career, I had experienced a few layoffs. There's no perfect way to let people go, this experience still sticks in my head of the precise wrong-way. There was zero empathy in the entire process, both for the people being let go, and those of us that remained.

The company was broken. It experienced tiny fractures the years before under the surface that bubbled up into one of the most public disasters in the modern M&A era. In this case, there was no repairing it. The dysfunctional culture and leadership that engaged in behavior that lead to multiple criminal charges, including securities fraud, to the former CEO is irreparable. The organization was dead long before the symptoms were felt and impacts were realized.

Two months later, I was at my next job.

A Better Way - Wisdom From the Past

The ancient Japanese art Kintsugi involves the painstaking repair of broken pottery. Artists typically use a mix of gold, platinum or silver. This makes the once-broken piece completely unique and even more beautiful than before. The main philosophy behind Kintsugi is to accept imperfections and respect the history of an object while carefully shaping it into something new. What seems to others as an irreparable defect on the surface is transformed into a unique piece of value. The optimist in me will also point out that the artist has a say in shaping what the future piece looks like - assessing the damage, which materials to use, which techniques are employed, aesthetic decisions, sanding and polishing, which defects are amplified, etc. The artist is now part of what once was a mundane mass-produced piece.

How can we take ownership of the current state of the organization, be honest about where the fractures are, and intentionally work together in the art of repair and making things stronger and more beautiful than before?

For leaders, the humility to admit and own mistakes and develop a plan to overcome them is essential to success. The best leaders are not driven by ego or personal agendas. They are simply focused on the mission and how best to accomplish it. -Jocko Willink

1. Recognize the Value in Imperfections

Kintsugi begins by acknowledging the beauty that can be found even in brokenness, we must recognize our organization's imperfections as assets that need to be valued and are worthy of repair. Looking beyond immediate crises or shortcomings to gain an overview is necessary in implementing Kintsugi successfully. Being honest and open about what the imperfections are and seeking crowdsourced advice on how to move foreword are great places to start.

Sometimes it takes acknowledging imperfections to open doors to creative solutions - like gold filling Kintsugi cracks - which ultimately can result in creating stronger organizations with increased resilience.

Action: Identify and fill the gaps. Socialize honestly about where opportunities for improvement are, be vulnerable, and seek feedback.

2. Approach Repair with Patience and Care

Kintsugi for organizations can be an intensive and long-drawn-out process that takes considerable dedication, patience and care to complete successfully. Effective leaders and team members understand that temporary fixes rarely produce lasting solutions. Assessing the situation with honesty and clarity will help identify the intersection of "what is most important to fix?" and "what can we actually fix?" which is the sweet spot of lasting success.

Teams can make more thoughtful and informed decisions by approaching repair work with patience. To find effective solutions, we need to spend enough time understanding issues at hand while working cooperatively as a team - it may require rebuilding trust or improving communications within your team; even reviewing mission/value statements of their company might prove essential for finding optimal outcomes.

Action: Spend time "sensing" within the organization. Have conversations, create surveys, talk to people who have a pulse on the team. Do what you can to gather information in order to synthesize and plan a step forward. Don't be in a rush here. Make sure people see you making the effort.

3. Foster a Culture of Growth and Learning

Kintsugi invites us to see repair as an opportunity for growth and learning, rather than hiding flaws within our organizations and discrediting what has been learned through repair. Teams must instead celebrate all they have accomplished together and continue to seek opportunities for continued growth.

Organizational success requires us to foster an atmosphere of continuous improvement and learning. You can do this by encouraging open dialogue, accepting feedback and offering development opportunities for their team. Teams can foster such environments to help ensure everyone in their ranks has everything needed to meet challenges head-on and reach long-term goals successfully. Investing time and energy here is more important than money. The art of identifying growth and development opportunities for individuals on a team, and then coaching them through the journey of improvement will pay massive dividends, especially in a period of crisis.

The three things that motivate creative people - autonomy, mastery, and purpose. -Dan Pink

Action: Find ways to create pockets of Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose within the team. Double-down on coaching and development. Make sure everyone on the team has their development areas identified and a plan is in place for progress.

4. Strengthen Relationships and Build Trust

Kintsugi relies heavily on creating bonds between broken pottery pieces to facilitate healing and progress. Organizationally, this is no different. Strong interpersonal relations play an integral part in its success. A feedback loop of positivity or negativity is already present in your team, building the bonds between individuals will create good will and allow others space to process, heal, and give the benefit of the doubt.

Teams must work tirelessly at creating trust among team members and creating an atmosphere in which employees feel respected and appreciated, which may include team-building exercises, regular feedback delivery as well as practicing empathy and active listening skills. Executing a SCUM-style retrospective is a great way to get the ball rolling if you aren't sure where to start.

Action: Invest time in relationships, allow for serendipity, and make sure everyone around you is putting positive deposits into the collective emotional bank account.

5. Embrace Change and Adaptability

Kintsugi demonstrates the potential power of change to transform. Through Kintsugi's artful form of reparative repairs, broken objects can find new life through this practice. Teams must adapt quickly when faced with difficult challenges or situations requiring adaptation in order to remain effective leaders.

Reevaluating current strategies, updating team norms, introducing new technologies, or restructuring your organization may be required in order to meet employee and stakeholder demands. Leaders can encourage their team members by showing a readiness for change.

Action: Move quickly! There are people who are hungry to be part of the solution, find them and partner with them on the road to success. - even though Organizational Kintsugi requires patience, it also requires pace. Great teams will be able to balance this polarity effectively.

6. Leaders Energize What's Important and Starve the Rest

Teams have unbridled potential to revitalize organizations similarly to how Kintsugi transforms broken pottery into beautiful works of art by placing emphasis on what truly matters. To do this effectively, teams must prioritize initiatives aligned with their organization's values and goals while eliminating activities which no longer serve a useful function or hinder growth.

Leaders should conduct an intensive assessment of existing processes and projects to understand their contribution to organizational success. Leaders can allocate both time and resources towards nurturing those activities most essential and essential, and be courageous enough to let go of activities no longer needed for long-term success.

Action: During a crisis or period of brokenness, there is usually a healthier appetite for change. Take advantage of this through being vocal about what is important, as well as what we are going to stop doing to make room for change.

Closing Thoughts

In order to manage human beings in the moment, you've got to be one. -Michael Lopp

As Kintsugi brings new life to broken pottery by turning its imperfections into art, we can transform our organizations by acknowledging flaws, learning from mistakes and prioritizing what really matters.

Through patience, flexibility and dedication to continuous growth you can turn today's challenges into success - recognize each broken organization is an invitation to become stronger, more connected and resilient than before - embrace Kintsugi's teachings with hopefulness as we look ahead; then mend and reconstruct it together so as to unlock limitless potential within us all.

As I reflect on my career, I'll always remember the highs and lows. My goal and hope is to be able to look back on the various crises and periods of brokenness with a bittersweet heart—disappointed that they occurred, but optimistic for the actions, behaviors, and mindset that allowed me to be part of the solution and repair. We cannot prevent unfortunate events from happening, but we have full control over our responses in the face of crises.

May your teams be stronger and more resilient than ever because of your energy and leadership, regardless of where you sit in the organization.

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Robert Greiner Twitter

Professional optimist. I write a weekly newsletter for humans at the intersection of business, technology, leadership, and career growth.

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