Independence: A Catalyst for Organizational Growth

By Nell Derick Debevoise

Teams can actively seek out opportunities to foster innovation through independent thought and action.

Independence is commonly perceived as a virtue for individuals, but what about on the organizational level? How does independence contribute to achieving our goals? As we celebrate the season of fireworks and cookouts, it’s worth exploring how independence factors into organizational leadership.

Independence can increase your organization’s IRR. Take this to mean the return on investments you make in any given area of your business, but also the elements of Innovation, Respect, and Resilience that independent organizations enjoy.

Defining Independence

When we refer to an independent organization, we are not focusing on its ownership structure but rather a more conceptual form of independence. An independent organization possesses the ability to collect and analyze data on its own, and make internal and external decisions that shape its destiny. While independent companies take competitors’ choices into account, they are not bound by them.

3 Benefits of Independence

1. Innovation: Independent thinking is essential for fostering innovation. When organizations rely on the same data and interpretations, they tend to make similar choices. In today’s competitive market, innovation is crucial for growth and survival. Therefore, it is imperative for leaders to nurture independent thought at all levels and across all functions within the organization.

To illustrate this point, consider the example of Leesa, a mattress company. Instead of slowing down production or delaying new product launches during the COVID-19 pandemic, Leesa took an independent approach. They developed a mattress specifically designed for respiratory patients in hospitals and expedited the design, testing, and go-to-market process. As a result, they not only provided a valuable resource for hospitals but also accelerated their future product launches, surpassing their innovation timeline for 2020.

2. Respect: Just as we admire individuals who stand up for their beliefs, customers are increasingly drawn to brands that share their values. Becoming a values-driven organization does not mean blindly following the crowd, as values differ among individuals. By taking an independent stance, organizations may lose customers whose values do not align but can gain market share and customer loyalty from those who appreciate their visible commitment to shared values.

Dick’s Sporting Goods provides a notable example of an organization demonstrating respect through independence. Following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Dick’s removed assault-style weapons from their shelves. However, after the Parkland school shooting in 2018, CEO Ed Stack recognized the need for further action. Despite estimating potential sales losses of around $250 million, Dick’s decided to stop selling the semi-automatic weapon used in Parkland and implemented a policy prohibiting firearms sales to customers under 21 years old. Although sales initially dipped, the strategic replacement of banned firearms ultimately led to revenue recovery and increased profitability.

3. Resilience: The pace of change affecting organizations both internally and externally shows no signs of slowing down. Consequently, there is no definitive playbook for thriving in today’s dynamic landscape. In other words, there are no longer universally “right” decisions from a strategic standpoint. Leaders must think independently, guiding their teams to do the same, to navigate the continuous storms—both literal and metaphorical—that arise in our time.

Amazon serves as a prime example of an independent organization. From its early days as an online bookstore, Amazon’s independent thinking led it to diversify its offerings and vertically integrate its operations, ranging from production to delivery. This independence has contributed to their remarkable resilience, evident in significant stock price growth, expanded market presence (including human health, pet prescriptions, groceries, and more), and the ability to withstand internal employee discontent.

As we strive to cultivate independence within our organizations, it is essential to consider various strategies that can bolster this attribute. Embracing non-traditional data sources can provide fresh insights and perspectives, expanding the information pool for decision-making. Additionally, incorporating diverse viewpoints, either through current board members or by adding new ones, ensures a broader range of perspectives and promotes independent thinking.

One effective approach could be the formation of cross-functional IRR teams. Composed of individuals with diverse backgrounds and functional expertise, these teams can actively seek out opportunities to foster innovation, respect, and resilience through independent thought and action.

Ultimately, true independence lies in the ability to forge our own paths. By encouraging independent thinking at all levels, nurturing a culture that values innovation and respects differing viewpoints, and embracing the challenges and opportunities that come our way, organizations can unleash their full potential.

In this season of reflection and celebration, let us strive to ignite the spark of independence within our organizations, allowing it to illuminate our journey towards growth, adaptability, and success.