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22 Aug

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The Wabi-sabi of Businesses

August 22, 2012 | By |

Just folded a world.

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic principle, almost a philosophy, and notoriously hard to grasp. It is often referred to as a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. I believe there is such a thing as Wabi-sabi of businesses, or business models.

Follow me in exploring this thought, and let me know if I’m on the right track. Here’s my thinking.

Every business has a season. This season is defined by either the market (steam engines were needed for awhile, then not so much; web design has been for awhile, but might be replaced by UX design eventually, etc.), or by internal factors (think a shoe maker or a family-owned business where kids don’t want to take over from their parents). In many cases, the season is defined by a hybrid of the two. So planning on letting something end instead of pivoting might make sense, if it’s accounted for from the beginning. More importantly, is there an equivalent of the positive patina, or of the desirable washing out of denim jeans, for businesses? In other words, how can business grow better (not just more profitable) through use, wear & tear, and age?

Imperfections make a business humane. Imperfections (not the same as obvious flaws!) in the way the business is run, in the people running it, at every stage of the process. We’re not machines, we don’t always perform a steady 100 percent. And we shouldn’t. In fact, I don’t believe we should even strive to do so necessarily. I wonder if a business model can account and plan for, maybe even foster these human imperfections, make it part of the beauty that a business can be? Planning for 4-day work weeks during summer are an example of a business embracing such a human aspect – in that case, the willingness to spend more time outside in summer instead of clocking in a rigid 100 percent schedule. (Important reminder: the 100 percent in our thinking still dates back to factory workers splitting the 24h day into three shifts of eight hours each to keep the machines running. Hardly what we need today in our industry at least.)

Impermanence and modesty, simplicity, intimacy. A business is what it is, and nothing more. A company is the product of its processes, a manifestation of the strengths and weaknesses of its founders and employees. In other words:

“Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” (source)

I have a feeling this can be quite useful to take into account when designing a business.

Note: I won’t pretend I fully understand the depths of Wabi-sabi, but hopefully enough for the context of this blog post. For a primer, refer to this Wikipedia article on Wabi-sabi or this classic by Leonard Koren. Also, I’m curious to learn about examples where this is already being incorporated. Let me know if you know examples, will ya? Kkthxbai.