Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Clash or Convergence? Big Data and (vs?) Design Thinking

As Big Data looms as a force to strongly influence decision-making and collaborative models of leadership emerge under the auspices of design thinking, it will be interesting to determine how these two trends will intersect within organizations that are facing decision that influence their feasibility or effect the communities that they work in and impact.

With the emphasis on the numbers among the data crunchers and the desire among design thinkers to start with people and take a more intuitive approach is there away these approaches can coexist or will they be mutually exclusive?

If we start with Big Data, there is the sense that data would overrule whatever eye tests that we might be tempted to employ and eliminate the impulse to trust our instincts.  In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman introduces the impact of Paul Meehl's research in psychology and makes that case that time and time again data can actually provide more valuable results or accurate information than the experts in a variety of fields. One outcome of this research is that the case can be made that formulas and data may be more reliable than intuition, undermining one of the key pillars of design thinking.

At the same time, there is the risk in taking too rational an approach in relying on the data at the expense of overlooking the subtleties or the integration of disparate parts or stakeholders that ought to be taken into account.  Apart from that, there is the risk in taking the data as is without critically examining the information and determining if there are interpretations that are overlooked or, alternatively, overemphasized.  For all the promise that various bits of Big Data can provide us, their is the risk of looking at the wrong microcosm or looking for closure or resolution in isolation rather than taking a step back from that entrancing bit of data about, for example, the distance a carrot travels and going after a bigger prize.

This is indeed where design thinking comes in, despite the reluctance that may be had about investing trust in intuition or an insight or outlook that is not grounded in the certitude that data can provide. The learning design approach, delineated clearly by the Kelley brothers from Ideo and the d.school at Stanford University in their book Creative Confidence outline an approach that takes a more artisanal approach to problem-solving or decision-making and establishes a process that strives to arrive at unique solutions that are the consequence of perhaps messy but ultimately handcrafted and organic solutions that strive for a more comprehensive view and involving participants or stakeholders as deeply as possible in the process of defining the problem and solution in a manner that draws on the broadest range of inputs and insights available.

Big Data and Design Thinking can coexist in situations where problems or questions are identified in the data and the careful, messy processes of design thinkers are brought to bear in pursuit of a solution that can be comprehensive and is grounded in engaging as many people as possible.  If the Data speaks and the designers listen, then the chances of success is quite high.  However, if a more traditional or monolithic approach to the data and the solution is given favour than there is a risk that design thinking may get relegated to the benches despite the potential that it has to generate lasting, elegant, and surprising solutions to the problems that the data identifies.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Opposing Normality With Rich Diversity


"If normality were normal, everybody could leave it alone. They could sit back and let normality manifest itself, but people, especially doctors, had doubts about normality.  They weren’t sure normality was up to the job so they felt inclined to give it a boost. "

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

In the passage above from Jeffrey Eugenides' epic novel the notions of normal and normality is critiqued as the main character reflects on the changes that he has chosen to reject in an effort to align with his true identity and live the rest of his life accordingly.  The veneer of normality, need a boost as the main character puts it in the passage above, is something that essentially gets in the way of that character's identity and the well being that may depend on that clearer sense of self.

The main character's reflections on normality, reinforce a few of the precepts on wabi-sabi. One is that, "Truth comes from the observation of nature," and another is "appreciation of the cosmic order." The effort to revise normality, to revise nature or the cosmic order to something that is consistent and less prone to variety and diversity, does not create something that is normal.  It only enforces conformity rather than allowing things to contribute to the variety that exists in nature and is part of the cosmic order.

The pursuit of conformity and order is in direct contradiction with nature and, more importantly, reduces that potential that people and nature possess to create the innovations and wonders that enrich our lives.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Is It a "Living" Room If It Is Wrapped in Plastic?

Without a doubt, the center of any home is the kitchen.  It is probably the part of the room that is most likely to possess elements of wabi sabi to it.  Whether it is the pottery that you may use to present food, the foods themselves or the attachment to comfort in smell, taste, nourishment or ritual, it is clearly a place in the home where there is this attachment and living warmth that we long for.

The living room in many homes I've been to is a much more sterile place.  There is this sense that the good furniture is there and it only ought to be used when there is company there.  Given my own preference for gathering around kitchen tables or leaning against the counter with a tea in hand for a conversation that goes who knows where, the living room might actually be the place where you sit down with people at some distance.

Alternatively, the living room is oriented to point everyone at the TV and bring silence to the participants in the view experience, such as it may be.  There may still be a sense that the room needs to be protected from our use or presence in some way and in that there is the sterility of the living room.  Still there are living rooms where this is not the case.  An old rocker or a hand-knitted throw or blanket adds a bit of colour and warmth to the room and the spaces is cluttered with enough family photographs on the walls or scattered on the coffee and end tables to alter the room into a place where people are welcome and the conversations are imbued with the warmth and openness that is so easily considered the norm in the kitchen.

Living rooms ought to be more warm and welcoming rather than this set aside place that is only used on occasion.  The dog needs to be allowed to occupy its space in the living room.  The plastic needs to come off the lamp shade and the sofa does not have to be laminated.  It needs to be a place not only where you live but where you are surrounded by living things and people rather than putting everyone on guard regarding their posture, conduct and other ways of censoring ourselves because of the setting we are in.  

Keep those things in mind the next time you are in a board room, too.  Is there much life in the room or are there a few plastic plants or other items that cannot be undone by human neglect to give a semblance to life but reinforce the need to behave?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

PowerPoints and Other Off-the Shelf Non-Solutions

Something as essentially intuitive and as tolerant of flaws and decay as wabisabi would seem out of synch with the business mindset.  One aspect of wabisabi that I've cited before and believe is most compatible with business today is the commitment to fusing the human, temporal and material to ensure they interact in a synergistic manner and that we -- as users or creators -- are conscious of this and have a more vested interest in the outcomes and outputs of this relationship.

Garr Reynolds, author of the book Presentation Zen and a blog by the same name, is a strong proponent of applying Japanese aesthetics and simplicity to — for starters — presentations shows how the introduction of the technology of PowerPoints actually deadens the interaction between a speaker and his/her audience.  The technology more often than not encourages the presenter to create a distance between the content and the audience rather than the intimacy and interaction required to compel an audience and achieve a meeting of minds.  The off-the-shelf technology, as modern and ornate as it is, invites more conformity than innovation and self-expression when presenting.  In fact, the belief that the options offered in the program must be used invites presenters to resort to the gimmicks available in the hopes of juicing up their presentations.  When teaching presentation skills to a group of engineers, I told one group to observe how everyone in the audience was still nodding to track the up and down movement of an arrow they used on the last slide of their presentation.  Without the infusion of passion or personality, everyone's time ends up wasted more often than not.

Even if the presenter read off his/her own computer and faced the audience instead of reading off the projection, the drone would keep the content of the presentation from impacting the audience. Reynolds' insistence that the PowerPoint be stripped of its text-heavy slides and that presenters invest their personality, experiences and passion for their topic into their presentation is more than a simple suggestion to infuse a personal touch to a presentation. The trap that so many presenters fall into when they create a new PowerPoint is the same one that so individuals or organizations fall into when adopting high tech or off-the-shelf solutions rather than looking carefully at their needs and solving problems or seizing opportunities in more a more individual way.

In Reynolds’ book or website on presentations you will see an instance where the standards that we settle for because of the technology or the “solutions” that are provided are not enough.  In the cases of presentations, there is a need to integrate more of the human element into the presentation rather than to hide behind the text and technology and forego the anxieties that we associate with public speaking and presenting.  Just as we use the technology of the PowerPoint to hide, we use the veneer of modern, technological or efficiency-generating approaches to forego the challenge of coming up with meaningful solutions to the challenges or opportunities that we face.

If we settle for solutions or procedures that are merely off the shelf, one size fits all products that provide the veneer of apparent effort rather than real, substantive solutions that address needs, then the reliance on familiar and currently popular will merely provide the cold comfort that we tried.  If instead of this, key stakeholders involved themselves in a detailed needs assessment and generated questions and identified gaps that accurately capture the needs of the organization, it may be a more labour-intensive process but there is a greater chance of long term buy-in from a larger number of people. Each problem, opportunity or team is different and each needs solutions, strategies or plans that follow a process that starts at square one rather than at a paraphrase, an analog or an assumption of where an organization is at and where its path lies.

Wabisabi approaches to business practices would fuse people, materials and goals in a manner that optimizes a team's interaction and commitment.  It would provide a foundation for success and ensure a long, careful stewardship of the outcomes of the endeavour. It would get organizations away from the off-the-shelf approaches that will ultimately awaiting an innocent child's (or intern's) announcement that the the emperor has no clothes or that the consultant does not have a solution. A comprehensive approach to problem-solving or opportunity-seizing cannot be packaged in new buzzwords or spin that promises success from revolutionary approaches and surer success in a shorter amount of time.  Working from the premise that a solution may not be perfect and will definitely not withstand a length test of time will encourage a greater consciousness of change and generate a more robust and prompt response to it when its consequences are most evident.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Wabisabi and the Business "Gurus"

The essential components of wabisabi -- the recognition that nothing is perfect, nothing is permanent
and that our world is ever-changing -- ought to have some value in the workplace but there is still probably a tendency to look up wabisabi as being oriented to materials and objects rather than people or organizations.

There is, however, a significant industry dedicated to the development or maintenance of certain levels of commitment, energy or extroversion in the organization that continues to enforce the attitudes required in an environment or organization that strives to be competitive.  The efforts to train to staff to ensure they are engaged or motivated to meet performance targets have spawn countless publications by business gurus large scale seminars that are intended to psych people up or capture the fire within.  To reinforce with the Japanese orientation of the wabisabi columns I'll cite a passage from Kyoto-born author Haruki Murakami's most recent novel, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage which includes the following passage on a character's business seminar program:

"Basically a quick, impromptu brainwashing course to educate your typical corporate warriors.  They use a training manual instead of sacred scriptures, with promotion and a high salary as their equivalent of enlightenment and paradise.  A new religion for a pragmatic age.  No transcendent elements like in a religion, though, and everything is theorized and digitalized.  Very transparent and easy to grasp.  And quite a few people get positive encouragement from this.  But the fact remains that it's nothing more than an infusion of the hypnotic into a system of thought that suits their goal, a conglomeration of only those theories and statistics that line up with their ultimate objectives."

It is perhaps an accurate depiction of the experience of reading a book by one of those motivational superstars like Anthony Robbins who offer the same message, slightly repackage with the same theme and message as before but freshened up with new epigraphs anecdotes for each chapter or presentation.  The attempts to go to this well regularly to renew people's enthusiasm for the job is one that provides diminishing returns and more dangerously purports that the attitudes and approaches to "success" be narrowed down to those that encourage increased competition and the accompanying stress that would come with it for people who don't have the stomach for it but feel they have to play along.

Accountants calculate capital depreciation into their assessments of an organization's assets and liabilities, but the insistence that individuals have not depreciated -- or more accurately appreciated -- and merely need a motivational tune-up is fast falling out of vogue.  The romantic equivalent of these books and seminars make bold promises such as that of "Love in 90 Days," but asserts that set strategies and approaches will allow success to occur based on a plan and a timetable that is adhered to. These guides to achieving various forms of success overlook the individuality of their readers and presume that conforming to their guidelines will assure success.  The reality is that those who follow the principles of these books limit their range of possible routes quite dramatically and create a Darwinist competition for success when there is a more synergistic option available if the authentic interests of those reading these books is taken into account.

Returning to these books and seminars for, as Murakami puts it, "an infusion of the hypnotic" is an
attempt to override the waning enthusiasm for work that does not suit an individual or strive to sustain the unsustainable.  Rather than expecting people to conform to the standards that were first set by Dale Carnegie nearly a century ago and have been reinforced (and quite profitably so) by a long roster of his followers over the last few generations, author who have made the case for more authentic and complete individuals to express their passions and find their niche.  More recently, author such as Susan Cain (Quiet) and Simon Sinek (Start With Why) have offered antidotes to the rah-rah energy of Anthony Robbins by citing a need for greater empathy and authenticity among individuals as a means to achieving greater individual and communal or organizational success.  Their appreciation for what a wide range of individuals can achieve or contribute is a marked departure, not to mention a great relief from the trend that has persisted for much of the last 90 to 100 years.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Wabisabi of Peggy's Cove

Peggy's Cove, a post card pleasant fishing village outside Halifax is a place that embodies many elements of wabisabi and may, as the popular tourist destination it is, raise a few questions that challenge how purely it represents the principles of wabisabi.

For generations Peggy's Cove has been a picturesque example of the lifestyle of sea-going fishers along the Atlantic coast of Canada.  There is little indication of the industrial scale of fishing that takes place in other coastal communities and there is very much a sense that the fishery out of Peggy's Cove is at a smaller scale than the type we associate with over-fishing.  The small inlets where the boats are tied present placid settings that enchant with their stillness and the relaxed pace of life.  The village has been mandated to avoid modernizing the appearance of the homes and businesses there to ensure that it remains a representative example of what the village (and others like it) looked like in its heyday.

The village abounds in the patinas of wood grain and granite, steadily and inexorably weathered and worn by the wind and waves.  In the ongoing commitment to use wood siding on the buildings and the docks throughout the village there is a willingness to not merely acknowledge the elements and the passage of time but to embrace it as well.  There is no veneer of vinyl or aluminum siding overselling their abilities to withstand the elements without requiring any care but rather evidence that the community and the economy of the place will continue to connect itself to the sea and the impact that it has overtime.

There might be the impulse to say that the aging wood and peeling paint are quaint touches that "fit" in Peggy's Cove.  There is something more than quaintness to it.  If, for instance, the village were clad in aluminum or vinyl siding the aging would still occur, just at a different pace.  The fading siding would not be as appealing to the eye.  It would fade in colour and wear in other ways but the passing of time would not reflect as well on those surfaces because of the impulse to detach ourselves from those materials.  The sell on these materials is that they don't need maintenance, an arrogant suggestion and one cast into stark relief when compared to the smooth grit of the nearby granite that surrounds the village's iconic lighthouse.

One component of wabisabi is the fusion of object, use (or attachment) and time.  The material, human and temporal come together, even if it is only the eye that the human brings to the interaction.  With manmade materials that put a veneer on surfaces and allows people to distance themselves from the trouble of maintaining them or ultimately discourages them from using them as thoroughly, intimately or carefully as wood, rock or ceramic might invite that fusion that is so central to wabisabi is eroded and a poetry of interaction is diminished.  Some might say that the loss of poetry is an insignificant one and to that I would say too many decisions are left to those with no ear or compassion for poetry. The things they may aspire to erect (rather than create) would wither without the graceful patinas or the evocative beauty of the shingles of Peggy's Cove.

The invitation to meditate on Peggy's Cove and the textures of surface and the passage of time is a rewarding one that is hard to walk away from.  As the waves lap, the granite bequeathes each grain of its self to the sea and the wood yields to the winds and sun, there is a dear opportunity to pause and reflect on time, its power and our need to be attentive caretakers of what we create and aspire to achieve.  Replacing all of these vulnerable materials with modern materials that would bring a more stable but ultimately sterile appearance to the place and with it, likely invite a kitsch to the community that has been so successfully fended off by insisting on - paradoxically enough - preserving it by ensuring that it is made of materials that decay and cannot be preserved.

Monday, July 28, 2014

In the Garden

Gardens are clearly places where the tension between wabisabi and modernism or the pursuit of perfection are most evident.  There may be a desire among gardeners to keep the garden pristine and hide the traces of decay in particular.

During a garden photography course I taught in the summer of 2013 an experience photographer replete with all of the equipment would would ask for asked me what the secrets were for getting a shot with all of the flowers at their peak.  It was evident from the flowers in question that it was unlikely that all the blossoms in the shot would bloom at the same time or have life cycles long enough to maintain their unblemished petals long enough for the other buds to open.  The options would have been to wait or keep shooting but it may have been his preference that I suggest photoshopping the images or coming up with some concoction that could be fed to the plants to synchronize their life cycle in some way.

The desire to have a garden show its best face or bring some perfection to our eyes to please an audience whether is a narrow vision and there likely isn't an appropriate feature on a Swiss Army Knife to achieve that goal.  There are gardeners who likely obsess over the details and their definition of "cleanliness" in the garden that drives them to pick, root and deadhead through their gardens constantly.  Such an attention to detail may engender a profound familiarity with the garden but it does so at the expense of taking the gardener out of the moment.

The obsession with controlling the garden and ensuring that it is in some ideal state actually takes the gardener out of the moment.  The requirement that the garden be in some state of order arbitrarily defined and chosen by the gardener is an attempt to impose some form of uniformity in the garden that disables the gardener's vision or acceptance of the patterns and cycles that are occurring in that defined space.  This impulse to control should not flourish is gardens.  It is bad enough that it happens on mono-crop industrial farms.  In the garden, the plants, gardener and whoever happens upon it ought to have the opportunity to find new microcosms with each visit and turn of the head and never trouble their minds or backs with the matter of disposing of fallen petals.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

IKEA: The Antithesis of Wabi-sabi

IKEA furniture downcycled to serve as yard furniture subjected 
to dubious indifference to the elements and missing parts.
One of the things that enchants in objects that possess elements of wabisabi is the evidence of their age and the graceful decay or erosion that occurs with use and the passing of time.  I think of the wear of the family knife that my parents have used for the entire 48 years of their marriage.  The blade has narrowed with the methodical, regular sharpenings that have occurred over time and I'm slightly jarred by the newer wooden handle that had been added to the blade and has impact of time and countless runs through the sink-load of dishes day after day.

The effort to evade the passage of time with the use of veneer or some fabricated material -- whether plastic, nylon, vinyl or any of their seemingly life-proof cousins of the chem lab -- to fend off the insistence of time ultimately ends up being a cloying product that does not encourage us to form any attachment to the objects that we bring into our lives.

Whether it is redefining our home space with do-it-yourself building materials that manage to forgive the most incompetent of handymen (guilty as charged), or filling our space with furniture that we never form a real attachment to and ages in a manner that decays and degrades rather than erodes and wears with a graceful response to time.

Much of the furniture that is in our homes comes from IKEA and many of us who buy and use it have a deeper attachment to the brand, the efficiency and the Euro-quirkiness of the product rather than the comfort that comes to use throughout a period of continued use.  With the passage of time the chipping away of the veneer to reveal the compressed wood product beneath does not enchant us with increased appreciation of those items over the passage of time.  Perhaps that disposability is ideal in a world that has been more suburban over the last generation or two and not so coincidentally more transient as well.  There is more than a characterization-forming joke to the IKEA sequence in the movie Fight Club.  The suggestion of The Narrator's ennui with keeping up the appearances of a middle class male is explicit but 15 years after the fact it has had little apparent impact on the IKEA brand.  The Narrator is still left deeply, ineffably dissatisfied by the home environment he has purchased for himself and there is a good chance that, despite the buzz of a new-purchase and the satisfaction of sating our long suppressed affection for Lego, we are as well.

At a time when we are growing more conscious of environment in both micro and macro concepts, surrounding ourselves with things that - at the very moment we purchase them - we know we will dispose of rather than hand down seems to lack an economy or utility that we would find at an antique shop or a garage sale.  Those older items have served there time and have survived the wear of use and bear the scars and dents as a badge of honour rather than the increments of time before being trundled off to the landfill.

Surrounding ourselves with things that bring comfort for something other than our butts when we settle down in front of the TV is but one way to improve our surroundings and as I have said before is to actually own things that we use and become attached to over time rather than merely accumulating things that have little utility or may not earn much affection if they serve any utility.  It is valuable and enriching to fill our lives and surroundings with things that warrant our affection even though that may be considered inanimate.  Think of the unadorned amalgam of straight lines that is a Billy bookcase, replete with the sawdust composite board that you tried to hammer in to provide a back for the shelves. That "board" is forever threatening to bow out of its slots or slip past the penny nail you gingerly tapped into it, right?  Compare that to a heavier, older bookcase that came from an antique shop or an estate sale or even a few planks and a stack of bricks you use to cobble together your own and in that you will find a difference akin to your favorite dog-earred novel and the cardboard replicas that line the shelves that invite you further down the aisles in your local IKEA.

When filling your surroundings and making a space to call your own put aside the ornate engineering and product-testing and seek out something that you like and can attach yourself to over time.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Handcrafted Movie

Given the manner in which Hollywood movies are made, and packaged as product, it would be a stretch to state that there are elements of wabisabi in their creation.  The effort to get a large group of participants, all under the command of a producer or director to fulfill their requirements in the completion of a vision that is compromised to the intent of the producer and, in the case of the most popular movies we encounter, the bottom line.

The extent of this compliance with the profit motive and the consequent production of a product that all too often does not bear the vision or personal imprint of an auteur is something that was best illustrated during a screen-writing course I participated in in 2000.  During one part of the program, the instructor introduced what he called the Brainstorm Machine, which basically was a process where you take the elements of a story you like and switch elements in the story.  Instead of a man, have a female lead character, change the setting from the old west to outer space, change the threat from an earthquake to a forest fire and so on and so forth.  Elements may be different, but the spine of the story and its structure are intact and the imitation prevents unique voices from being heard or perhaps even used.  I know that the intent for the Brainstorm Machine was just that, to brainstorm.  The content coming out of Hollywood, with coincidental meteor-borne apocalypse movies coming at the same time and the Hangover movies spawning the all-female copy of Bridesmaids, it is easy to believe the Brainstorm Machine has been well-used.

"Independent" filmmakers broke away from the conventions of Hollywood norms throughout the 1990s but gradually the evolution that this filmmakers brought to the screen was slowed as their talents gradually got funnelled into the mainstream and the risks grew fewer.  Think of Steven Soderbergh career from Sex, Lies and Videotape to Ocean's Twelve or Thirteen.

Boyhood, already meeting the biggest rave reviews of the year, seems to be the antithesis to the Hollywood imitation not only in terms of theme and content, but the way it was made as well.  Richard Linklater, director and writer of the Before trilogy with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy over the last twenty years, has made Boyhood over the course of 12 years to chart the growth of his lead actor as much as his main character.


Rarely, if ever, has a filmmaker either begin given this autonomy to complete a coming of age story over the course of real time.  Linklater has turned his lens on his subjects and carefully refine his story in an intuitive and nuanced manner that few filmmakers have had the opportunity to do when they are more tightly bound to script and schedule.  Linklater and his cast have invested a significant part of their lives and enriched the story and perhaps altered their own lives with an truly enriched collaborative process on the set because of their long-term commitment to the project as well.  The collaboration and commitment enhanced their collective sense of moment that they have shared and created together throughout the course of the 12 years they worked on the film.  All told, it results in an intuitive and organic approach to the film.  The story-telling that is enriched by a lingering consciousness about the passage of time they are spending together.  Throughout the process, there had to be a sensitivity on everyone's part to the changes and opportunities that were being presented to the cast and crew as they grew.  Truly this has been a film that has been crafted and polished rather than manufactured as so many other tend to be.

In all likelihood, this was a movie that made with an appreciation for the story, the time it was made, and a prevailing sensitivity to the moment unfolding before and behind the camera as this cast and crew work together and develop a working relationship amongst all the participants that would rarely develop on sets that aren't worked on at such a leisurely pace.  In the process, Linklater and his colleagues have made a film that has had the opportunity to resonate with viewers in ways few films ever do.

In his commitment to mindfully record these fictional lives, Linklater has made a film that seems deeply enriched by its patience to revel in the passage of time.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Wabisabi of the Mom 'n' Pop

When I recall the treasured memories of my life in Japan, it would be the routine of dining out at my favorite restaurant in my neighbourhood of Kyoto during the eight years I lived there.  It was a simple place just a few metres from my apartment located right next to JR Saga Arashiyama station.  (Yes, go there and tell them I said hi.)

It was a family business with a simple menu that was not so different from other restaurants like it in any other neighbourhood throughout the country, or the world for that matter.  Yes, the food would be different from one place to the next and the actual dishes and glasses that were used would be based on the realities of running a small family business, rather than the rugged tactile realness or earthiness that wabisabi would attribute to handmade pottery, but the personal touch that that family brings to their operation and to their interactions with the customers is hard to come by with bigger businesses that strives to achieve larger corporate ambitions.

The little mom and pop that I went to so regularly over the years and still resonates with me nearly 11 years after I left that neighbourhood is that essence of the mom and pop business and on a personal level the essence of how wabisabi of smaller business creates for them advantages that can not be matched in larger organizations.

Before I wax rhapsodic on that little restaurant or the last visit I paid there during a holiday in 2010, let me go to the other end of the spectrum for a few moments.  A few months ago while I was out with my wife, son and in-laws we went to one restaurant from a chain that purports itself to be a casual dining experience.  It is one of a significant chain across western Canada that has an award-winning chef behind its menu and probably a target demographic market of the 25-45 age range.  With my in-laws and my 2 year old, it has always felt like an uneasy compromise.  Also, as the wage-earning male of the group I tend to get a bit more attention during the interactions with the wait staff, which you can already predict is comprised of younger women who are easy on the eye and tend to teeter on the footwear they work in rather than move fluidly and briskly.

On one occasion I somehow caught a glimpse of, let's call it a cheat sheet, that the waitress had.  Her primer featured what the restaurant, the chain I might emphasize, called.  I can't recall what the entire list was verbatim but they were steps in the interaction with the customers.  Repeat and/or Review were in their for the sake of getting the order right, of course, but they were lost in the shadow of one R that I'd consider misplaced or interloping: Romance.  From what I could gather from my angle and the brief time I had to look - this almost suggest that a forbidden glance that is prelude to some other events is at play here - there were guidelines and prompts to be flirtatious enough in the interaction to entice a little bit more out of the customer. Whether it was an effort to up-sell or establish a Rapport (another possible R, but likely taking a backseat to the efforts at Romance) that made the interaction with the customer something more it was not to be.  There was none of the sincerity behind it and throughout the other visits to that restaurant there was never sufficient impression left by any of those waitresses who were working those same 5 Rs from Vancouver to Calgary to Winnipeg the as well as they can.  In reality they are occasionally earning the noun "bimbo" in reviews posted to Urbanspoon.  It was all something the left me looking at my wristwatch throughout and marking time with comments about the slow service as much as anything else I could talk about.

The place I recall from Kyoto was one where the faces were always familiar after the first visit and remained so over the course of time.  There was always a heartiness and sincerity to the greetings and interactions that went beyond the excitement of having a token white guy drop in.  There was something ineffable yet deep to the interaction that made the return each week or so a pleasure for the company of my harried hosts a pleasure until I spotted the moment in the schedule on Sunday evenings where I could drop in as the day was coming to a close and I took up a table while the ballgame played on the TV and a few of the rickshaw drivers who showed the tourists around ended there week the same way I did.  There was the opportunity to linger a bit and catch up with a bit of small talk.  It was the part of my routine in Japan that made the neighbourhood more like home.  It also made the place a most stop during my first back trip to Japan.  I looked forward to it for the company even more than the fried chicken I almost always ordered.  The routine was familiar and it was one that made that place feel like one that was part of my Kyoto, part of my home.  I never worried about the length of time it took to be served there.  I was far more conscious about taking a table for four when I came in alone and if it were hectic, I made a point of gesturing to them that I could wait.  (It was the least I could do when I really wanted to pitch in and clear a table or two for them.)

When I returned on a holiday in 2010, 7 1/2 years after I left Japan, my wife and I took a table and watched them at work.  It was lunch time in the middle of the autumn colours of November, a time of year just as scenic and tourist-clogged as cherry blossom season, so we were able to seat ourselves unnoticed, or so I thought.  I watched everyone at work.  The mom and pop each a little older.  Pop perching a pair of glasses on his nose and perhaps a little stooped and Mom moving a little slower than I would have liked.  Their son was in the kitchen next to his Dad and a sister, I believe of the Mom, was working the floor also.  I waiting to make my regular order to see if there would be recognition then, but before I got my menu, there was a stop of recognition.

Pat?!  PAT!?!

I beamed at the welcome.  After seven years.

While they may not have aspired to concoct a dining concept that would have spawned a national chain and with it an elaborately detailed and described corporate culture sure to attract clients and potential employees alike, they carefully, plate-by-plate, day-by-day, six days a week provided great food that was never pretentious.  Their grace, humility and Pop's gregarious "maido!!" - Kyoto slang for thank you - shouted from the kitchen made me to come back after that very first day.  It is the commitment to and the elevation of these simple, humble things, the gratitude for the opportunity to share food together, that brought me back time after time and stuck in my head for the years afterwards to make it a must-visit and something that I laud now for its simplicity and purity 11 years later.

There was nothing inculcated in a corporate training room, nothing refined and redefined for "fit" with the brand after hours of observation and training and customer satisfaction surveys.  They just wanted to run a restaurant and make good food.  They, like countless other moms and pops have done so with a personal touch that is not calculated and calibrated, but is the very paradigm of what personal service can and ought to be.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Don't Buy The Packaging

I am in the middle of reading Peter Block's Community The Structure of Belonging and stumbled across the sentence, "Don't buy the packaging."  In Block's book it was a reference to giving feedback on shortcomings or discussing weaknesses, which he opposes in his book.  The old sandwiching of feedback between two compliments or the stark suggestion that the feedback is for one's own good don't wash with him.  His school of thought is that emphasizing strengths and gifts is far more valuable and nurturing.

The sentence "Don't buy the packaging," also sums up so much of what wabisabi stands for as well.  There is an ease in so many ways -- whether looking at interior design, materials or the solutions or strategies that people adopt in business or the workplace -- where the packaging lures people toward something that is ultimately superficial and lacking the value and utility that we may attribute to it when we "buy" something, whether by taking the money out of our pockets or believing it to be valuable.

Much of wabisabi's focus is on the essence of things rather than the sleekness, veneer or lamination that they may have.  In many instances today, unfortunately, these surfaces are the main selling point and the thing that many are enticed to buy.

Our food is probably the most vivid example of how the packaging has won out over the essence.  So many foods entice us because of the convenience they afford us to rip them open and devour them with a hand (or even two) free to do something else.  There are foods that resemble what they always used to or even look more ideal and consistent than they did a generation ago but lack the flavour they once had.  I personally have lost interest in strawberries.  The smaller versions that came in wooden pint or quart boxes and promised to stain your fingers or the cutting board red as you cut them or ate them are larger stunt double versions that come from sunnier climes throughout the winter in convenient plastic containers than can be stacked and ventilated throughout transport lack the flavour of their ancestors that came from the local farms in June and early July.

In the business world, there is a continued gravitation toward the latest guru with the slickest phrasing to capture a certain message or an old principle that needs to be relearned.  Oddly enough, these gurus continue to gain attention by packaging and repackaging the same epigrams or variations on them time after time claiming that each successive book is the answer despite what was said in the previous book.  Few of those pithier, more popular "experts" have that much new to say.  More often than not, they tell their readers something they already know but need to put into terms that encourage them to commit.  The problem (or the advantage) of those rehashed messages is that they remain superficial and do not provide the penetration of a more novel or innovative approach.  They make a decent living out of rehashing the obvious and earn devoted followings who likely go for the advice, the seminars or the books on a regular basis because of the relatively short-lasting effects of each iteration on the themes.

Those more innovative approaches to addressing the challenges that occur in business and the workplace tend to have more of an artisan's touch to them.  They are more authentic and tend to avoid giving the pat answer to the challenges that we are trying to address.  They often provide answers or approaches that slowly catch on and need to be cultivated before they gain the toehold in the consciousness that they rightfully earn.  Word-of-mouth, passionate word-of-mouth, coax more and more attention to these approaches and result in something far more lasting than the marketing campaigns or discount offers that the so-called experts get packaged with.  More often these facilitators or teachers work with smaller groups and guide them through finding something they are passionate about and carefully building the synergies that will help people or organizations achieve success.  These people know that it is about process and commitment rather than a few principles or guidelines that or purported to fit all sizes.

Wabisabi favours things that are stripped down to their essence and ultimately simpler to discern.  The beginning and end of the object is clear.  There is no question of what we need from something and what is extraneous or is being sold to us unnecessarily.  The bare naked confidence of something or someone that is itself, himself or herself and nothing more is evident and in that provides comfort with its honesty, the challenges that come with that, and the paradoxes that ultimately expand our interaction with it and its impact on us.

It is like the red sugary stain a real strawberry leaves on your fingertips.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Authenticity Versus Copying in Automobile Manufacturing

Few things speak of the struggle to be authentic as quick, underthought adjustments to changes in market conditions.  The efforts by American car manufacturers in the 1970s to adapt to Japanese competition and the 1973 oil shock resulted in products that were ultimately embarrassing in their own ways to the Big 3 American auto makers.  The need to adapt to those changes of market forces required the automakers to stretch outside of their comfort zones with large boats and the endearing muscle cars that still capture the imagination 40-50 years after their peak and provide the template for the various revivals that have occurred over the last few years.

Creating a smaller car, something to compete with the Beetle, the Corolla and eventually the Civic was a new an unfamiliar task for the Big 3.  The Pinto, Vega and Omni for their respective manufacturers did not result in quality products or brands that drivers or manufacturers would be eager to revive or reminisce about.

The adaptation of these manufacturers to those changes in market forces was likely done by relying on familiar practices and priorities that had guided GM in other projects.  With the development of the Chevrolet Vega, General Motors' development of the car was still influenced by the corporate culture.  They may have failed to capture the essence of the development process by working toward technical and financial specifications such as their guidelines instead.  (I again cite the Falling Star History of the Vega page.)

The problem with working toward copying a bundle of technical specifications is that the process is less likely to coalesce into a coherent product or one with a clear essence.  Working to copy or match specifications identified as key indicators of a competitive product does not create the commitment or the buy-in amongst the group creating the product and that absence of essence will result. 

An approach to product development that started with the needs and interests of consumer or was developed in a manner was a bit more passionate than the amalgamation of specifications would have directed to manufacturers toward a process of product development that would have been more distinct and perhaps even more lasting than the products that resulted.

As the development of the vehicle proceeded, it fell short of achieving some of the specifications that GM established at the start of the project.  At 2300lbs, the car ended up weighing 300lbs. more than specified at the outset and it cost 10% more the the Beetle it was intended to compete with but required options at extra cost to have the standards features of its competitors.  The Vega certainly raises doubts about GM's interest in building smaller cars during the 1960's and early 70's.

The attempt to copy rather than to develop a vehicle or product from the ground up seems apparent with the development of small cars at that time.  By comparison, Chrysler's development of the original minivan a decade later allowed it to carve out a significant part of the market for itself with a product that strived to innovate rather than imitate.

And authenticity? 
At a time when more and more coaches and business leaders are laying claim to the word authenticity, I want to avoid any confusion regarding my use of it in this post.  I would like to clarify the use of authenticity as "original" and perhaps "true to one's self or one's corporate culture."

If I were to cite Chrysler's commitment to the minivan in the 1970's and 80's authenticity stemmed from being all-in for the project and a passion for it amongst its engineers and designers, despite the reluctance or even the disdain of the bean-counters.  While there may not have been a cohesive plan for the minivan, or support for it from higher-ups, the commitment to the project amongst this core group with the continued refinements that went into it through a (perhaps exceptionally) long design phase imparted to the minivan an authenticity that products like the Vega, the Ford Pinto or Chrysler's Omni/Horizon may never have attained because imitation never generated the passion amongst the participants that lead to the refinements that occurred with the lengthy development of the minivan.  Imitation would not generation the enthusiasm that an original project would generate either.

Copying often - if not always - engenders formulaic approaches rather than a deeper assessment of the people and resources that are being invested into a project and why they are coming together in the manner that they are.  Authenticity should not simply be an aspiration but the essence of a project and the commitment of the individuals involved in it.  If authenticity is set aside in favour of an imitation of what is assumed to be desirable, then success is less likely and the failure that more glaring.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Glossary for a Wabi-Sabi Approach

If wabi-sabi were to be applied to business, organizations or communities rather than to art, design and perhaps contemplation it would be useful establish the points of reference that would steer decision-makers, leaders and contributors away from the modern and technological (or technocratic) and toward something that can invite the generation of synergies within groups of people.  In large organizations, whether they are cities, business or churches, it is easy to fall into a habit of regarding something as almost monolithic and without challenging its purported infallibility.

Examining situations from a perspective embedded in the characteristics of wabi-sabi and trying to integrate those aspects into an organization or project would be a key step toward creating a more resilient and lasting project.  For this post, I'll provide a list adapted from Leonard Koren's book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers and from Richard Powell's Wabi-Sabi Simple.  The list is one which contrasts wabi-sabi approaches from modern or technological approaches.  It is lengthy, so I will conclude the post with this and elaborate further on the contrasts and the potential of wabi-sabi approaches in future posts.
As I've looked into these terms and reflected on my own perceptions of wabi-sabi, I've come upon my own pairs, which I have included above in blue.  These may do nothing more than rephrase or recapture original terms or pairs Koren generated when he first delved into the topic, but they give me and perhaps others another perspective from which to analyze these differences and apply them in to situations, objects and systems that bear scrutiny from a perspective other than a creative or aesthetic perspective.

As design, design thinking and systems thinking become more prominent in business, it may become more beneficial to apply the wabi-sabi perspectives to organizations and problem solving.  I will touch on the tame-wicked paring in a future post to greater extent, but this pair applies to the concept of wicked problems, which are problems that defy efforts to address them with modernist approaches and require more intuitive approaches in order for them to accept the magnitude of the challenge and realize the value of a more careful, deliberate and artisanal approach to problem solving.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Wabi-sabi and the Agile Business

Wabi-sabi has been referenced in discussions of interior design, art and other aesthetic endeavours.  A sense of nostalgia or the organic is infused in the discussion of wabi-sabi and how it is applied to the assessment of things people get attached to.  Whether it is a well-worn leather briefcase that has been handed down and possesses a sentimental significant, a rugged wooden desk with a patina or a texture that makes the experience of working at it intangibly more pleasant there is something about wabi-sabi that makes it less measurable and less meaningful in the harder edge world of business.

The three main tenets of wabi-sabi also threaten to run counter to business as well.  Given the aspiration of flattening boom-bust and other cycles of business or economy, the recognition that:
  • nothing is perfect
  • nothing is complete
  • nothing lasts
may appear more likely to disturb business leaders rather than guide them.  Wabi-sabi's embrace of these facts is may be in direct opposition to common business thinking and the ways of achieving success.

Beyond that first assumption about wabi-sabi, however, acting in a manner that recognizes these realities and either takes advantage of them or acknowledges them in advance has the opportunity to build more resilience and nimbleness into the organization.  Integrating aspects of wabi-sabi into strategic planning, crisis management, product life cycles and branding, to name just a few components, can steer an organization away from a more monolithic mindset where decisions only come from a handful of authorities within a business and personal sacrifices and compromises must be made in the name of the brand, the company, the product or the goals for a project.

Acknowledging in advance that an organization or project is not perfect, lowers the stakes when encountering a crisis and weans a business from the impulse to spin in the face of a challenge or crisis. Responding to crises with the acknowledgement that challenges being faced are indeed unusual or unexpected rescales public expectations to something that is more reasonable and in the long run allows the organization and the public figures representing the organization to remain authentic in an intuitive, unconscious manner rather than an approach based on standing communications policy or a passing trend or mania in business publications.

It would also encourage organizations to continue to look for solutions and innovations rather than settling for the old phrase, "if it ain't broke don't fix it."  Continuing to look within for innovation and improvement can keep an organization open to change and consequently allow them to better engage staff and customers in contributing to progress and generating change rather than resisting it in favour of the apparent security and certainty of shoring up the standing of some arbitrary monolith that an organization feels it must protect in the name of some sense of... nostalgia.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Renewal, Frost and Puddles

Given the impermanence that is at the core of wabisabi, the passage of the seasons bears acknowledgement.  I had been tempted for quite some time to bear witness to the winter with a mention of frost and its transience but we underwent a winter where the frost seemed too stubborn to regard as transient and the depth of the winter chill too aggressive to regard as just another stage in the passing of the calendar.  Writing about the momentary contemplation of a frost bearded leaf or blade of grass during a winter such as that of 2013-2014 might have earned a sneer of disdain, questions about sanity and lost readers.  (And really, how many do I have to begin with?)

With the sudden thaw that has done all it can to compensate for the long, deep winter, the puddles have earned little to no complaint.  They have not been preceded by hardy robins or pussy willows portending the spring during the last days of February.  The puddles' spread in all directions has been the first herald, which I can't recall being the case for perhaps decades. The task of tiptoeing around the placid, watery aftermath is welcome and the moments when the light casts an extra reflection that had not been acknowledge since last spring somehow multiply the brightness of the lengthening days.

There is news as well that this long winter has actually been of some benefit -- perhaps not in a way that many of us might notice or heed for long, but a reminder that the passing of the seasons, each with their distinct characteristics rather than the blurring of distinctions into a more convenient and temperate consistency or sameness is indeed worth pausing to welcome.  The break in the winter weather this week has been some relief and it has marked a start to spring that is confidently celebrated as has not been the case here in several years.  Yes, we will brace ourselves for another blast of snow or three, but spring has announced its arrival as it hasn't upon the conclusion of milder more temperate winters.  A transition as marked and distinct as the one announcing the start of Spring 2014, is one that will make the year the more memorable and the days to come more invigorating and treasured.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Writing and the Tools of the Trade

Most of my writing ends up at the keyboard of my laptop computer, an object that will never come to illustrate the definition of wabisabi.  The passage of time will only mark itself with the obsolescence of its CPU or operating system, the shorter life of its battery and the occasional nick and scratch that is never quite as quaint on the metallic surface as it might be on wood or leather.

While this is the tool I turn to most of the time, I pause and imagine what pours out of a crazed Bic pen onto the pages of a coil bound scribbler, that last bit of the coil stretch after a tangle or two on a sweater or the opening of a backpack when being packed or unpacked.  There is something I want to honour or sneak up on whenever I see one of those Writers journaling, composing, drafting or scribbling and editing words into the order and form that they aspire to form.  Apart from the coil, the rest of that scribbler is a gorgeous example of wabisabi as pages and covers get dog-earred or colour fades from the cover with the scuffing or erosion that occurs throughout that same journey over time in a backpack.

I do get to pen and paper regularly and hope to do so more often.  As my son watches me in front of the computer, there is less sense of the purpose of my activities and there is little to distinguish writing at the computer from playing a game or otherwise diverting myself.  Just as there is more evidence of purpose in an old phonograph with his bullhorn attached to the stylus than there is with the black box of a stereo component, the same is clear of being hunched over a journal or page with a pen in your hand.  The evidence of purpose that we can attribute to older tools and older ways of doing things communicates a passion for the pursuit more than an obsession with the trappings and toys that so much of modernity has bestowed on us with technology.

Surrounding Yourself

Glen Hansard's Takamine from the movie Once.
Much of my recent reading on wabi sabi, that which centers on the aesthetics risks an interpretation that may get a reader rabbit-holed in a superficial application to interior design and encouraging people to simply buy old stuff to decorate your home.  There is a risk in applying a little knowledge and not adopting wabisabi in a deeper manner.

The risk in this misinterpretation is in accumulating while failing to attach awareness of what we possess. Too much of interior design may encourage possessing an object to leave it in a place without regularly interacting with it, whether by contemplating it or using it.  Wabi sabi is present in the strength of the attachments we might form to the things we possess.  The key, however, is to maintain that attachment and be conscious of how the things we own wear or age with our use or simply the passage of time.  Those things could be tools of our trades, implements that we use regularly, our clothing, the favorites we turn to again and again for the comfort that has come as object and individual mold to one another.

As a runner I am very conscious of how a pair of shoes - despite being as mass produced as they are - ages with each stride or step and how they gradually come to influence my stride or the state of my entire body as I run and the shoes' treads, soles and stitching acknowledge the stress as the miles are accumulated on both of us. For the hours or so that they are on my feet each day, they dictate much about the body they transport and my own state of mind as well.

When seeking to identify or apply wabi sabi, it is important to consider the impermanence, imperfection and incompletion of the things you surround yourself with and strive for awareness and appreciation of this rather than mere possession.  It would be even more wabi sabi to appreciate the bare trees or the frost of autumn as it is to sit down to write at the desk and with the pen that you have formed an attachment to over time.  If you are conscious of the changes that those trees possess with their stark, bare reminder of this moment and the promise of renewal to come in the weeks or months ahead, you become more aware of impermanence.  As you look at the fractal stretch of branches into the sky and the disdain for symmetry in those branches, you may pause and wonder at the whims of matter that cause it the branch.  In this awareness you have surrounded yourself more completely for this moment than you could with any antique or handcrafted porcelain that remains cupboarded and unused.