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.