Wabisabi

Wabisabi

Perfection is important in technology. Not so much in humanity, work systems, performance, or art.  We must embrace the joy of the imperfect.

From our book The agile Manager (second edition, in preparation):

it should be apparent that new ways of managing allow for imperfection.

We navigate ambiguity, we accept incompleteness, we move forward in uncertainty. This seems to be contradictory to the principle of “velocity through quality” but it is not. It is essential to improve the quality of our work product and it is essential to be always improving the ways in which we work, but we accept that nothing is perfect.

In particular, technology requires high levels of perfection but human systems do not. Technology generally only has a small number of working states and all other states fail, often catastrophically. (You only have to get one tiny option wrong in your WiFi router and it stops working completely, it doesn’t just get 10% slower. You miss one bit of punctuation in a software program and it may crash, or all hell breaks loose).

But human work systems are able to function well in all sorts of imperfect states. People work around imperfect parts of the system: they bridge gaps, they fill in uncertainty, they resolve ambiguity. They get the job done. Fastidiousness is a desirable attribute when putting together technology, whereas it is a weakness when designing human systems. For one the authors, the day his multinational employer issued standardised guidelines for fonts and spelling in documents his creativity died.

A useful phrase is “copper not gold”. Copper has almost all the properties of gold whilst being much cheaper and easier to obtain. We should focus on building work systems that are as simple and expedient as possible while meeting our needs to a satisfactory but not perfectionist level. Don’t gild the lily, don’t seek the gold-plated result, when copper is perfectly adequate.

If we work for a large organisation, it is unlikely to turn into a unicorn overnight. As we discuss elsewhere, measure progress by how far you have come, not how close you are to perfection. The organisation may be more like a water buffalo than a unicorn. If you can pester it to lumber one mile further along, that’s a win sometimes.

Wabi-sabi is the Japanese principle of accepting imperfection and impermanence, and appreciating it, finding beauty in the roughness. It can be seen as more real, more authentic. It is in contrast to the Western classical aesthetic of beauty in perfection.

Some managers need to learn to lighten up and let go. We use the word “relaxed” which scares them, but we make it clear we mean accepting uncertainty and imperfection. Stuff happens. Accept imperfection where it doesn’t matter. “Be like water”, follow where reality leads. Near enough is not good enough, but good enough is near enough. Focus on that which is truly important and not the pedantic details. Do our best, have the right intentions, cope with complexity, fail well, be resilient, recover fast, always improve.

“Human beings by our very nature are fallible. When perfection is your goal, you’re always left with a nagging sense of failure.”

  • David Lewis

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