The Concept Of Wabi-Sabi, And Why Perfection Is The Wrong Goal

If innovation is your end game, pursuit of perfection isn't the way to get there. Let's consider the beauty of a dented bowl.

We humans revere the best: the best coffee, the best cars, the best phones, the best apps, the best schools, the best doctors, the best chefs, the best companies, the best CEOs, the best athletes, the best coaches, the best designers, the best actors, the best movies, the best dresses, the best designers of the best dresses, the best directors of the best actresses wearing the best dresses, and that catch-all category: the best of the best doing what they do best.

Moreover, it is insufficient for our reptilian brains to simply recognize the best; we must recognize them publicly. To highlight our admiration for excellence, we have human-engineered lists, ribbons and ceremonies; red carpets, awards, and shiny trophies; prizes, certifications, and halls of fame. We may be able to feed our hunger, but we simply cannot satiate our collective appetite for awesomeness. We live to revere ourselves.

Of course, our pursuit of perfection makes perfect sense. After all, who would want to watch the worst athletes play equally horrible athletes coached by the worst coaches on the worst playing surfaces in the worst stadiums serving the worst food and the worst beer handcrafted by the worst companies led by the worst CEOs delivering the worst returns to the worst money managers? The market for the worst is not very liquid.

Perfection has its place.

However, what is perfection’s place with innovation? In a perfect world, the best ideas would attract the best people who would, in turn, raise money from the best venture capitalists in order to develop and sell the products of their perfect imaginations to the best customers willing to pay the best prices.

In reality, however, rarely do the best ideas or the best people win out of the gate. More often than not, innovation begins with imperfect ideas cobbled together by a band of equally imperfect co-conspirators willing to take a chance on imperfection. They recognize that companies, like humans, are not born teenagers. Ideas are born a slimy mess, crying for apparently no reason and forever in search of food and attention. Great ideas--ideas that take a decade to be noticed--are imperfect. Innovation is not a perfect science and thus should not be made to act as if it is. We need new metrics, new processes, and new incentives to encourage the pursuit and recognition of imperfection. But before we set out to create new infrastructure to support innovation, we must first change our worldview. We must not only change how we think, but what we believe. We must learn to accept imperfection as an asset in the innovation process.

To learn, look to the East.
In Japan there is a concept called wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi represents the acceptance of imperfection. The concept is derived from Buddhist teachings and includes the recognition of asymmetry, irregularity, and modesty as attributes of beauty. In a very practical sense, the idea of wabi-sabi invites a person to consider imperfection--a dent in a copper bowl or a crack in a glass--as an object of value. It serves a purpose. The idea of embracing imperfection is entirely the opposite view we have in the Western world. Of course, we compensate for very human frailties by encouraging the pursuit of the American Dream. We drive out imperfection with hope (and a whole lot of hard work). However, why must the American Dream be an artifact of small entrepreneurial companies alone and not larger organizations? It needn’t be, but we allow it to be due to our point of view about perfection.

If there is one thing large companies can learn from startups it’s that startups embrace imperfection. Contrary to popular opinion, startups do not celebrate failure nor is it easier for people who fail in Silicon Valley to get jobs. Startups (and startup folk) simply happen to work in the early stages of innovation; they work in the birthing ward of new ideas. Crying babies and dirty diapers abound.

And so, as you set out to create a culture of innovation--to inspire your best and brightest people to innovate--know that you must first encourage the pursuit of imperfection. This does not mean to embrace failure. It means to embrace learning. Innovators do not intend to fail. They intend to learn. They use imperfection as a vehicle to test their assumptions about what might be, could be, and someday, will be the perfect product, the perfect customer experience, and the perfect path to profits.

In order to create the conditions for innovation to take root in your company, take a chance on imperfection--acknowledge its existence, its beauty, its purpose--and then, work like hell to hammer out the dents.

--Andrew Razeghi is Managing Director of StrategyLab, a growth strategy and innovation consulting firm He is also a Lecturer at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Follow him on Twitter @andrewrazeghi.

[Image: Flickr user Timlewisnm]

Add New Comment

5 Comments

  • Hiro Shibata

    I no longer care how Westerners see our Japanese culture, but just want everyone to know that what Westerners think is wabi-sabi and what Japanese think is wabi-sabi are different. First of all, "wabi" and "sabi" are different ideas and they cannot be discussed as one concept. Second of all, we Japanese do pursue perfection and "wabi" is a sort of perfection. Seeing "wabi" as imperfection is very superficial. Having said that, if Westerners create a new idea and call it "wabi-sabi" (just like creating new food and calling it "sushi") to encourage other people, that's a good attitude. Pursuing perfection is a double-edged sword; it may bring good results, or merely ends up in frustration. I agree with the argument of the article, but just want people to know that it is a different idea from Japanese wabi-sabi.

  • diffferentlabs

    Perfection is the wrong goal? A pretty scary statement for 80% of German brands who are obsessed by perfectionism ;-). The results of striving for mere perfection can be observed in the car industry. Car design is perfect and therefore boring. If you visit an automotive fair you know what I mean. You can’t find any dents just perfection. Boring! I did a study about the true longings of consumers. It turned out that people love imperfection. It creates stories, makes it easier to relate to and is more exciting.

    Please let me know if you plan further initiatives on (im)perfection. I am in!
    Cheers,
    Dirk@diffferentlabs.com

  • Cindy

    "In order to create the conditions for innovation..." Don't you mean the BEST conditions? ;)

  • diffferentlabs

    Perfection is the wrong goal? A pretty scary statement for 80% of German brands
    who are obsessed by perfectionism ;-). And they are also the living proof that
    striving for perfection doesn’t lead to innovation but rather to optimized
    products (optimize = boring). 

    The results of striving for mere perfection can be observed in the car industry. Car design and technology is perfect and therefore boring.  If you visit an automotive fair you know what I mean.  You can’t find any dents just perfection. Boring!

    We did a study some years ago about the true
    longings of consumers. It turned out that people love imperfection. It makes it easier to relate to and it is more exciting. 

    Please let
    me know if you plan further initiatives on (im)perfection. I am in!

    Cheers,

    Dirk@diffferentlabs.com

     

  • S&W

    "who would want to watch the worst athletes play equally horrible athletes coached by the worst coaches on the worst playing surfaces"...sounds like the next reality TV show