Wabi-Sabi: Embrace Imperfection to Continuously Improve
“There’s a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
– Leonard Cohen
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese wisdom principle that has great relevance to project management and, in fact, any management, including self-management.
The principle is to embrace imperfection, surrendering to the reality that nothing is permanent, and nothing is complete. In the complex world of projects, imperfection is inevitable.
In my forthcoming book on achieving optimal performance, I include Wabi-sabi as one of the elements that treat the cause of unnecessary stress. I tell the story of the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma who had a string break in the middle of a performance. Rather than being set off balance by the disturbance, he paused, changed the string and continued his performance. He was practicing wabi-sabi, cool and accepting. Equanimous. Imagine how it might have been had Yo-Yo Ma not been so equanimous, calmly accepting the situation. Likely, his performance would have suffered.
In organizations, a Wabi-sabi attitude is instrumental in promoting continuous improvement and avoiding the blaming that creates conflict, motivates people to hide errors and defects, and gets in the way of learning.
Acceptance that there will be imperfections eliminates the denial, anger, and fear that arises when the imperfections appear.
There is often a misunderstanding about the attitude of accepting and embracing imperfection. “What! Accept imperfection?” some might think. “Isn’t perfection what we are after. We want to be free of defects, errors, and omissions, not accept and embrace them.”
To clarify the misunderstanding, we have to explore what it means to accept and to embrace.
To accept in our context is to realize that things are as they are. It does not mean to accept that they will continue. Acceptance is active when we realize that everything is continuously moving, in process. Nothing is complete. Accepting the present reality, things as they are, is an ideal foundation for planning and moving forward to a desired outcome.
When an error is detected, will it go away if you deny it or try to cover it up? No. It is there. Accept it. The alternative is not pretty. Deny or hide the error and it is likely to come to light again, probably when it is even less convenient. When it does, there is a sense of distrust. The error has been compounded because imperfection was not accepted.
Acceptance allows embracing. To embrace means to accept something willingly and enthusiastically. You don’t have to hug and kiss the imperfections. The method is to be grateful that the error has been identified so you can enthusiastically see what you can do with and about the particular imperfection you have encountered.
This attitude motivates project team members to bring existing imperfections to the surface (not to create new ones). Embracing imperfection leads to actively improving performance and product quality by assessing each imperfection to determine its impact, its cause, and what to about it – in the short term, to manage the impact and longer term, to learn and improve.
Yes, we want to be free of errors and omissions. Learning from the ones we or others have experienced, is the basis for being free of them in the future. We can’t change the past or the present moment but using the knowledge of them we can influence the future.
What Gets in the Way
So, if it is such a good thing, why isn’t it universally applied? What gets in the way of taking a wabi-sabi attitude? Perfectionism, emotional reactivity, and an ambiguous definition of perfection are the primary obstacles to embracing imperfection.
Perfectionism is the drive to make things perfect. It can be healthy or unhealthy. If it is managed, it is a highly valued trait, a success factor. But unacknowledged and uncontrolled, it comes to the surface as unhealthy self-criticism and criticism of others, frustration, anger, and overcontrol. Perfectionism is often institutionalized, making it a cultural trait as well as an individual one.
The unhealthy perfectionist is caught up in the obsession to achieve unrealistic goals. The healthy perfectionist is aware of their tendency and can moderate the emotional drive to be perfect or have everything be perfect by rationally assessing how realistic their expectation is.
When perfection includes imperfection (“There’s a crack in everything“) and the imperfection is embraced, perfectionism is channeled into continuous improvement. For example when there is an effective process for managing quality, errors, and issues, and there is more than lip service to wabi-sabi it is a sign of healthy perfectionism.
Emotional reactivity is the second major obstacle to adopting a wabi-sabi attitude. It is related to perfectionism and to unrealistic expectations. In a perfectionist setting the emotions that arise when things are not perfect include anger, frustration, aggression, fear, anxiety, pride, jealousy.
These, like all emotions are to be accepted as part of the perfection. But to let them take over and drive behavior is to be avoided.
Ambiguous definition of perfection is the third obstacle. On the simplest level this means to recognize that while perfection is a target, performance needs to be assessed based on realistic criteria. For example, the recognition that a given level of defect is acceptable. A performer who continuously, even after retraining, makes errors nay need to be replaced. One who makes errors occasionally, particularly when trying new things, can be a star.
On another level, recognize that an unexpected outcome is not necessarily a terrible thing. Many discoveries and breakthroughs have been the result of accidents and errors. For example, sticky notes came out of a failed attempt to develop a permanent adhesive. The ugly duckling is not so ugly when the criteria of perfection are changed.
Perfecting the Process
The motivation to avoid letting these obstacles drive behavior is the desire for a perfect process with a wabi-sabi attitude.
Overcoming the obstacles to accepting and embracing imperfection requires awareness and effort. If there as an imperfect process that wastes the opportunity to improve by hiding from imperfection, do the work of changing attitudes with revised training, policies, and procedures.
This implies that process awareness and improvement is valued as much as current performance. But that’s a subject for another time.