Of kintsugi, wabi-sabi and wisdom from Leonard Cohen

Teezeremonie

The medieval Japanese shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu owned a tea bowl that he loved more than anything else in the world. When it broke one day during a tea ceremony, he sent it to the best ceramicists in the land to have it fixed. He wanted it to look as good as new. But they were unsuccessful, and the tea bowl was returned to the shogun in a sorry state. He deemed this unacceptable. After many failed experiments, the ceramicists eventually tried putting the tea bowl back together using gold urushi lacquer that emphasised the cracks. Thanks to these golden seams, the bowl made from the old shards had become a simple and entirely new object of beauty. The shogun was delighted and the art of kintsugi was born. Kin stands for golden and tsugi for joinery: the stitching together of what is broken. The gold draws attention to the flaws. The imperfection highlights the impermanence of existence and reminds us that the world is in a constant state of flux.    

Nothing is forever, nothing is complete...

... and nothing is perfect. These truths are at the core of wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic principle. Wabi-sabi is rooted in the Zen philosophy. Zen is an acceptance of impermanence, constant change and imperfection. Kintsugi is one of the ways in which wabi-sabi is expressed.

It is often said that we live in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. And that this ‘VUCA’ quartet confronts us with disruptive challenges. Even if these plastic words – which mean different things to different people – seem to want to persuade us of much, they should not be allowed to cloud our judgement. 

Agility and the herd mentality

So is our tea bowl – that one that we have cherished and nurtured for so many years – also broken? If the answer is ‘yes’, then will our ‘ceramicists’ be able to put it back together or are perhaps new ideas needed? Or, to put it in more concrete terms, are the beliefs that we have held up to now with regard to how a company should be organised, to project management, to hierarchical structures and to decision-making processes enough to overcome the VUCA challenges? It’s a reflection of the times we live in that our automatic response to these kind of rhetorical questions is ‘no’. Like a pendulum, which never stops in the middle and only has a moment’s rest at the turning points, our beliefs swing towards the extreme: so everything must be or become agile; everything else has served its time. A herd mentality of management beliefs has taken hold. Anyone who does the equivalent of inviting others over to a reflective tea ceremony is quickly labelled as ‘yesterday’s news’. Our core business and ‘bets’ have differing qualities; like yin and yang, one is a precondition of the other and vice versa. Pigeonholing, stereotyping and a one-size-fits-all mentality are surely not the right answer if the world really is going down the VUCA route.

Thinking and acting in a professional manner is the equivalent of clearing your mind in a reflective tea ceremony. Direction, structures and meaning are guiding stars for business success – particularly in a world that is VUCA. 

Turning the old and the broken into something new

Kintsugi is not just about the cracks. By definition it also needs the shards. To borrow another idiom, that means we don’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. If agile management is the urushi lacquer, then it is only of use when it has pieces that can be put back together to create something new. In our case, these are the products, processes and areas of expertise that helped build the company’s success. Forgetting the many cups of tea that have been poured in the past would also be a mistake – just as it would be to believe that in the future we’ll be able to continue sipping our tea from a broken bowl. 

There’s a crack in everything

In his song Anthem, the Canadian artist Leonard Cohen offered a hidden piece of wisdom that speaks volumes about agility: “Forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” If perfection is impossible because so much of what is around us is vulcanised or ‘talked up’, then experimentation, minimum viable products, fast failure and feedback from Sarah, as well as adaptation, are perhaps a path that adds greater value. A simply safer way that can only be taken confidently if one accepts imperfection, constant change and impermanence. And that brings us back to the principles of wabi-sabi. Recently, in one of our offices, I saw a postcard on the wall that read: “Fall over, get up again, adjust your crown, carry on.” I liked it, and it reminded me of the ceramicists that tried to please the shogun, kept on failing, searched persistently for a solution and in doing so invented kintsugi. All this ties in with our Simply Safe promise to Sarah.

Permanently imperfect

If Wikipedia is right, then wabi-sabi was the inspiration for agile software development in that it describes how these methods are permanently imperfect. Business concepts as provisional solutions that become permanent features. From an aesthetic principle rooted in medieval Japan to a 21st century management technique. A long road. And a mindset with its own aesthetic. If I look through the crack described by Leonard Cohen and the light appears as an ‘agile manifestation’, then I will find principles there such as ‘Welcome to change’ and ‘Simplicity as a key principle’. It’s not much further from there to wabi-sabi and Zen.

In Basel, there is an old brewery that is now home to restaurants, small businesses and art studios. It’s called Werkraum Warteck pp. The ‘pp’ stands for permanent provisional. I’m drinking a tea there this evening.

And that’s where this blog comes to an end. With unfinished thoughts, ephemeral, and with scope for an ongoing process of change.

Über den Verfasser

Portrait Carsten Stolz

Carsten Stolz studied business economics at Fribourg University where he also gained a doctorate specialising in financial management. After that he spent four years as an advisor for the Financial Services practice unit at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Zurich and Geneva, before joining the Baloise Group as Head of Financial Relations. From 2009 to 2011, Dr Carsten Stolz was the Baloise Group’s Head of Financial Accounting & Corporate Finance. Between 2011 and 2017 he was Head of Finance and Risk, and thus a member of the Executive Committee, at Baloise Insurance, Switzerland. Dr Carsten Stolz became a member of the Corporate Executive Committee on 1 May 2017. He manages the Corporate Division Finance with its departments Group Accounting & Controlling, Financial Planning & Analysis, Corporate Communications & Investor Relations, Group Risk Management and Corporate IT as well as the actuary responsible for Swiss business at Baloise and the Head of Regulatory Affairs.