My mentor in Orator club suggested me about “Wabi-Sabi” which is related to Japanese aesthetics for my 5 minutes speech. I came across this Japanese phrase for the second time. Few years back, Wabi-Sabi sounded vague and did not interest me to look deeper into it.

This time, I started looking at it with a purpose. I realized that it does not have a strict interpretation. We can interpret it our own way based on our need. I also realized that this word may help to understand Japanese mindset and things Japanese. Wabi-Sabi is totally different from the common mindset of symmetry, perceived perfection, decorated, smooth, clean, new and grand.

Before we proceed further lets understand the meaning of terms Wabi and Sabi:

Wabi means things that are fresh and simple which includes natural objects, man-made objects that can be associated with being humble, modest or unconventional.

Sabi means things whose beauty stems from age or use over a period of time.

Wabi Sabi as a concept has evolved during the past 500-700 years. The tea ceremonies by the Samurai’s (Japanese warrior class) had become flamboyant and grandiose. The Zen priests developed the concept of Wabi-Sabi, to tone down these ceremonies. This concept got further developed to influence the Japanese art in particular and Japanese psyche in general.

We will not be able to appreciate Wabi-Sabi in mega cities like Tokyo. But, when we visit Japan’s cultural places like Kyoto’s monasteries, rock gardens, museums we can see the beauty in the simplicity of things. Even, visiting Toyota’s Motomachi plant in Nagoya could be a humbling experience of seeing employees doing simple things in a routine manner to perfection. It is an aggregation of doing simple things on a large scale, which makes it beautiful.

Agile methodologies like Scrum, Kanban and Scrumban have been inspired by the Toyota Lean system. To be completely Agile, to practice these methods and improve, we need to change the mindset of the team and the leadership. Wabi Sabi may help appreciate some of the practices and routines in these methods.

Since, there is no clear definition of Wabi-Sabi,  Wabi Sabi is an abstract term for the Japanese. Most of us who hear or study it outside its culture, will be able to answer it immediately as “It is beauty of things imperfect”. But, Japanese struggle to answer it, because, they cannot define it but they can recognize it. It is more than just the physical attributes that we non-Japanese recognize. It is spiritual and cultural in nature. It is different things to different people.

I started collecting a list of selective interpretations which suited the need of Agile practices and routines.

 “In both tea and zen the goals are the same. You reach an appreciation of what is really important in life. You do this by eliminating everything which is not essential.

– Focus on things / user stories which are of high business value, which will be appreciated by the customer.

There are things you will understand and things you will not understand

– Requirements will evolve. Don’t expect anyone to know all requirements upfront. Once teams accept this reality, they will appreciate change.

It is smallness of things, the ability to change, impossibility of perfection & happiness of others

– Keep user stories small, be adaptable to change, deliver what customer and you understand on priority to keep every happy.

Everything is imperfect, incomplete and impermanent

You can lose sight of goals, when you bog down in perfection

– Things will evolve. Do not expect a change proof requirement, design and architecture. These things may be incomplete and imperfect, but things will evolve as time passes.

True beauty only becomes more apparent with use

– Deliver high value user stories first. As customer starts using it and provides feedback, it evolves and becomes stable. The beauty of your story will be apparent when your customer starts using it.

Simplicity but not minimalism

– Simplicity does not mean minimal. It means the aggregation of simple user stories to deliver a complete usable system by the customer.

Work is never complete. There is always something more you can add”

– Projects are never complete. Don’t get bogged down in perfection.

Agility is also about continuous improvement. Continuous improvement is all about learning the imperfect and improving things around. Wabi Sabi in learning is a great framework for continuous improvement.

Learning using the mistake, the intended flaw, the inaccurate

Learning using the gap, the incomplete, the imperfect

– If there is a flaw in the process, don’t blame the team. Look at it as an opportunity to learn and improve.

Recognize that everything is imperfect and everything changes, even our notion of perfection

– Feeling of perfection is a means to stagnation. Expect that everything can be improved, what was perfect last year may not be perfect today. Look for opportunities to continuously improve and keep increasing the bar.

Wabi Sabi is the beauty of age … weathering … character … and utility

– Experience of Agile team member matters ……

Learn to love your own imperfection and that of your team

– Do not expect everyone to be perfect. Coach them. A new furniture would be out of place in a room. It’s flaws will get magnified. Over period, with little bit ageing, it fades and gets merged with the room. The flaws now look attractive and characterize that furniture. Help the team members, with flaw to settle down in the team, over period they would become indispensable and be the core the team.

Finally,

Wabi Sabi is not an excuse for sloppiness. Not keeping the place clean and allowing to accumulate dust, cannot be called Wabi Sabi. Respect is an important part of Wabi Sabi

– Delivering a buggy software or unusable software which does not take care of customer feedback, cannot be called as Wabi Sabi.

I am not sure if I can explain Wabi-Sabi in 5 minutes. But I am sure that Wabi-Sabi can be applied to keep things simple and learn from imperfection.