Wabi-sabi is an Asian aesthetic of Zen origin that values beauty in the transient (as the ephemeral cherry blossom), in impermanence, in the incomplete, the flawed, the weathered and in uncertainty.
The exacting nature of business operations is hardly conducive to the wabi-sabi sensibility given the search for continuous improvement in systems; careful selection, training and retention of personnel; and ensuring that all activity adds value leading to a competitive edge. In this economic rationalist world view, tolerance for uncertainty and the imperfect is low.
Over the last decade and a half of stunning economic growth, Macau has seen a slow unfolding of an uncomfortable coexistence of community-based values and international business imperatives: between family and community ties on the one hand, and, on the other, the demands on workers to improve skills and knowledge, to be exacting, to take initiative and to lead their organisations to profitability now and into the future.
The trappings of wealth – luxury goods, the ‘good-life’ and status – may have helped bridge the values’ gap between a small community-based aesthetic and that of a successful corporate ladder climber. This is a change that distances family and work lives, from the familiar maze of local streets where home, community and work are intertwined, to the large impersonal edifices only accessed by key cards and security passes. The engineered glitz and glamour is a world away from the cacophony of life that continues beneath the spaghetti of electrical and telecoms cables in Barra or the squawks of livestock in markets dotted around town.
Our Macau embraces imperfection, perhaps less mindfully, but as wabi-sabi embraces imperfection. The concept has been popularised by a crack in a teacup mended in gold. This gold enhances the cup’s beauty by bringing attention to the imperfection; the vessel always held value, too much to simply toss, even beyond what the eye could see in its original and complete form. The damage thus told suggests there is another story to tell.
Leonard Cohen introduced the concept to many in the western world with his lyrical provocations in the album, Anthem: “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in.”
It is a tall order to suggest that this aesthetic or a similar embodiment of the less than perfect might bring benefits to our businesses but this is precisely what a global network of academics and management practitioners aim to explore at a conference in Tokyo later this year.
The aesthetic allows, for example, to see beyond eccentricities of individual teachers or specialists who may not conform to all expectations of ‘normal’ behaviour in their roles but who have expertise far beyond their colleagues. Rather than dismissing these people for their oddities, being able to manage their sub- optimal behaviours in order to harness their extra-ordinary talents and brilliance can lift companies to greater things. To insist on organisational conformity and the reduction of difference relegates an organisation to mediocrity.
Along with Macau’s process towards internationalisation, have we too become overly preoccupied in our professional, business and organisational lives with perfection, excellence, completeness and total control? Does this preoccupation violate human values that have been imbedded in our own community and narrow streets? Rather than ask what we as a community may have lost, the question now being asked is what creativity, harmony, wisdom, connectivity, humility, flexibility or other integral value can the corporate intruders upon our reclaimed lands learn from the messy imperfection and rustic beauty of our locale?