There are times in life when if fortunate, we experience a moment of utter clarity. We feel wide awake and connected and balanced: everything makes sense, we know exactly who we are, what we want, and why we’re here. In that moment, be it one blink or a thousand, our effectiveness is maximal. And yet our actions seem minimal, effortless even, and the experience is consummately satisfying.
These are shibumi moments.
Shibumi is a Japanese word, the meaning of which is reserved for just these kinds of experiences. With roots in the Zen aesthetic ideals of art, architecture and gardening, it has no direct translation in English, but has come to denote those things that display in paradox and all at once the very best of everything and nothing: elegant simplicity. Effortless effectiveness. Understated excellence. Beautiful imperfection.
The pursuit of shibumi in business, work and life is guided by 11 key concepts, which I became intimately familiar with over the course of eight years working with a Japanese company. Think of these as the Zen of business, or, as I like to call it, “The Shibumi Strategy.”
- Genchi genbutsu (go look, go see) is the key to shibumi in solving problems and feeding opportunities. The goal is to build skill in viewing problems and challenges from different perspectives, much like artists, sculptors, and photographers do when they look at their subject from every possible angle to enhance their ability to render “the truth.” U.K. urban designer Ben Hamilton-Baillie maintains that, “If we observed first, designed second, we wouldn’t need most of the things we build.”
- Hoshin kanri (goal alignment) has the aim of creating a framework for aligning strategy and goals. Everyone with a stake in your sphere of performance should be aware of, and have input to, your direction, goals and activities. As quality management guru W. Edwards Deming once said: “A goal without a method is cruel.”
- Kaizen (continuous improvement) may be thought of as an endless repetition of three steps: First, create a standard. Second, follow it. Third, find a better way. Repeat forever. What drives kaizen is a cycle of constant improvement and creative problem-solving, conducted in an iterative loop, the acronym of which is I.D.E.A.: Investigate, Design, Experiment, Adjust. And as actor Harrison Ford said in a recent interview: “There is no limit on better.”
- Hansei (reflection) is a discipline to be performed regularly after each key action, irrespective of outcome. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether your performance was an “A” or a “C,” or whether you missed your objective over or under, you conduct hansei in every case to better understand the process that led to a specific result. In fact, any time a gap exists between expectation and outcome, there is a learning moment, and thus a need for hansei.
- Shizen (naturalness) is a principle that seeks to achieve a balance between at once being of nature, yet distinct from it—to be viewed as being without pretense, without artifice, not forced, yet to be revealed as intentional rather than accidental or haphazard. For example, high-traffic intersections in Holland have been artfully redesigned to be void of traffic controls, resulting in naturally self-organizing order, fewer accidents and better vehicle flow.
- Koko (austerity) is a principle that emphasizes the disciplines of restraint, exclusion and ommission. Koko involves things that seem spare, even spartan, yet impart a sense of focus and clarity. The Twitter 140 character limit, the menu at In-N-Out Burger, and the FLIP video camera are all successful outcomes of keeping things spare.
- Yugen (subtlety) is a principle that captures the Zen view that because the human spirit indefinable, the power of suggestion is exalted as the mark of a truly authentic creation. Finiteness is thought to be at odds with nature, implying stagnation, loss of life. The reason the Mona Lisa smile is so seductive and mysterious is because Leonardo da Vinci blurred the corners of her eyes and mouth, a technique he created and called sfumato (smoky).
- Kanso (simplicity) is a principle that dictates that beauty and utility need not be overstated, overly decorative, ornate, or fanciful. Kanso imparts a sense of being fresh, clean, and neat. The Apple iPhone has a single “home” button. The Google interface is predominantly white space.
- Fukinsei (asymmetry) is a goal to convey the symmetrical harmony and beauty of nature through clearly asymmetrical and incomplete renderings; the effect is that the viewer supplies the missing symmetry and thus participates in the act of creation. The final episode of hit series The Sopranos had no ending... the audience was left to construct their own. The hatchback design of the popular Nissan Cube is asymmetrical.
- Seijaku (quietude) is a principle that emphasizes the fundamental Zen theme of emptiness, which implies an inexhaustible spirit. It is in states of active calm, tranquility, solitude, and quietude that we find the very essence of creative energy. Silent pauses in music, dance and theater, blank spaces in paintings, the use of negative space in graphic design all illustrate the power of seijaku.
- Datsuzoku (break from routine) is a principle that signifies a break from daily routine or habit, a freedom from the commonplace. It involves a feeling of transcending the ordinary and conventional. The result of datsuzoku is pleasant surprise and unexpected amazement. Most major breakthroughs in science and industry have come during a break from the problem at hand. Studies show that the ultimate break—sleep—is the best inducer of breakthrough insights, ideas and solutions.
Take these together as a cohesive set of guiding principles to guide the pursuit of shibumi. The last seven concepts I affectionately call “The Shibumi Seven.”
Matthew E. May is the author of The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change. He blogs at MatthewEMay.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @matthewemay.