In business, I still see colleagues who seek perfection. Perfection suggests a state of flawlessness, without any defects. To be perfect implies a condition whereby your action or performance attains a level of excellence that cannot be exceeded. Seeking perfection at a particular task might be achievable, and certainly a student can strive to attain a perfect grade or you can try to accomplish a perfect execution of something. You can hope to bowl 300 or produce a perfect report at work.
But, is it real? Is it sustainable?
Yet, the goal of being perfect in life is altogether a different story. A machine or electronic device may operate perfectly – at least for a while. Yet over time, it will begin to wear down and require repair. I suggest that the very notion of perfection is rooted in the paradigm of Newton’s mechanistic universe. Humans, however, were never intended to be perfect. That’s part of the definition of being human. Consider the expression “I’m just human.”
So, is perfection an unattainable goal? Will nothing ever be perfect?
In truth, the notions of perfect or imperfect are simply constructs of mind and have no actual basis other than thought has created them. The notion of perfection has existed since ancient Greece, but in it’s more modern incarnation, it is a construct of Newton’s machine. It has no business, however, in a participatory worldview. We internalize this model of perfection and imbue upon it some intrinsic truth, and then may spend our lives wastefully pursuing that “truth.”
In some fields of business, such as the IT environment, the industry is crazed over the concept of ‘agile’. The word agile denotes moving quickly and easily. It is a form of project management that uses an iterative approach to creating products or projects that breaks work into many smaller tasks, with frequent reassessment and adaption of plans.
The goal of agile is to achieve the ‘minimum viable product’ or MVP. In many cases, this approach is effective. In information technology, say in the development of smartphone applications, the lifespan of an app is typically less than 18 months. With fierce competition, it is foolish to think that you can take two years to develop an app, another year to launch it, and then 5-10 years to monetize it. Those days are far behind us today. So, an MVP launched in weeks rather than years makes perfect sense.
Is the agile approach perfect. Hardly, actually it is very far from perfect and often contains flaws and imperfections. In software these are called, ‘bugs’ and we all know first-hand the pain of bugs. It seems that developers are always going to fix them in the next revision of the code. It can be frustrating but is a necessary aspect of our modern world that rushes forward at a frenetic pace. We must learn to live with these imperfections and look to them for insights and new points for future discovery.
However, agile is not the answer for all projects as some IT and consulting companies promote these days. For example, I would not be keen to undertake the design of an airplane, bullet train, or even a car with just the MVP defined. It would be similar for launching rockets and operating nuclear plants. In these examples, the classic waterfall method is preferred and perhaps the only sane approach.
However, even with the waterfall method, we have mistakes, failures, and misfitting solutions. Nothing is perfect.
But, is imperfect really always bad?
In fact, imperfect is often the foundation for some amazing and beautiful things in life.
In Japan they embrace imperfection. They call it, ‘wabi-sabi‘.
According to Leonard Koren, an American artist, aesthetics expert, and writer, wabi-sabi can be defined as “the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty and it occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the far West”.
In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence, specifically impermanence, suffering, and emptiness or absence of self-nature.
Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes. Basically, imperfections.
In fact, the Japanese take wabi-sabi a step further with something they call, Kintsugi. Kintsugi is a Japanese art form in which breaks and repairs are treated as part of the object’s history. Broken ceramics are carefully mended by artisans with a lacquer resin mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The repairs are visible — yet somehow beautiful. Kintsugi means “golden joinery” in Japanese. So, beauty is seen in the flaws of an object and its damaged history is embraced and revered.
These are often strange concepts for North Americans to embrace when the Hollywood image of beauty is perfection. But, is perfection real or even obtainable?
In business, we need to create projects that meet and exceed expectations of the users. But, everyone’s definition of their own expectations vary, so it is a very difficult target to hit. We do our best effort to pursue quality, to chase the illusive perfect solution. But, time decays all things that man creates. Entropy is a part of the natural order of things. So, even the best efforts become stale in time.
Therefore, designing and executing with a defined standard that recognizes a finite lifespan of a product or project is a smarter approach. We need to learn to embrace the flaws and imperfections and to accept that they add to the intrinsic value of the solution just as the things that we get right do. We need to embrace wabi-sabi in business too.
Schwartz, M. (2011). The Problem with Perfection. Psychology Today. Retrieved on August 17, 2019 from, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/shift-mind/201105/the-problem-perfection
About the Author:
Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies.
He is a business and technology consultant. Over the past 14 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).
Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V).
He serves as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.
He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now Ontario Tech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.
He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.