Essay / Business
”To be really innovative you must encourage the pursuit of imperfection”
On beating machines by being more human
31 Aug 2020

Here are some reflections on impermanence and imperfection in business. Because, the way I see it, not being perfect, will be one of the key assets humans can bring to work-life.

A machine, or computer, operate according to very specific given tasks and commands, leaving no room for error or imperfection, unless the system is broken. When humans operate, there are a lot of different factors influencing the outcome; be it emotional state, physical wellbeing, mental capacity, social influences, expected financial results or to put it simply — just having a bad day.

We all know how unsettling it is to not being able to solve a task just because things did not feel right. However — more often than not — true radical creativity comes from the unplanned interconnection of various events, emotions, insights, discussions, reflections, and try-outs. That is the beauty of the human brain — it is just completely random and unpredictable sometimes, just like anything else that is part of nature.

Both machines and humans wear down and break after a while. Machines can, in theory, last forever if we have the right replacement parts, and humans last somewhere around 80+ years. In some ways, the notion of death actually pushes us to be even more creative since we have a final stop one day whether we want it or not. (And as someone said about living forever — it would be very dull at the end.)

As business leaders increasingly are pressured by shareholder expectations and competition, they look for finding ways of optimizing operations. In many ways, businesses are still run as they were in the 19th century at the height of the industrial revolution, with some business leaders viewing the workforce as some kind of human machine.

So what is perfection? The notion of perfection has existed for millennia and more, but it wasn’t until Newton and the aforementioned industrial revolution its modern incarnation was born. There is a clear difference between a product coming out of the factory and something constructed in our heads. In the digital domain, we can see that innovations and services are developed somewhere in-between on this scale. Digital solutions are usually relatively free-floating, ever-changing entities.

The agile approach that has been so popular in the last couple of years, developing something in endless iterations, testing, learning, and striving for stripping away the bugs as much as possible, works well in the software industry or in developing services. This way-of-working is very much aligned to never accepting the status quo, constantly pushing for new solutions, and learn along the way. Lean and other management systems from the East has contributed to spreading this way of viewing the world.

I’m a big fan of the Japanese philosophy on impermanence — Wabi-Sabi. It’s a world view centered on the acceptance of transcience and imperfection. The concepts derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence; impermanence, suffering, and emptiness, or absence of self-nature. Wabi-Sabi is about asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and just the love of the natural and organic.

”The process and learning along the way is more important than the end product.”

So as managers, business leaders, innovators, and creative workers — what can we learn from this? Primarily that in order to be really innovative you must encourage the pursuit of imperfection. The process and learning along the way is more important than the end product. Especially in the age of data-driven business, where all corporations gradually turn into as-a-service software-based companies, we also need to remember how to accept what we cannot control (counter-intuitive in the age of industrialized perfection-seeking).

And coming back to the initial line of thought, what is truly an important asset to us humans? Well, being human! The only way to beat the machines is by becoming more human. Excel in creative thinking, asymmetrical problem solving, aiming for non-perfect solutions, trying and testing just for the sake of the learning process, admitting that failure is ok — just get up and do it again.

The employers of the future will have endless automation opportunities, especially for the mundane tasks that machines can do faster, better and smarter. But they will also need an empathatic and humane workforce that understands that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect. Truly understanding this notion, paradoxically drives humanity towards perfection, constantly searching for improvements and problem solving. Although, as someone smart said — fall in love with the problem, not the solution. But that is another topic for another day.