What we can learn from the Japanese art of mending

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Are you thinking ‘How on earth am I going to rebuild my team after furlough, restructuring and resetting?’ By September, you will probably find you are onto a new level of rebuilding; it is worth considering this now so that you can form a plan when the time is right.

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending pottery. Imagine you have dropped your favourite dish. The one you’ve treasured for years. You have a feeling of loss not only for the bowl but also for the memories it contains.

You remember all those dinner parties where you served up your signature dish. You remember the special person who bought the dish for you as a gift. An object is never simply an object. 

It seems a sad sort of end to wrap it in newspaper and drop it in the bin. But rooting around on the floor for the minuscule pieces to superglue it  back together is never going to get the bowl looking the same again.  

This is where Kintsugi comes in.

Kintsugi

The art form involves taking the broken parts of an object and fitting them back together, with something more beautiful and rare than the original object itself. The craftsmen who do this will often use silver or gold to piece the pottery back together. They create something new from the broken form. 

It’s not simply sticking the pieces back in the way they were before, and hoping a bit of superglue will hold them together. It’s making something beautiful from the imperfect.

Wabi-Sabi

In fact, making a statement from the imperfections continues through a Japanese philosophy called Wabi-Sabi. The viewer is asked to notice that the imperfections form part of the story and history of the object. It’s an extension of the British ‘make do and mend.’ It is pottery’s equivalent of wearing your scars with pride. 

The imperfections are part of the bigger whole, so let us acknowledge them.

An Analogy for Rebuilding Teams

Analogy Rebuild Team

But what has Japanese pottery got to do with our organisational culture? Imagine our well-used bowl is the organisational culture. It’s been around for a long time and we are very much attached to it. 

The Coronavirus is the slippery pair of hands that let the bowl fall to the floor, shattering it. Imagine here that every team within every organisation is represented by their own bowl. 

We know that when we drop anything and it breaks, the fragments it makes are unique. Much like the experiences our teams and organisations are going through at the moment.

Fragments of working practice

Each of these bowl fragments represents a working practice. One might be working from home, a situation that most workplaces were pushed into at the start of the crisis. 

Another fragment might be altered working hours. We have had the chance to experiment with different working hours, outside a rigid 9-5, and how that can affect productivity. 

A third fragment might be the team culture. This is how the team communicates and works together, and if there is ill-feeling how that is dealt with. Included, of course, is the leadership culture of the team. 

Naturally, when you drop a bowl there is a different number of fragments; so it is in our teams, with different needs and pressure points. Again, no two are the same.

Fitting it back together

Now we have two choices here for how we put it all back together. 

We can try to superglue our bowls back together. We can try to force the parts of our team back into the structures they were in before the pandemic. 

Yet our team members have experienced a new way of working. In fact, only 13% of parents have said they want to go back to the old ways of working. And when people experience a different home-life balance they don’t want to continue with the long hours, five days a week. 

All of these considerations are represented by those small bits of the bowl that you can never find in order to make it look the way it once did. 

Embracing the experience

Instead, there is a third option: rebuilding the bowl to be more beautiful than it was before.  As we reopen our organisations, we have the opportunity to build something that works better than before, but something that recognises previous experience.

We make something beautiful from our pandemic scars.

In fact, if we take working from home as an example of the new ways of working, a recent study found that productivity can increase as a result of this more flexible approach. Productivity increased by around 22 per cent.  Moreover, the experiment found that working from home reduces sick days and breaks. 

How to rebuild

Now, some of your team will want to go back to old ways, to working in the office, with a nice routine to their day. The idea is to blend the old and the new with a way that works specifically for your team.

There is no set road map on how to do this. No team or organisation has been in this position before and yet, while all teams are at a different point in this experience, it is a collective rebuilding that is taking place across all organisations. 

From our conversations with HR Directors, we know that organisations are working through some stressful times at the moment. But when this next stage passes and there is an opportunity to rebuild, a map is needed to plot a route. We should create the beautiful from the broken.

If you want to understand what this might look like, even if you’re not ready to start the rebuild process, we have a Changing Team Identities guide that will help when you are ready. 

It maps out what your Kintsugi will look like for your team.

 

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