The Wabi Sabi Edge

The Ise Grand Shrine – a Shinto Shrine – in Ise, Mie prefecture in Japan has been preserved exactly like it was around 2,000 years ago. Despite such a rich legacy, the UNESCO has refused to list the shrine in its list of historic places.

Why?

Shinto Shrine

(Shinto priests walking beside the Ise Grand Shrine, Japan. Source)

This is because the shrine is not built of a ‘permanent structure’. The ISe Grand Shrine is built of wood and hence it  gradually loses its structural integrity over years. So the Shinto priests have a solution;  every 20 years they tear down the structure and rebuild another – in an adjacent plot –  in exactly the same specifications as the original using the wood from the same forest that the original structure was built from. Result: the shrine  is  forever new,  ancient and original! The present structure, dating from 1993, is the 61st iteration to date and is scheduled for rebuilding in 2013!

A centuries old Shinto belief of death and renewal of nature and the transience  of all things called Wabi- Sabi underscores the philosophical and artistic significance of this shrine. To quote the wiki  page ….

Wabi Sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.

Burning Man

Further to the west, in northern Nevada US is the Black Rock Desert –  an open swathe of desert land where a week long annual cultural festival called Burning Man is held every August/September. This iconic event is described as an annual experiment in community, art, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance – a week long celebration of extreme creativity, art, spirituality and innovation. Often compared to TED for its potential to provoke, inspire, connect, indulge or just ‘let be’, Burning Man regularly attracts stalwarts like the Google founders, Eric Schmidt, Chip Conley among many many others. But what makes Burning Man stand out as an exceptional event is the fact that it is transient by nature. The whole venue, the structures and the shelters for the event are practically built from scratch and again torn to dust without leaving a trace at the end of the week!

See below the time lapse video of 2011 Burning Man to appreciate the ‘dust to dust’ cycle typical of the Burning Man.

As Business Strategy

Transience as a method, an approach or a strategy is not just  an expressionist arts style or some exotic charm of a shrine.  It also has far reaching implications on contemporary business strategy. The June 2013 edition of Harvard Business Review features an interesting article by Rita Gunther McGrath on what she calls as Transient Advantage. She argues that  in a world where competitive advantage often evaporates in less than a year, companies can’t afford to spend months at a time crafting a single long-term strategy. She introduces what she calls as The Wave of Transient Advantage and explains its ‘curve’ (below). Companies possessing this edge constantly start new strategic initiatives, build, exploit, re configure and if need be even actively disengage from an initiative as a means to reprioritise, reinvent and renew their approach to growth.

Transient Advantage

(Wave of Transient Advantage, Source)

She posits that the thinking in this field “has reached an inflection point” leading to an acknowledgment from a multitude of strategy practitioners that “Sustainable competitive advantage is now the exception, not the rule. Transient advantage is the new normal.”

The latest post in the Gaping Void newsletter by Hugh Mac­Leod pays an artistic tribute to this concept through this delightful piece of ‘office art’.

permanent_state

(You must subscribe to his newsletter, sure to make your day!)

Essentially from which ever perspective you look at it – artistic, personal, emotional, professional or even strategic, the ability to accept transience as the new normal, the ability to let go of the status quo to rethink, re-invent and renew our  approach forms the bedrock of the new competitive edge – The Wabi Sabi Edge.

Growing The Core – Innovating With Constraints

In his latest book called Grow The Core, David Taylor makes a definitive case for companies to bring back  focus to their ‘core’ business and thereby SMS (Sell More Stuff that is already being made). He identifies 3 key drivers for this ‘core growth’:

  • Distinctiveness: Creating a distinctive marketing mix for the core to strengthen and drive brand salience
  • Distribution: Boosting distribution / ‘go to market’ via new and relevant channels
  • Core Range Extension: Launching value added extensions to the core-offering

This ‘back to basics’ exposition has been featured as cover story in the latest edition of Market Leader magazine. Don’t s miss it.

Grown Not Made

Successful companies are seen to be doing this really well. For example Kethcup & Sauces with sales of more than $5 billion globally (FY ’12) constitute the ‘core category’ for Heniz (source). In the 2012 Annual Report William R. Johnson CEO of Heinz proudly states (as if to prove the theoretical underpinnings of ‘Grow The Core’ framework)

Notably, we are proving that Heinz® Ketchup is far from mature after 136 years. In Fiscal 2012, our Global Ketchup business delivered excellent sales growth of 9.7% through innovation, increased distribution and continued expansion in Emerging Markets. 

Implication for Innovation 

The key insight for me here is about the possible implication that this “Focus & Grow The Core” strategy has for ‘innovation’. I guess focusing on the core and driving its growth needs an innovation strategy that is driven by tough and uncompromising choices. Tough choices based on questions like:  “What should we stop doing?”, “What should we further strip away from our new offerings in the pipeline”, etc. This might require what is called as “Innovation with Constraints”.

2 Examples:

1. Lego 

lego-story

A decade ago, Lego‘s balance sheet was in ‘red’ and part of their problem was doing too much – Lego had over diversified by moving into theme parks and clothing. And the once primary coloured bricks now came in a palette of 100 colors.

In 2005, one of the first questions the new CEO Jorgen Vig Knudstorp asked was,“What should we stop doing?” Lego sold the Legoland theme parks and halved the number of colours of bricks they were making. They began asking their designers to innovate with constraints, but to leverage those to become even more creative. Lego returned to profitability that same year. (source)

2. The Economist

With the advent of  iPad (and tablets) while many magazines were quick to launch their iPad Apps that were decidedly rich in their interactive multimedia possibilities (videos, hyperlinks, gifs, dynamic graphs, audio etc),  The Economist tok  a dramatically different approach to appeal to its target group – The Mass Intelligent.

They defined their strategy as Leanback 2.0 and went about designing a magazine App for iPad  that facilitates a real, simple, unfettered ‘Lean Back’ experience for its readers. What does it mean? Andrew Rashbass  –  CEO of The Economist Group says this meant  a conscious editorial decision to strip out even the their basic web innovations from their iPad App (let alone introducing something new).

The Economist(Source)

 Result: A reading experience that is more focused,  uncluttered and distraction free. Go through this insightful presentation by the CEO and read how radical simplicity and ‘finishability’ constitute the cornerstones of their Leanback 2.0 digital strategy.

Do you know of any other examples where a brand chose to focus on its core and made tough choices on its offerings or where a brand innovated within constraints to remain truthful to its core?