Japanese society has a certain talent for creating words or terms that can be applied to good life and working practices. Some of them are no strangers to Agile. But what do they actually mean and, most importantly, where do they come from and why did they come to exist?
I am a passionate about Japan, that is no secret for anyone who knows me and, because of that, I am fascinated by the Japanese particular ways of doing business and their everyday practices. I have been connected to the Japanese business culture for a few years now and, despite I’ve actually worked for Japanese companies and done actual business in Tokyo, I somehow wished I could do even more, because there are endless subtleties to the way they understand work relationships. Many of them odd and hard to understand, others fascinating with a lot of potential for western-based workers.
In an art they define as Omoiyari (思いやり- roughly translated as act on thought), Japanese people define the way they interact with individuals from a multidimensional perspective: professionally, compassionately, empathically, and keeping the right level of depth. There are many interesting insights about this philosophy we can find online or books, but I am interested in how they relate to Agile, as despite we speak about Japanese expressions / practices, they deal with universal and broad topics such as communication, human relationships and healthy life lessons for the practitioner.
But we will get there in a bit. Just bear with me.
When we speak about a concept on Agile practices, the word Kaizen is by far the most popular. Kaizen (改善 – Good change or improvement) essentially describes the concept of adaptability to changes as a positive practice, in opposition to bad changes where we essentially don’t have control or visibility of our own destiny. It’s a form of funny assertive behaviour, but with empowerment and capacity to control one’s destiny.
Essentially, taking control of the logical changes we have to face by progressively adapting to it. An example of good change could be having the determination to achieve an specific certification or degree, and planning all the milestones to achieve it, and eventually do it. A bad change would be, in a very extreme way, losing someone unexpectedly in a car accident, unable to control the consequences of it, being unable to do anything about it, and dealing with the inevitable grief that eventually will heal.
Shuhari (守破離 – Repeat, Innovate, Detach) or the three stages of mastery in the martial arts discipline, defines a philosophy that describes how by doing repetition, innovation and detachment we can achieve mastery. This, of course, is also directly related to the concept of continuous improvement and desire for any person in excelling and achieve perfection in specific matters, like our professional capacities.
My favourite one is Ikigai (生き甲斐 – Reason for being), and it’s a really motivational and logical combination of elements that provide the individual with a real, genuine purpose for life. Essentially, we combine what we love, what we’re good at and what the world needs in order to build our passion, mission and profession. Those three elements are the core and heart of our Ikigai. Achieving a really mature Ikigai is a search that takes a long time, as only by performing long, deep and honest search within ourselves we do find who we are.
I am not deepening in these descriptions on purpose. I could add even more concepts but I think we get the idea: All these words linked to somehow idealistic, deep concepts that have a single mission: make the world a better place by starting through us, the people who can make it happen, and by aiming for a life full of harmony, motivation and purpose. And all of them are directly or indirectly related to the Agile manifesto. That is why they’re so valuable for true Agile practitioners. I am, by all means, a huge fan of them, and always have them into account when it comes to my manners, my acts and my actions.
But now that we have briefly explained what they are, I ask all of you: where do these come from?
Because they emerge, somehow, out of desperation. Japanese society is sadly known for its horrible and toxic working society, where everyone is expected to go with the flow and accept willingly to work insane unproductive hours in jobs they probably hate, all of this in a society that gives an unprecedented and almost sick importance to manners and appearances. Think about it: the thought of it in the long run is pretty sad; accepting a life of despair and suffering professionally talking. Of course, not ALL of it is the same, and we cannot talk about the Japanese society as a whole in these terms, but we can definitely do it in terms of statistics.
The human being has an innate capacity for survival, and this includes also rowing against the flow if needed, when we’ve reached our limits of tolerance. Concepts such as Ikigai or Kaizen come out of sadness and tears, with the aim to improve and thrive. Concepts that apply to life and also to our professional lives.
And this is exactly what relates the execution of the Agile practices with the Ikigai: the aim and need to inspect, adapt and improve. Only by struggling with our defects and our flaws we can identify where we can actually make a difference. The cost is high, painful and most times too tough to endure. And we all have better days than others, where we tend to go into conflict with our peers and ourselves.
We’re human and we’re essentially made of feelings, no matter how much we try to rationalise them. How many times have you felt sad and stuck at work? And how many times have the interactions with your colleagues and the pride for what you do helped you overcome those struggles?
Embracing the chaos is the only way to improve in life and in our Agile practices. We will only be in real communion with our peer colleagues and departments by facing conflicts and struggles. What defines a good team is how they deal with them, and how victorious they emerge from them.
I am a strong, huge advocate of good life practices. They make my life easier, better and fill it with hope. But we can only appreciate the light once we know darkness. And that is just life, no matter what context we’re in.