Kintsugi (sometimes also known as Kintsukuroi) is the ancient Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold (and more recently other precious metals). The philosophy behind it is to treat breakage and repair as part of the history of an object. Rather than hide or disguise any cracks, it instead draws attention to the flaws and imperfections having made it stronger, more unique, more resilient.  So how can we apply the practice of Kintsugi to our organisations and even ourselves? We may not be ready to ‘embrace failure’ (who is?) but it’s inevitably part of any story and, who knows, by giving it a dusting of gold we might just begin to view it differently.

Failure is not the opposite of success

When it comes to failure, all too often our starting point is a binary one; failure versus success. This infers that by failing we haven’t succeeded or conversely in succeeding we haven’t failed. In actual fact this couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution.” James Dyson

In starting from such a ridged perspective, it’s little wonder efforts are often aimed at doing everything possible to lower the chances of or avoid failure altogether or that early successes are assumed to be repeatable and scalable.  And worse still failure can so easily become linked to fault or blame – making it even more undesirable.  The likes of James Dyson and co aren’t particularly brave or foolhardy or even rare. But, their distinguishing mark is how they view failure and success – taking each in measure and seeing neither as personal or a final end point.

In his poem ‘If’,  Kipling encourages us when ‘meeting with triumph and disaster to treat the two imposters just the same’? Because in reality both are merely passing moments. We should of course celebrate success and we can commiserate failure but the secret is to try to apply a dispassionate balance to both.

Fail fast, fail forward

Phrases we’re all no doubt familiar with, but maybe what we should be promoting is ‘fail small’ and ‘fail often’ – using what we can learn from tiny but regular failures to help continually and incrementally improve.

In finding our own way through the pandemic, especially at the start, we quickly learned the value of trialling new ways of working; building on positive feedback and refining and tweaking where needed. Recreating the Maier experience remotely hasn’t been easy, but what we never shied away from was taking on the challenge. Knowing we wouldn’t get it all right first time but confident that failing small and failing often meant that we were continually learning and continually improving. Our own strands of gold have begun to shine through, reminding us of what it’s taken to get us this far but also inspiring us to go even further.

What does success look like?

It’s a question we ask a lot, whether we’re 1:1 in a coaching session or working with a leadership team. Getting people to define success often helps to bring the route that will get them there into sharper focus. Visualising success is a sure-fire way of tapping into the confidence needed to achieve and deliver it. But we also need to ask what failure looks like. Not to undermine or distract but as a way of creating a fuller picture, as a way to anticipate and reframe failure – making it a valued part of the journey. Failures aren’t evidence of personal inadequacy, they’re proof that we care enough to try, that we’re curious enough to explore all the options and that we feel safe enough take risks. And the patterns in gold we leave behind should be there for all to see.