From Gone to Gold: How to Use a Japanese Principle to Reimagine Your Business’ Future

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Written by Pete Sena,
• 5 min read
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I think it’s fair to say that thanks to COVID-19, business as we know it is broken. Shattered in unique ways for each of us, just like no two bowls or mugs break the same when dropped to the ground.

For some of us, a handful of cracks were already there. Others were totally blindsided. For all of us, what was is now history.

And so it’s on us to find both solace and inspiration as we confront loss and come up with a way forward. For me, this means looking to the ancient world for philosophies and practices to support a successful pivot. What comes to the top is a 15th-century Japanese art form called Kintsugi, which means “golden repair,” where craftsmen would mend broken pottery using the precious metal mixed with lacquer.

The point isn’t simple reconstruction; it’s to honor both the break and the fix as part of the vessel’s history. And to embrace imperfections as unique qualities that ultimately elevate its value.

This resonates for me as I’m not in the business of reaction-driven repair, as that’s limited to returning to a previous state. I’m in the business of response-driven reimagination and transformation, which envisions a vibrant, promising future state.

Getting into the Kintsugi mindset is simple: you just have to be willing to drop your attachment to the old view of your business and accept change.

Examine what’s existing & embrace imperfections

Before you get into dealing with the breaks, in the spirit of Kintsugi’s emphasis on waste elimination, you first have to take a good look at what you have. Now is the time to look at your products, services, experiences, and customers. How do people interact with your brand? What are their habits and preferences? And how do you deliver value? Think about this both pre-pandemic and present day.

Now, here’s a harder question: where were the cracks before everything changed? You might find it easier now with more time and space to be honest about what wasn’t working — be brutal. This is your chance to notice the existing scars that need some TLC.

If you need help getting clear on where the beauty and the breaks are, try a design thinking exercise that Google’s Growth Lab is currently using to ensure its products are relevant and helpful during COVID-19: Start, Stop, Continue.

All you have to do is gather your team for a virtual session. Have each person write down everything that your brand does or could do. Some of this may be from what you know, and other information may come from social listening and other forms of gathering customer feedback.

Now, have your team members work together to label each action: stop anything that’s no longer relevant (that’s the broken bits); continue doing what works and serves your customers, and start doing things that can increase your brand’s ability to be useful and of service in today’s new reality.

There’s one more technique I recommend when it comes to evaluating assets you might not realize you have. I call it the “Sawdust Principle,” which is delving into the byproducts of your business to see what you can recycle, reuse, or remix to find new revenue opportunities.

Visualize how to mend your business

The new and perhaps unconventional ideas you have generated now are like the valuable gold that ancient Japanese artisans used to rebuild what’s been broken. It’s essential to notice that in addition to being the glue, it also supplies an invaluable opportunity to provide contrast — a defining, unique position to stand apart from the competition.

The question is, then, how will you design your transformation? Design, after all, is just another word for problem-solving. Think boldly; you may well be making changes on multiple fronts, including your business model.

Let curiosity and creativity lead the way by taking on another Japanese concept, Shoshin, or Beginner’s Mind. Nowadays, we have no choice but to drop preconceived notions and illusions of control — and instead focus on those silver-lining feelings that may be arising, like humility, gratitude, and wonder. That’s Shoshin in a nutshell.

So, for example, if you’re a restaurant owner, you might be thinking about new ways to use your kitchen. Rather than selling cooked meals, you might get into the business of creating and selling subscription meal kits. You may pivot to take out with your wait staff serving as an in-house delivery team. Or, if you’re charitably inclined like Chef José Andrés, you might turn your restaurant into a community kitchen and help feed those in need while keeping your workers employed.

None of this has to be complicated. It can be as simple as just understanding what that your sales funnel looks like, from discovery to consideration to conversion. Understanding the relationships to different channels, customers, and stakeholders is what ultimately will result in growth.

Because in the end, the best way to move from wrecked to revitalized is through connection — both reconnection and new connections — the defining position of the Kintsugi mindset. When you stop looking at cracks and breaks as irreversible damage, then you can start seeing them as exciting puzzles. By focusing on possibilities for reinvention and reimagination, you’ll be able to see the path forward as paved by golden opportunities.

Feeling stuck? Need help getting started? I’m here to help — check out The Progress Project, designed to help you navigate your own ideas and determine the best place to get started with making real progress.