Embracing Imperfections: Improving our work through the Art of Kintsugi

Mistakes and failures are an inevitable part of life, especially for those working in complex fields, taking complex decisions or those trying to create innovative products and services.

From the outset, knowledge managers have tried to encourage everyone to learn lessons from all events, but especially when we feel that we have failed, because fear of failure imprints learning better in humans than the thirst for success.

Knowledge managers often talk about creating psychological safety for workers, building a learning culture, and creating “fail fast” communities, but it remains a challenging task to encourage experienced professionals to talk about their mistakes in front of their peers and those they respect.

I was at my local museum the other day and was inspired to re-frame the issue of facing our missteps… by pottery.

Kintsugi/kintsukuroi (translated as “golden repair” or “golden joinery”) is a centuries-old, traditional Japanese art form that involves repairing broken pottery, not by camouflaging the break, but by using lacquer mixed with powdered gold (or silver or platinum). Rather than trying to conceal the cracks and imperfections and restoring the piece to its original state, Kintsugi highlights the change, turning the lines of repair into beautiful, golden veins. This practice not only restores the broken object back into use and gives it a second, useful life, it often makes the repaired piece look even more beautiful than the original, revitalizing it with a new design.

picture of cup which has been repaired using golden lacquer

It is natural for most people, when mistakes happen, to respond somewhat defensively at the outset: to begin by avoiding analysing the situation for the ground truth; to initially want to throw out practises or layer on supervision or checks without studying root causes; to prefer to quickly assign blame to reassure themselves that failure was due to human error, rather than questioning the culture, processes or technologies of their organisation. Of course, we educate ourselves and learn to accept our failures and build upon them, to appreciate the learning benefits they bring over the sting of our fallibility, but this can be a difficult journey.

Taking inspiration from Kintsugi, as Knowledge Managers, we can use tools such as After Action Reviews, Lessons Learned databases and Retrospects to encourage those we support in our organisations to acknowledge the missteps in their work practises. Instead of trying to camouflage errors or throw out practises and move on quickly or place blame, we can work to foster an environment where imperfections and mistakes are openly acknowledged, studied, and embraced, to form a foundation for growth and improvement to a new, better practice.

Just as in Kintsugi, the mending process benefits from having a skilled artisan working meticulously to repair the broken pieces. Similarly, in the workplace, teamwork led by a specialist knowledge manager is valuable when addressing mistakes. Encouraging teamwork allows individuals to pool their skills, perspectives, and ideas to find innovative solutions, and having the leadership of an expert in knowledge management, helps the team to avoid blame and simple solutions, and instead identify the valuable opportunities for collective improvement and act upon their learning.

The art of Kintsugi serves as a profound metaphor for transforming workplace mistakes into opportunities for growth. Mistakes are not roadblocks but stepping stones. Mistakes and failures do not need ignoring or camouflaging but can help us to create something entirely new and more beautiful. By acknowledging imperfections, embracing a growth mindset, learning from failures, building resilience, encouraging collaboration under the leadership of a knowledge management specialist, individuals and organizations can create a workplace culture that not only accepts mistakes but values them as essential components of the path to success.

Picture of a human bust repaired with golden lacquer

Just as Kintsugi turns broken pottery into masterpieces, embracing the lessons from mistakes can lead to a workplace that thrives on continuous improvement and innovation.

I was inspired by reflect on learning from mistakes by mended pottery; I would love to know what inspires you to reflect on your practice and improve. You can email me at helenerussell@theknowledgebusiness.co.uk for a chat.

This article was first published in Information Professional magazine, where Helene writes a regular column on KM matters.

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