Innovators’s Personality Characteristics and Shibumi Principles Drive Innovation

Øyvind Martinsen

Øyvind Martinsen

BI Norwegian Business School’s Øyvind Martinsen identified components of creative personalities as key attributes for innovative problem solving in business organizations.

Martinsen’s study of 481 people included two groups of students in creative fields: advertising and performing artists,  and a control group of lecturers and managers.

He found that creative individuals differed from the control groups in several dimensions:

  • Have an active imagination, “associative orientation”, an “experimental attitude”
  • Value originality, are comfortable rebelling against rules, standards, and systems
  • Demonstrate high motivation to succeed
  • Become absorbed in creative work
  • Are ambitious Desire recognition, fame
  • Adapt, reimagine, rebrand, and flex to meet current demands and realities
  • Express anxiety, worry, volatile emotions  
  • Demonstrate less concern, friendliness and sensitivity to others
  • Tend to be more critical of others

Martinsen says that a less creative individuals can increase this capacity when their work environments encourage rule-bending and free thought, so organizations can modify policies and practices to convey acceptance of exploration.

Employees are often urged to take chances by innovating solutions, but sometimes these Ryan Fehr - Workplace Forgiveness Modelincubation efforts may not result in a commercial success — and organizations may not “forgive” the investment of time and money in speculative efforts.

University of Washington’s Ryan Fehr with Michele Gelfand of University of Maryland suggest that organizations should establish the conditions for innovation and for accepting that experimentation may provide “lessons learned” even when efforts cannot be brought to market.

Ryan Fehr

Ryan Fehr

Their research investigated “forgiving organizations” that expand the individual practice of workplace compassion and mindfulness to an institutional level.

Michele Gelfand

Michele Gelfand

Fehr and Gelfand propose a “sensemaking” organizational model based on restorative justice, temperance, and compassion to cultivate the climate of fearless innovation and confident exploration in high-support organizations, which benefit from process and product breakthroughs and related financial rewards.

Matthew May

Matthew May

Matthew May explored a multi-faced exemplar of innovation, Shibumi,   imperfectly defined as “effortless effectiveness”, simply-expressed complexity, flawed perfection.

Baldassarre Castiglione

Baldassarre Castiglione

Shibumi shares some qualities with Baldassare Castiglione’s idea of “sprezzatura,” or making “whatever one does or says seem effortless, and almost unpremeditate,” Shibumi, says May, is typically achieved through an innovation-change management sequence of:

  • Commitment
  • Preparation
  • Struggle
  • Breakthrough
  • Transformation


Film scholar Rodney William Whitaker, who wrote under the pseudonym Trevanian, opined that “Shibumi has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances,” and architect Sarah Susanka observed that “…shibumi evolves out of a process of complexity, though none of this complexity shows in the result…to meet a particular design challenge.”

Sarah Susanka

Sarah Susanka

May illustrated examples of familiar Japanese management principles including Hoshin (goal alignment) and Kaizen (continuous improvement), with less familiar principles:

  • Kata (patterns of effective behavior)
  • Genchi genbutsu (observation)
  • Hansei (reflection).

Matthew May-The Shibumi StrategyInnovation and creative problem-solving in any field can benefit from attention to Shibumi’s seven principles:

  • Austerity – Less is more
    Koko” suggests restraint, sparseness, and intentional omission, and ‘Is/isn’t analysis” provides the focus and clarity to exclude elements beyond a designated scope

    Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

    Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

    Antoine de Saint Exupery captured this principle in his view that “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

In another book, May offered 4 Ss of “elegant”, innovative, and austere solutions:

  • Symmetry” to help solve problems of structure, order, and aesthetics
  • Seduction” for creative engagement
  • Subtraction” for problems of economy
  • Sustainability” for a process or solution that is both repeatable and lasting
  • Simplicity
    Kanso” signals the “enoughness” of streamlined utility, based on prioritization, understatement, and order for the central purpose.
  • Naturalness
    Shizen” points to the paradox of intentional artlessness, or balancing nature’s randomness and patterns with intentional curation.
  • Subtlety
    Yugen” refers to the tension between stagnation of precision in contrast with nature’s growth.
    One example is Steve Jobs building anticipation through restrained information release.
  • Asymmetric Imperfection
    Fukinsei points to the symmetry of nature through its counterpoint:  Asymmetrical and incomplete representations that encourage the viewer’s participation to “complete the incomplete.”Gestalt Art
    researchers and artists demonstrated increased visual impact when participants co-create and collaborate in the innovation effort.
  • Change Routine Thinking and Actions
    Datsuzoku suggests a break from routine, such as adopting free-spirited Carnival demeanor at the annual masked Fasching in German-speaking countries.Fasching
    Breaking patterns enables breakthrough innovation and creative resourcefulness.
  • Active Stillness, Dynamic Tranquility
    Seijaku is serenity in the midst of activity and provides context of datsuzoku, transcendence of conventional ideas and traditional usage, leading to surprise, astonishment, and freedom to create.
    “Doing nothing” in mindfulness practice can be provide unconscious incubation for eventual creative syntheses to solve complex design issues, and increase self-awareness, focus, and attention.
    Individuals who wish to become more creative even in more confining organizations have reported success by adopting mindfulness meditation based on conscious breathing.
    In addition mindfulness practice can enhance resilience to accept critique in the creative process.

-*How do you establish the individual and organizational conditions for innovations?
-*How do organizations become “forgiving”?


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4 thoughts on “Innovators’s Personality Characteristics and Shibumi Principles Drive Innovation

  1. Bonita Banducci

    These may be attributes of very independent creative people. And, “creativity” may be differently defined. However, these are in high contrast to the MIT and Carnegie Mellon findings that high Collective Intelligence for complex problem solving comes correlates to higher numbers of women who take turns and have social sensitivity–to which I would add from Gender Competence, other relational competencies.

    1. kathrynwelds Post author

      Thank you, Bonita, for adding this important dimension and caveat to findings on personality characteristics associated with commercializable innovation and the allied notion of shibumi.
      You are correct that the operational definitions of “creativity” and “innovation” may differ as well as the measures of success in relevant problem-solving. The findings you cite support the beneficial impact of women in groups seeking to maximize business profitability, such as Boards of Directory.
      However, they contrast with other work that suggests that women’s contributions to group problem-solving are typically undervalued by both women and men, and that women often relinquish credit for their contributions and expertise in group problem-solving — unless most of the group members are women.
      Please feel free to share these important references here! Thank you again, Bonita.

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