One of my favorite movies of recent years is “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” David Gelb’s 2011 Japanese documentary film which follows Jiro Ono, an 85 year-old sushi master and owner of Michelin 3-Star restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, on his continuing quest to perfect the art of sushi. The film also profiles Jiro’s two sons, both of whom are also sushi chefs. The younger son, Takashi, having no opportunity to succeed his father, leaves to open a restaurant in Roppongi Hills, essentially identical to the one Jiro built. The elder son, Yoshikazu, still works for Jiro and is faced with the prospect of one day taking over the flagship restaurant.
What is striking to me about Jiro is not that he has reached such greatness, but how he reached it. Instead of the usual celebrity chef trappings - TV shows, cookbooks, fancy restaurants franchises all over the place - he has kept it really simple and utterly focused: a single, tiny, 10-seater restaurant in a subway station in Tokyo. Why did he do it that way? Because he wasn’t interested in money, he was interested in the mastery of his chosen craft. The bigger he made his restaurant business, the less time he would have to spend on his true calling, making sushi. Which is why the restaurant only serves sushi. No appetizers. No side dishes. No tempura or yaki soba. No non-sushi entrees. A tiny little underground hole in the wall with only a few stools and even fewer tables. And yet people have been known to make reservations a year in advance.
The concept of mastery is a powerful idea, too often lost in today’s multitasked, cross-functional times. We pride ourselves in being jacks-of-all-trades, mildly good at many things, often not masterful at any.
But to us as designers, skill, craft and the ongoing pursuit of excellence are critical, both as a business asset - our clients are paying us to be the best; but also as an organizational asset - we work hard at our own journeys of becoming better, at coaching ourselves and others forward, of developing a sense of personal progression and self-improvement; it shows up in our interactions with each other and again ultimately to our clients that we care about the continued honing of our skills. There is inherent business value in passion, talent and engagement. We may not be booked up a year in advance like Jiro, but I think we equally value mastery as a core part of our business.
The concept of mastery as a teachable skillset is also something that we talk a lot about at IDEO. One of the outputs of much of our work is the deliberate transference of our process, methodologies and essentially our confidence in our ability to be creative to our clients. IDEO founder David Kelley talks about this concept as “guided mastery,” a term coined by his Stanford University colleague Albert Bandura, a psychologist who studies phobias. Bandura has a step-by-step methodology for working through phobias by slowly introducing people to the thing they fear. Essentially our role as designers is often to coach our clients through any fears they have that they might not not be creative, helping them become more “creatively confident” by taking them on a journey of small, creative successes, coached by us.
Why am I telling you this? I’m curious as I said before about the business value of mastery: both in cultivating it in yourself and your staff but also in the decisions it asks you to make – be it like Jiro who has decided that small and focused is the only way to protect and steer his craft towards an internally-driven, personal journey, or ourselves, who are working hard to engender and spread mastery broadly to others: both are equally valid approaches in my opinion. I hope that we are actually starting to bring the two together, allowing the individual the luxury of the pursuance of depth in their chosen field, at the same time spreading their knowledge, expertise and most importantly confidence to those around them that they can be creative in their own way.