©Tanemori and MaxPixel

Even as a young man, Steve Jobs, the Apple co-founder, was fascinated by Eastern philosophies and religions, including Zen. When his son Reed became a teenager, Jobs marked the event by taking him to Kyoto to visit its Zen temples and gardens.

But what exactly is Zen?

Here is a definition from zen-buddhism.net, a site devoted to all things Zen.

Zen is not a moral teaching, and … it does not require one to believe in anything. A true spiritual path does not tell people what to believe in. Rather, it shows them how to think. Or, in the case of Zen, what not to think.

The key thing about Zen, in other words, is “letting go”—rising above self, logic and language to grasp the meaning of life via intuition.

The physical expression of Zen philosophy can be found in Zen gardens, which consist of just a few stark and simple elements: raked gravel, rocks and moss. Most of the normal elements of a garden have just been “let go.”

These Zen-like ideas of simplification and minimalism were always part and parcel of Steve Job’s philosophy of product design. Jobs’s biographer Walter Isaacson points out that the company’s first-ever marketing brochure in 1977 began with the rather Zen headline, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Later, when overseeing the interface design for the iPod music player, Jobs again insisted on extreme Zen-like simplicity, demanding that everything be doable within just three clicks.

Apple shop interiors are also as serene and uncluttered as a Zen garden: no piles of boxes, no checkout counters or cash registers; free-floating glass staircases, glass elevator shafts, no columns anywhere; natural materials like wood and stainless steel; glass storefronts that admit abundant natural light.

In Adobe’s State of Create: 2016 Survey, Japan—the home of Zen—was rated as the world’s most creative country. Clearly, Steve Jobs is not the only person to have found inspiration in Japan.

A few months ago, I hosted a conference in Tokyo. One of the sessions was on design thinking—the technique of applying the methodology of a designer to complex problems outside of design. The panel included innovation consultancy IDEO’s Tom Kelley, the father of design thinking.

Tom broke down design thinking to these three components.

・EMPATHYUse empathy to understand people’s needs even if the people you’re dealing with can’t articulate those needs themselves.
・EXPERIMENTATIONBe happy to try different things. Be willing for those experiments not to work out the first time.
STORYTELLINGTell the right story to make your idea come to life. Then other people will buy into it and give you their backing.

Zen can help you acquire all three: empathy, the ability to experiment and the ability to tell stories.

1. Zen fosters a state of calm emptiness into which empathy can flow.
2. Zen makes experimentation possible because it eliminates the fear of failure.
3. Zen traditionally uses short parables to teach life lessons. Storytelling is an integral part of Zen.

Design Thinking in Action

Personally, I think the way that Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe popped up as Nintendo character Super Mario at the Rio Olympics’ closing ceremony to present Tokyo as the next host city is a great example of design thinking in action.

A prime minister who dares to put his dignity aside and dress up as a video game character invites our empathy. “He’s just an ordinary guy like us,” we think. “Plus he’s got the guts to try something that could easily get him laughed at.” By fitting himself into Super Mario’s story, he’s also being a storyteller who can communicate effectively at a global level.

This out-of-the-box communications strategy of the Japanese prime minister generated a ton of media coverage. It was eccentric—but it was effective.

My business school introduced a course on design thinking in 2016, the same year as the Rio Olympics. It’s a skill that modern leaders must have.

I’m a design-thinking true believer.

What about you?

Do you think design thinking is a valuable toolkit—or just another fad? Have you got any stories of design thinking in action which you can share with us?