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Even as a young man, Apple cofounder Steve Jobs 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. It’s rising above the self, above 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. The Zen idea of simplification and minimalism were always part and parcel of Steve Jobs’s philosophy of product design. In fact, his 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. That thought carried into Apple Store interiors, which are also as serene and uncluttered as a Zen garden. There are no piles of boxes, no checkout counters or cash registers. Instead, there are free-floating glass staircases, glass elevator shafts, no columns anywhere. Everything is built of wood and stainless steel. Even the storefronts are glass, admitting 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.

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The Essence of Zen in Design Thinking

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. He broke down design thinking to three components.

Empathy

Use empathy to understand people’s needs, even if the people you’re dealing with can’t articulate those needs themselves.

Experimentation

Be happy to try different things. Be willing for those experiments not to work out the first time.

Storytelling

Tell the right story to make your idea come to life. Then other people will buy into it and give you their backing.

How does Zen fit into these things? It all has to do with letting go. But we don’t let go to create eternal emptiness. We do it to reflect, grow stronger, and make space for the new. To be truly Zen, you must consider these three principles:

  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.
Zen rocks stacked with design thinking in front of a stormy shoreline
Zen teaches the principles that open the door to design thinking. | Unsplash/ Colton Sturgeon

Design Thinking in Action

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe stole the show as Super Mario at the Rio Olympics’ closing ceremony to present Tokyo as the next host city. Personally, I think that’s a great example of design thinking in action.

A prime minister who dares to put his dignity aside and dresses up as a video game character invites 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 off the stage.” By fitting himself into Super Mario’s story, he’s also being a storyteller who can communicate effectively on a global level. This out-of-the-box communications strategy generated a ton of media coverage.

It was eccentric—but effective.

GLOBIS University introduced Design Thinking as a course in 2016, the same year as the Rio Olympics. Why? Because design thinking is a skill modern leaders—including business leaders—must have. With it, we may run the risk of getting laughed at or trying experiments that fail. But without it, we can’t innovate. We can’t embrace Zen.

And every business leader could use a little Zen.