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The Wabi-sabi Cedar Tree

I walk through a canopied evergreen forest, the trail covered by pathways built with wooden planks feathery damp from the early morning mist. On either side of the planks are tall leafy green ferns dripping with dew. Editable silence, not a sound can be heard from the forest as I move forward steadily with my eyes trained on a fluttering window of light coming from the end of the trail in the distance.

A close-up view of windblown cedar barkAs I approach the portal of light, I start to hear the rhythmic sound of the ocean surf crashing against rocky shores. When the pathway ends, I find myself on a rock and boulder strewn beach littered with driftwood and occasional clumps of red kelp torn from the sea. Closer to the sea along the surf are small patches of beach with rocks the length of my little finger, flat and smooth from eons of waves washing over them. The rocks are black with small white pitted pores.

I turn to the right, and as the steaming river of fog clears in the distance, and brilliant blue prevails I see a solitary cedar tree born out of a rugged boulder outcrop. The tree has endured the perpetual ocean winds and is frozen, twisted and gnarled in stature, simple in form, and lean by nature. The tree is unique in form and elegant in thought; crafted by the sea, the tree transcends simplicity and exemplifies serenity.

The Japanize would view this cedar tree as Wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi nurtures three simple realities; nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. Wabi refers to rustic simplicity, naturalness, containing imperfections that create a unique beauty and elegance. Sabi refers to the beauty that comes with time; the patina that naturally comes with age. This solitary cedar tree outlined against the blue sky exemplifies Wabi-sabi.

In the world of business analysis, the user story has many of the attributes of the cedar tree and exhibits Wabi-sabi. The user story lives a much different life as compared to the results of other techniques such as scenarios and use cases. Unlike a use case, a user story has the quality of transience. Much like the cedar tree in the rocky outcrop, the user story can be described as lacking permanence, always fleeting, and temporary in nature. User stories are crafted as temporary book markers so the team can later have a conversation. After the conversation the user story is discarded; the user story’s job is complete.

Just as the lopsided windblown cedar tree, the user story lacks symmetry. Stories lead their short lives incomplete and unbalanced until stakeholder conversations complete their purpose. A user story by itself provides little or no information to a team building a product. Only through stakeholder conversations does the user story provide value through further requirements elaboration.

User stories also exhibit the quality of impermanence. Like the cedar tree blowing in the wind, user stories are constantly in a state of flux and change as requirements are uncovered or are better understood. User stories can be combined, split, or discarded as requirements elicitation progresses to better reflect the current understanding of stakeholder requirements.

The wind beaten cedar tree is rough, gnarled, and course in stature. Just like the cedar tree the user story has the attributes of asperity, with text that is rough and coarse. The user story should be a short sentence that describes stakeholder requirements. Further written refinement should be avoided as agility is lost with prolonged smoothing and sanding of the written story.

I start to walk away down the beach, then turn around and marvel at the cedar tree with simplicity and beauty before me.

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Congrats on being the first one to connect wabi sabi to business analysis. *I* was hoping to be the first! :) It would be cool to see bricolage and jugaad woven in too. Posted @ Friday, October 28, 2011 6:11 PM by Nick Gall

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