There is a school of thought that holds that beauty is subjective and unreal; merely the expression of one person’s preference over another.
Whilst fashionable, this is contradicted by philosophy, science, and more importantly by the experience and good sense of ordinary people. Places, buildings, items, creatures; all of them are capable of holding this quality we’d instinctively call beauty. And yet, perhaps feeding the cynic’s point of view, we would struggle to break down this quality when asked. Its resistance to definition is what makes it “imaginary” to a certain kind of mind.
However, I would suggest that we can, in fact, understand beauty at a structural level.
Moreover, if we do so we become better able to create things of beauty ourselves – be it a room, a garden, or a business. Yes even businesses, I believe, can qualify as “beautiful”, containing the same qualities as “textbook” objects of beauty such as a rose, a sunset, or a waterfall.
These qualities which constitute beauty are, to my way of thinking, almost identical to the qualities of pure strategy. So therefore just as a company can be beautiful, so too can a sunset be “strategic”.
That sounds pretty weird, so let’s break it down a bit. I hope by the end you will agree that these terms can be used more interchangeably than it first appears, thus unlocking a deeper, more emotional way of doing strategy.
In his incredible book The Timeless Way of Building, the architect Christopher Alexander lays out a process for creating places (regions, towns, neighbourhoods, streets, houses, and rooms) that have a particular, hard to pin down “quality”. This quality is highly analogous to “beauty”, but somehow that word is too trite for what he describes. He describes it more fully in the following passage:
“We have been taught that there is no objective difference between good buildings and bad, good towns and bad. The fact is that the difference between a good building and a bad building, between a good town and a bad town, is an objective matter. It is the difference between health and sickness, wholeness and dividedness, self-maintenance, and self-destruction. In a world that is healthy, whole, alive, and self-maintaining, people themselves can be alive and self-creating. In a world which is unwhole, and self-destroying, people cannot be alive: they will inevitably themselves be self-destroying and miserable”.
Healthy. Whole. Alive.
Although Alexander isn’t trying to analyse beauty specifically, we can start to sense that these words in particular may start to hint at its component parts. The good buildings he describes are beautiful. And yet as he describes they are more than that. Their beauty has a living and breathing utility. Still, even if we accept that these words bind together to create something beautiful, they themselves are words that we rarely engage with beyond a surface level reason. What really are the mechanics of health, wholeness, and aliveness?
Alexander devotes a great many pages to pinning this down, in prose that is itself extremely beautiful, however, I feel the essence was captured particularly well in the following example:
“A well-made fire is alive. There is a world of difference between a fire which is a pile of burning logs, and a fire that is made by someone who really understands a fire. He places each log exactly to make the air between the logs just right. He doesn’t stir the logs with a poker, but while they are burning, grasps each one, and places it again, perhaps only an inch from where it was before. The logs are so exactly placed that they form channels for the draft. Waves of liquid yellow flame run up the logs when the draft blows. Each log glows with full intensity. The fire watched, burns so intensely and so steadily, that when it dies, finally, it burns to nothing; when the last glow dies, there is nothing but a little dust left in the fireplace”.
What do we see here?
We see, quite clearly, that a fire – just like anything else – is a system. A living system is made up of malleable parts. When these parts are aligned, just so, the fire takes on a “wholeness” that is fully coherent to its job as a fire. There are no imbalances, no internal contradictions or struggles. It is, if you like, “fully itself”. By contrast, the “pile of burning logs” he describes lacks this quality. It is, so far as fires go, “sickly”.
A sickly fire, a healthy fire.
Two ideas which normally would make little sense, but when viewed in the light of the above passage we can truly grasp – and in doing so grasp the systemic nature of beauty.
This leads us to the first layer of our understanding of beauty. In short:
A beautiful thing is a healthy system, with no internal contradictions.
Take the same idea and apply it to a painting. The Mona Lisa, for example, is a beautiful painting. However, if someone were to come along and simply daub a few fat brushstrokes of red paint on top of it, it would cease to be so. Why? Because a contradiction has been introduced to the system. The original painting was “whole”, each stroke working in unity with the others. The defaced painting however has lost that wholeness, as different elements within it find themselves working at odds.
(Alexander had an interesting example like this of a room with a big window, but with the seating area arrayed in an opposite corner. In such a room there is a tension between our desire to be by the window, and also to sit down. This contradiction makes us feel uneasy, stressed, and makes the room un-beautiful).
All make sense? Well, this definition is good, but not sufficient. What is missing here is an understanding of where the goal for a given system comes from. In other words, what decides that the pile of logs system should be organised towards becoming a fire? What decides that the paint system should be organised towards the Mona Lisa?
To know what a system should organise towards in order to become healthy, whole, and alive, we must understand that most systems (i.e. most things) can’t be viewed in isolation, but rather must be viewed within the context of the larger system of which they are a part. (Some of you may remember this idea from a few issues back under the concept of “holons”). It is their role in the larger system which defines the shape they need to take; the shape by which we judge if they are whole or not. In one context a pile of logs needs to be a fire; in another context, a wall. It is the context of the greater systems that decides.
This means that beautiful systems must not only be internally healthy, but must also serve their purpose in the system around them. Without those wider systems, there would be no purpose for the collection of elements, and thus nothing to become a healthy version of.
Nature of course does this routinely, effortlessly – every system stacked within another, and that still within another. This is why it produces beauty routinely and effortlessly.
The only reason that everything isn’t beautiful is that humans are highly adept at creating sickly, contradictory systems. Any given human object, building, cityscape etc. is generally pretty ugly, as it fails to fulfil the qualities we’ve outlined. It hasn’t been built along these parameters. However, some man-made creations are beautiful – and in each case, such beauty arises in the same systemic manner.
This then gives us something approaching a full definition of beauty:
A healthy system, without internal contradictions, fits into the needs of the wider system around it.
For us to create something of beauty then, we have two goals:
- To treat what we are making as a system, and to see our job as removing contradictions, making it as healthy and whole as possible
- To adapt that whole to the wider system of which it is merely a part
For example, when we design a room, we begin with a particular purpose in mind. That purpose represents the “blueprint” by which we judge the system’s health, and is dictated by needs of the wider system – e.g. a house. The house in turn is judged not only on the harmony of its component parts, but also how well it aligns to what people use it for, and its relationship with its surroundings.
(It’s interesting to consider that one of the reasons that old buildings are routinely considered to be more beautiful than newer ones is because they are generally made of local materials, and in accordance with local custom. These materials make the buildings blend more sympathetically with the environment, and make them appropriate to local climatic conditions. The influence of local custom makes them suited to the way people in the area live. In short: they are highly adapted to their surroundings, and therefore well on their way to beauty).
Although the set of systems a house sits within is manmade, it is no different to nature’s. The rooms might be bodily organs, each with a job to do. The house might be a tiger, the system those organs serve. The street, its territory. We simply have to replicate the health that nature achieves automatically in our own creations.
Finishing then with business, you can see how the same ideas apply.
Just as a fire, a painting, a kitchen, and a tiger are all capable of achieving beauty and wholeness as healthy systems, so too is a business. Their jobs are all dictated by the needs of their surroundings, so too is a business’s job dictated by the needs of its market and cultural context.
This job is of course its strategy. Strategy is nothing more than the blueprint provided by the conditions of the larger system. And in that respect, everything that is beautiful is operating to a crystal clear strategy that it embodies completely.
In a beautiful business, there are no superfluous products. No obvious gaps in service. No confusion of message, no clash between branding and delivery. Just one complete living thing, like the perfect fire described earlier. Everything is just so, and through that delicate alignment, suddenly becomes dazzling – and far more than the sum of its parts.
I appreciate this has been quite abstract, but ultimately I think you might find it helpful. To constantly think of things in technical business terms can often fail to make things “click” in our heads. We can understand what we’re trying to do, but we can’t really feel it.
If however, we think of our goal as producing a business that is beautiful, we may be able to conjure a stronger mental image around which to design our plans.
And of course, as with anything else, when something is beautiful we know it when we see it.