taste: a concept at work nobody talks about

In the workplace, taste is an unspoken concept that underpins all business decisions. Words, in the form of explanations and design rationales, only go so far in capturing the thought processes behind the idea or approval. The rest is up to the employee’s or the manager’s sense of taste.

Ken Kocienda perceives taste as one of the seven elements essential to Apple’s software success, and describes tastes as:

Defining a refined sense of judgement and finding the balance that produces a pleasing and integrated whole.

Taste is an internalised opinion of the ideal: what is good and what is bad? This relates to all contexts of business: product, marketing, design, engineering, etc.

A manager’s taste dictates how time is spent in a meeting, it sets the agenda. For instance, a manager could devote 45 minutes of a meeting to nitpicking an internal powerpoint slide. In the same way, an employee’s taste dictates how he spends his time in critical thinking. A product associate could invest all his effort on trying to fit a square into a circle by obsessing over a clean and well-documented product backlog; rather than investing that time to work with his stakeholders.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we use taste to direct our effort and refine the work that we do. It is an innate process of self-correction. We use taste to approve of other people’s work. We choose what to critique and what to accept. And that creates a collective concept of taste - it drives the outcome at the end of the day.

Describing Dysfunction Through with Taste

Taste in Bad Faith. In the hierarchical dynamics of the workplace, the default way of working is for employees to refine their work to suit their notion of the manager’s taste. This is almost always acting in bad faith (in the sartrean sense). It’s the do-as-my-boss-says attitude to work, which is intellectually lazy and avoids taking on any responsibility. This is the default way. To be fair, good outcomes may also happen if the manager has good taste anyway.

The Gaze of Other People on Taste. The gaze (also in the sartrean sense), i.e. how other people perceive us, directly affects our taste. In political workplaces, the gaze creates many forms of dysfunction. We may lower our heads and tailor our taste to fit in. We may choose to refine our work in a way that makes it flashier, so as to gain visibility.

On Good Taste

Good Taste in the Workplace is Specific. Good taste drives good outcomes. In the book, Creative Selection, Steve Jobs chooses product simplicity because that drives the user experience. Apple and their prototyping workflow encourages good taste in simple UI and attention to user needs. Collectively having good taste saves time in aligning how products or designs are created.

Good Taste can be Developed. In the same way that employees refine their work to suit their manager’s tastes, good taste can be reinforced and encouraged with the correct communication flows and decision-making. The catch is that good taste is learnt from taking ownership. Good taste means being comfortable in owning the solutions that you come up with, regardless of the outcome.