Perspective taking and the fine art of nemawashi

Western organisations don't do a lot of nemawashi.

Just before the turn of the century I spent nearly two years living and working in Japan.

As a result, I got an up close personal experience on how different the Japanese business practices are to the western practices I was more familiar with. One of the Japanese business practices that impacted me most was the Japanese practice of nemawashi.

Most Japanese companies make decisions by consensus and nemawashi is the process they use to build consensus.

All those unfamiliar with the term nemawashi is “an informal process of quietly laying the foundation for some proposed change or project, by talking to the people concerned, gathering support and feedback, and so forth.

It is considered an important element in any major change, “before any formal steps are taken, and successful nemawashi enables changes to be carried out with the consent of all sides (Source: wikipedia).”

One of the implications of consensus decision making is that it often takes a relatively long time for Japanese companies to decide what to do but once they have decided their implementation is usually rapid as there is no significant resistance as everyone is on board - really on board not just saying they are on board.

I reckon we in the West, particularly technology and digital teams, could benefit greatly from the fine art of nemawashi to build consensus.

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Our traditional approach is for leaders to define the strategy, announce the strategy and then seek to implement it. The result, our decisions are quicker but our implementation meets resistance, takes longer and in the end is substantially more risky.Owen McCall

Western organisations don't do a lot of nemawashi. Our traditional approach is for leaders to define the strategy, announce the strategy and then seek to implement it. The result, our decisions are quicker but our implementation meets resistance, takes longer and in the end is substantially more risky. To make matters worse many organisations fictionalise their strategy by developing independent, or at best. loosely coupled point strategies.

How many times have you heard someone say we need to have cloud strategy or a digital strategy or a data strategy?

It's very common and it's also something I have become very sceptical of. We don't need a digital strategy, what we need is to understand how digital will impact and support the achievement of the business's visions and goals. We don't need a cloud strategy but we do need to understand the potential of cloud services to support us to deliver the business's visions and goals.

And we don't need a data strategy but we do need to understand how we can leverage data for the greater good of the organisation, our customers and our people.

I disagree because it implies separateness. To say we need a cloud strategy, for example, assumes that you can and should address the issue of cloud as if it is separate and independent from the rest of the organisation. Yes, we need to think about these topics. We need to discuss them, and come up with an agreed plan of action but they are not actually separate and independent strategies. Talking about and thinking that we need independent strategies is not simply an issue of language, it is an issue of mindset.

It implies that our organisations are made up of separate independent or semi independent teams rather than a whole working towards the same goal.

To be realistic a degree of separateness is inevitable in large and complex organisations.

We need to chunk work into executable pieces and assign responsibility for that work to various individuals and teams.

Organisations are very good at chunking work down and assigning responsibility for the completion of that work to specific individuals insuring they have accountability for producing the required results.

Furthermore it's quite natural that if I have been assigned the responsibility for the chunk of work then I am going to I want to develop a strategy for how I am going to deliver that assigned responsibility.

This chunking causes separateness. The problem, however, is not in creating separateness but in allowing it to persist. When you allow separateness to persist, you open the door to issues of alignment between independent or semi independent groups.

Alignment is only ever an issue if you have two or more separate objects of entities.

It doesn't make a lot of sense to talk about alignment of a thing with itself. If you view the world through a lens that technology or digital or data is somewhat separate and independent then it's natural that you will need to create a digital strategy or a data strategy or a "whatever I happen to be in charge of right now" strategy.

If, however, you see yourself as part of a greater whole, your focus shifts to understanding how your role contributes to the overall picture.

As part of an integrated whole you don't need a digital strategy but you do need a perspective on how digital will impact your business and how digital can support you to be more successful. Repositioning from independent strategy's to exploring perspectives is more than playing with words, it reflects a fundamental mindset shift in how we operate and what's important in creating a successful organisation. It also requires us to reintegrate individual units of work back to a cohesive integrated whole.

This is where nemawashi can help.

Maybe we do not need to engage in a full consensus driven Japanese nemawashi but the process of walking around the organisation, talking to those impacted, gathering feedback and support for your ideas helps reintegrate our semi independent view to the whole by ensuring we consider and account for all perspectives.

By allowing for all perspectives and showing that we have listened we are likely to reduce resistance during implementation and substantially improve our chances of using technology in a way that adds substantial value to our organisations.

Owen McCall (@OwenMcCall) is an experienced management consultant and CIO, and a member of the editorial advisory board of CIO New Zealand. Reach him


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