Office Collaboration with an Asian Twist

Try the Japanese business practice of “Nemawashi” to get group buy-in for projects and proposals.

JPEG_Title Banner_Nemawashi - Collaboration with an Asian Twist

I lived and worked in Japan for 12 years, working across departments at a major Japanese corporation and later at a Japanese advertising agency. It gave me an up-close opportunity to learn the interpersonal “nuances” of the Japanese way of getting things done across departments and highly matrixed organizations.

Japan is well-known for cultivating and valuing “group consensus” in their day-to-day business work — it is a natural result of any Japanese person’s cultural upbringing. As I worked in Japan, I quickly found that all decisions are made by group consensus, and it was difficult to get something accepted if my superiors were not been given enough time to consider the proposal. I had to learn how my Japanese colleagues made decisions, and understand the way that changes in the system are introduced in Japanese companies.

One of the techniques I learned firsthand in Japanese business environments (and later used with success in U.S. companies) was a Japanese collaborative practice called “Nemawashi”. It became an important daily job skill for me around the office.

WHAT IS NEMAWASHI?

The Japanese word “Nemawashi” literally translates as “going around the roots”, from the characters Ne = Root and Mawasu or Mawashi = to go around (something). Its original meaning came from gardening: “digging around the roots of a tree, to prepare it for transplanting.”

JPEG_Nemawashi_Kanji and Definition

This process involves making the tree ready for transplanting by digging around the roots of the tree to aerate portions of the tree’s root system, and also included transferring some dirt from the new location, and introducing it to the tree, before the transplant, so that the tree can grow accustomed to the new soil’s acidity environment before it is moved and transplanted. Over the centuries, Japanese gardeners found that this process helps the tree to take root more successfully after transplanting.

Digging around the roots of a tree for transplantSo in the context of Japanese business, “Nemawashi” in Japanese means an informal process of carefully “cultivating the roots of relationships” amongst co-workers and one’s superiors at the office, by holding one-on-one discussions and small meetings to quietly lay the foundation for some proposed change or project. This is done by talking to the people concerned, listening to their needs or concerns, addressing any issues, gathering support and feedback, all with the aim of getting group “but-in” before the official decision-making meeting.

JPEG_Aspects of the Nemawashi Process

When it is done properly, the Nemawashi process enables changes to be carried out with the consent and support of all the stakeholders, and things progress more smoothly as you carry out the plan or project.

Of course, we have similar expressions for “Nemawashi” in U.S. business, such as “consensus-building”, “sounding someone out”, “laying the groundwork”, “getting buy-in”, “testing the waters”, “behind the scenes persuasion”, “getting everyone on the same page” and “lobbying”, among others.

Nevertheless, these English expressions do not really convey the Japanese nuance of “nemawashi” being a “continual process” rather than a one-time action.

Due in large part to using Nemawashi, Japanese companies generally don’t commit big mistakes very often. Japanese companies strive to always improve step by step, always going forward and making their processes as near-perfect as possible (this process of “continuous improving” is called “Kaizen”).

HOW NEMAWASHI WORKS IN JAPANESE COMPANIES

When I worked in Japanese companies, I found that it was typical for small groups to informally get together and discuss things in detail and get individual “buy-in” and support for a project, prior to the bigger official departmental meeting, when everyone would be together with the big brass and making key decisions.

In Japan, the higher-ups in management expect to be informed about new proposals prior to an official meeting.  If something is proposed for first time during the official meeting without any prior consultations, they will feel that they have been ignored or bypassed, and so they might turn down the proposal. Thus, it’s important to use the nemawashi approach with these upper executives, meeting with them individually before the official meeting, so that you can introduce the proposal to them, gauge their reaction, and receive their feedback or input.

So in Japanese business, “Nemawashi” is used to describe the careful cultivation of consensus using informal one-on-one dialogue with each member of a decision-making group prior to a formal meeting.

A REAL-WORLD EXAMPLE OF NEMAWASHI

Here’s one typical example of the “Nemawashi” process in action that I experienced at the Japanese advertising agency where I worked, which was trying to win more ad campaign accounts of U.S. and European companies that wanted to market their products in Japan.

Our traditional Japanese-style campaign proposals were written and presented to show all of the thinking and variables that went into developing our proposed strategies and ideas, to impress potential clients. Japanese clients always expected agencies to demonstrate their credentials by showing their thought processes and their due diligence in developing proposals.

The result was that our proposals were often very convoluted and hard-to-follow for western clients who were more accustomed to the linear, straightforward and concise style of western ad agency campaign proposals.

JPEG_My Nemawashi Challenge_Change the Way We Did Proposals

The key challenge for our Japanese advertising agency — which was quite “set” in its traditional Japanese ways of doing things — was to somehow fundamentally change the way it prepared its official campaign proposal presentations from Japanese style to a more westernized style, so that they would be more understandable and persuasive when pitching campaign proposals to the executives of U.S. and European companies.

Our Nemawashi Process:

1. I and my group had ideas to revamp our Japanese ad agency’s main proposal template (which was very “convoluted” in the Japanese way) to simplify and align it more like the “western-style” ad campaign proposals. We had already researched how other western ad agencies constructed their proposals and we had identified features that we wanted to re-purpose for use in our own agency’s proposals for western clients.

2. The usual procedure in a western company would be to just make the proposal for the change in front of everybody when having a meeting with the bosses. However in Japan, you simply could not be so direct, because you could step on toes and “destroy the harmony” with all the co-workers and bosses.

In Japanese culture, disagreeing with someone during a meeting would cause “loss of face” for both parties, and could later affect the relationship. So, Japanese prefer to use one-on-one discussions and even “pre-meetings” with smaller groups to discuss and flesh-out things before a formal meeting is held.

So, before making the formal proposal, we had to first do some prior consultation to make sure that everyone agreed with our ideas. This was done as a series of more low-key conversations, either one-on-one or in very small groups, to avoid the public display of differences of opinion — all with the common goal of persuading and cultivating support.

3. First, we did several initial informal meetings with fellow team members in our account management group, our creative group, and our market research group, discussing problems that we had experienced when we had failed to win some competitive pitches for western clients.

Some of these meetings were done very casually, like grabbing someone in the hallway or elevator, or stopping by their desk to chat, saying “Hey Mr. Tsubaki, I wanted to tell you about an idea I’ve been working on….I’d like to get your thoughts on this…” In some cases, we brought up the subject casually over a lunch or dinner or drinks. In a few cases, we had specifically-planned small meetings held just for the purpose of discussing the topic.

We discussed the factors involved in why we lost certain pitches for western clients, and we gently steered the conversation to the many differences between how Japanese clients and Western clients wanted to see presentations given, and what they looked for in campaign proposals. In some cases, we also had copies of the winning proposals from rival agencies that had won the business that we lost, and so we dissected them together with these colleagues for ideas.

Obvious differences were identified, and it was informally agreed that we needed to make some adjustments to how we presented our campaign proposals. Importantly, we also made sure to sound-out each person we talked with about who he/she believed would be key decision-makers that we’d need to include in subsequent discussions.

4. We next approached Section Chiefs of departments individually, to sound them out about the need for changing the way we pitched for business from western clients. We generally followed the same “discovery” process with these higher-ups in management, showing the features in the rival agencies’ proposals that had enabled them to win business from us. We got valuable feedback from these executives which helped strengthen our ideas, and we later shared these with the team members in subsequent meetings.

5. At one point we were ready for a more “formal” nemawashi process of holding a “pre-meeting”, which took place before a larger more structured and official meeting. Any aspects of our idea that were perceived to be controversial were hashed-out ahead of time, so that they wouldn’t create embarrassing snags or setbacks. And we also had new ideas from some of our other nemawashi discussions which we wanted to “float” in this pre-meeting, to avoid any surprises during the main official meeting later.

6. Throughout the initial conversations and the pre-meetings, my purpose was to get reactions from people. Did they dislike my idea? Did they like some parts of my idea, but not other parts? Did they have anything specific to suggest that might improve on my ideas – or increase the chances that it will be accepted by others? We discovered some agreements — and some disagreements — with what we wanted to do. This necessitated adding/modifying things until everyone felt that they had a say in the project, and everyone was happy and on-board with the key changes we wanted to implement.

Now at this point, I must admit that the “impatient American”-side of me was privately thinking: “Man, this is really taking a long time….is this all really worth it?”

Nevertheless, the advantages of this Japanese nemawashi approach were becoming apparent to me: if my nemawashi efforts succeed, then our proposal will be accepted for sure. And if there are some people who don’t like our proposal we can still improve it until everyone is happy. And if our idea is “bad” or fraught with problems it will be implicitly shelved before the big bosses know.

7. After the initial rounds of consulting with all the key stakeholders and getting their input, I sought the support of my Japanese boss, who was already in the loop in our earlier discussions, but who could now proceed to do his own nemawashi rounds with our more “fleshed-out” ideas, but at a different level, this time he would check up the chain of command until the Directors, VPs and other “big guys” in the top management would know about it.

8. Once the process of nemawashi is completed, our department (where everything started) had the “blessing” and support by everyone to call for an official meeting to make a formal proposal, to start implementing the new way of how we would pitch for business of western clients for our ad agency.

All throughout the process, Nemawashi enabled me and my team to show mutual respect to stakeholders to keep the “group harmony” (very important in Japanese work environments) and the process also helped to kill discrepancies or issues that could have endangered the successful implementation, and secured the cooperation and support of everyone involved ahead of the big official meeting.

9. The Result? We implemented the new campaign proposal template, which included the way we developed campaign strategy and guided our creative execution — and it resulted in us winning over $11 Million in new business with U.S. and European clients while I was at the agency.

OKAY FINE, BUT CAN NEMAWASHI BE USEFUL IN AN AMERICAN COMPANY?

After my time in Japan, I returned to the USA to pursue my MBA and subsequently worked for two Silicon Valley companies here in California. I found that my Nemawashi skills could be put to good use even in American corporate work environments.

Of course, I learned that Japanese-style Nemawashi techniques needed a few “tweaks” in order to work effectively in American offices.

The first area of adjustment had to be made in the differences between Japanese-style meetings and American-style meetings: that there are different assumptions about the purpose of a meeting.

For Americans, Meetings are for reconciling a conflict, reaching a group judgment or decision, or to solve a problem — all of which require discussion and debate.  Thus you are mostly voicing and sharing opinions, and attempt to reconcile differing views.

Contrast that to the way the Japanese hold a meeting: it is a way to confirm things that have already been decided elsewhere beforehand, and to report and share information.  Therefore, there isn’t much deliberation going on during the meeting; the people attending the meeting are not required to actively participate or share their opinions. There are few surprises.

So, I saw that the way I do my Nemawashi “prep work” in an American company would need adjusting to accommodate the way that American-style meetings are conducted.

I would do my Nemawashi in one of two ways in American work environments:

1. I would explain the concept and get them to participate: “I would like to build some consensus in one-on-one discussion with each member, or get a small group together prior to the big meeting…That way, we can have some detailed discussion first, before everyone is together in the larger meeting. Would that be okay with you?”

2. A second way of I did Nemawashi in American work settings was to describe the actions I thought the person should take:

  • “If we have a short feedback session first, it will help get everyone on the same page before the big meeting.”
  • “I think we will all have a productive meeting if we have some groundwork discussions beforehand with some of the key stakeholders.”
  • “In order to get this idea approved, I think we need to get some buy-in from the key decision-makers to move things forward.”
  • “I think we should consult with everyone who is going to be affected by our proposal and find out how they react to it, before we finalize it. Let’s try to talk with some of the managers in the other departments to see what they think of our idea?”
  • “I think we can get a lot accomplished if we informally touch bases with some of the people at the head office before holding a larger formal meeting.”

I’ve learned that that projects tended to go much smoother when I took a Nemawashi approach modified slightly for American work environments, and people I interacted with appreciated being more “in the loop” as things moved along.

CAN NEMAWASHI BE USED ACROSS GEOGRAPHICALLY-DISPERSED GROUPS?

Nemawashi is admittedly an interpersonal collaboration technique that is practiced in a face-to-face manner. So how can you adapt Nemawashi to work across different departments that are spread out geographically across an organization?

Get to Know People

First of all, it certainly helps if the others who are making the decisions in far away departments are familiar with you, your skills, and the value of your input.  If you have a good working relationship with them, they feel more inclined to interact with you.  The best way to do this is to physically visit their offices, or have them visit you. If that’s not practicable, you should be looking at things that can help with connecting with them more personably, like interacting via Skype and other forms of teleconferencing (aside from the usual “agenda-driven” meetings: instead, try to aim for a more informal interaction, like chatting and get-acquainted types of interaction — Similar in tone to having a coffee break with them, but over long distance).

Create Team Profiles

Another idea would be to create a team directory on the company’s intranet or other company site, which includes each person’s photo and background information.  This would help the members of the team at remote locations seem more “real” to each other, so that people can check on who has expertise on certain subjects or who is working on what projects, and this can allow you to  tap them for discussion of what is going on.

Stay in Touch Across Distances

Once you’ve built the relationships, keep in close contact with the people in those far away departments who are making the decisions, so that you can be kept in the loop about anything that is currently under discussion. Be proactive, not waiting until they get in touch with you (they are busy and sometimes it may not dawn on them that they need to check with you).  It is up to you to stay in regular contact with them.

Face-to-face visits are the best means of working with geographically dispersed groups, but if you can’t afford to get a plane, then the next best things is to check in regularly with phone calls, Skype calls or emails.  Passing along an article or other information allows you to keep in touch and also keeps others mindful of your issues or proposals without coming across as domineering or overbearing.

As you build a good working relationship with those in other departments, check with them regularly for information on what decisions are currently being made back at their divisions, and ask how you can get involved in the process for those topics that concern you.  Of course, you will need to cultivate good working relationships with those people first.

On a larger level, you should also work to implement changes in the company’s decision-making system.  This will require interacting with your upper management using the nemawashi techniques discussed earlier, and will likely involve a lot of diplomatic maneuvering, but in the long run is important.

THE TOOL FOR NEMAWASHI: THE “RINGI-SHO”

Throughout my nemawashi process in the Japanese companies, there was a crucial component in the decision-making process that I had to use: the Ringi-sho.

A ringi presents the information for a proposed decision, put forward in an easy to understand way, with all the information that is relevant to the proposal.  This document is then sent around to all the management and stakeholders who need to approve the proposal.  Each of them affixes their hanko (personal seal or stamp) to the document to show if they approve of the proposal.  In many Japanese companies, there are often several ringi wending their way through the company at any given day, each collecting hanko approvals as they move along in the process.

JPEG_Ringi-Sho Approvals Sheet_Explanation

Let’s break down the meaning of the Japanese term “Ringi-Sho”: “Rin” means “to present or submit a proposal to one’s supervisors and obtain their approval.”  “Gi,” signifies “debates and judgments.” The last part of the word, “Sho,” means a “sheet, page or document.”

JPEG_Ringi-Sho_Kanji and Definition

The ringi system works well in the “face-conscious” Japanese culture, because each person is able to carefully review the proposal and take their time to think through the ramifications, instead of being forced to make a spur-of-the-moment decision and “lose face” with colleagues.  Also, use of a ringi helps to avoid confrontations and possible loss of face for the decision-makers; because there are no confrontational deliberations like you would have in a roundtable meeting.  If someone disagrees with a proposal outlined in a ringi, he can choose to shelve it and never take it out again, thus stopping the proposal from continuing further in the review process.

In some cases, people who feel compelled to rubber-stamp their approval onto a ringi (even though they disagree) will stamp their hanko upside down as a form of silent protest.  It is a somewhat “face-saving” way to show your opposition to a proposal instead of being forced to voice your opposition in front of others at a meeting.

In Japanese offices in which Ringi-sho are used, the role of originator of the Ringi-sho is an important one. The person who writes the Ringi-sho is the person who frames the question, and who gathers all the data to support the decision. The selection of what information to include and what not to include is crucial, and the preparation of a solid Ringi-sho is somewhat an art in itself. It’s not easy, because all the relevant information often needs to be compressed into a single page.

The proposer who wrote the Ringi-sho guides it through the system using Nemawashi, as I described earlier. In the Nemawashi process, he or she will attempt to have  one-on-one conversations with all key people who need to sign-off on the Ringi-sho, in order to attempt to convince them of the proposal’s merits. As I’ve seen it done in Japan, these one-on-one discussions will often take place even before the Ringi-sho is written up, as a way to discover and head off any possible objections at an early stage.

While the Ringi-sho is a formalized document in Japanese companies, this can also be modified for effective use in American Corporations, either in paper form or electronically. It can be incorporated into the project tracking documentation, and it is helpful when going through the “Nemawashi motions” of informally talking with the stakeholders to lay the groundwork for support of a proposal or project.

Try Collaborating with an “Asian Twist” at Your Company

Give this Nemawashi and Ringi-sho approach a try in your organization — you might find that this “collaboration with an Asian twist” might just be the approach you need to make headway in otherwise stalled projects, or it may help improve the way your company makes discussions by encouraging more valuable input from all the people involved with a project.

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