Nemawashi-Consensus Building Japanese Style
Last week, I did a presentation at a company in London for a number of their Managing Directors, who have found themselves working with the Japanese through an acquisition made. They are having to do lots of relationship building trips to Tokyo to meet and share information with their colleagues. Not only did they need training from me on meeting and greeting etiquette, they also needed a more in-depth look at the Japanese way of negotiating and making decisions as they were finding it frustrating not getting on the spot answers to questions they had asked or ideas they has presented. After all, in such a limited amount of time, in our corporate culture, meetings are the ideal place to share and disseminate information and indeed make decisions.
Not so in a rigid Japanese corporate culture (note that I am not implying that all Japanese companies operate this way). When I did a bit of research on the Japanese company involved, I found out they were still viewed as having a quite traditional Japanese corporate culture so I had all areas of business culture covered. However I was pleasantly surprised that one of their Japanese colleagues had already recommended that my client learned the concept of nemawashi, literally translated as “digging around the roots of a tree” before transplanting it, which is the unique Japanese art of consensus building.
Nemawashi is done to make sure the senior people know what is going on before a meeting takes place (to save face), to make sure there is no scope for public displays of conflicting opinions ( to maintain harmony) and to gauge opinion on ideas and modify them accordingly. It can be done in small groups with various key players, informally though socialising or more formally in a nemawashi meeting. To us, it may seem like a very long-winded and frustrating way to operate but it does seem to work and is certainly a major art of Japanese style decision making.
For people wanting to work with the Japanese, it is worth at least knowing this goes on, being patient with it and joining in where possible. When I work with Japanese governmental organisations, I always make sure I submit my agenda for meetings and proposals beforehand giving them enough time to discuss it and always assume that meetings are not necessarily for making decisions but for discussing and presenting ideas. I advise companies doing business with Japan to engage in a bit of nemawashi themselves by: submitting ideas in advance and asking for suggestions and ideas, finding out all the key decision makers and involving them all in your ideas, sending agendas and powerpoints over in advance, organising a series of meetings instead of just one seminal one if possible, using informal ways of gauging opinion through socialising and being prepared to modify ideas if you are getting certain feedback from it.
As with all my advice on Japanese corporate culture, I believe it is so important to know the cultural context from which it has arisen, so that you can understand it better.