Nemawashi: The Japanese Art of Making Change Happen

Image of a samurai holding swords in a field, looking out at a Japanese interpretation of a windmill, Artwork courtesy Stable Diffusion
Artwork courtesy Stable Diffusion

(Preface: Some will recall that I published a large OneNote resource of articles and publications assembled over the years, complete with PowerPoints and Word white papers – if you’re still on the Microsoft network, you may find it still there. And I plan to share some of those ideas and musings from there, or at least as much as I can recall.)

Change is inevitable, but it is also often difficult and stressful.

I recounted this stress once again with the recent death of a cousin over the summer. I’d connected and emotionally supported Chance as he bravely (and with a smile and good humour) fought a cancer that had come back to haunt him. (I thought a lot about change over the summer, and – perhaps somewhat surprisingly to many – in the same breath, death: one of the most universal and inevitable experiences that we all face. I’ll talk about his in more detail in my next post. Yay. I promise it will be more uplifting and positive than you might imagine.)

Not everything in business our professional lives is life and death, but we often face challenging obstacles that we strive to overcome. In business, it can be the resistance or opposition we encounter when we try to introduce a new idea or perspective, or when we want to implement a new project or plan – windmills I tended to tilt at a lot in my last role at Microsoft, representing the needs of our global customers and partners balanced with the goals of a public company, delivering improved revenue, consumption and market share.

How can we overcome these challenges and make change smoother and more successful?

One possible answer: nemawashi.

Nemawashi is a term my teams, peers, and leaders heard me use time and time again (apologies 😉 when I’d explain how I gotten something (often, quite challenging politically and operationally) accomplished. It’s a concept that can help us rethink how we approach change, and stems from the Japanese word for “going around the roots”, referring to a gardening technique of preparing a plant for transplantation by carefully digging and trimming its roots.

It was explained to me by a long time Toyota executive that the term originated with bansai tree masters as their effort to cultivate prime specimens. There’s an interesting summary on nemawashi in The Toyota Way, here, and here on the approach, and a practical guide to apply it in in your day-to-day work. In the kaizen (continuous improvement) of business management, it’s about building and getting consensus on a project in advance and then acting quickly.

Tl:dr: nemawashi makes it easier for the plant to adapt to a new soil and thrive in a different environment. And so, it can help you be more successful in getting to consensus and synthesizing new ideas and direction from others.

In the business world, nemawashi is a strategy of building consensus and support for a proposed change or project by talking to the people who are affected or involved in the decision-making process. Think of it to gather feedback and suggestions from various stakeholders before making a formal announcement or presentation, or the “meetings before the meeting” where the work is formally agreed to or memorialized. It helps avoid conflicts and resistance by making people feel more comfortable and confident about the change and its benefits.

Nemawashi is not only a useful technique for managing change in organizations, but also for changing minds in general. When we want to persuade someone to adopt a new idea or perspective, we often make the mistake of assuming that they will be convinced by our logic and evidence. I’ve read and heard that people are more likely to resist or reject information that challenges their existing beliefs or opinions… especially if they feel threatened or attacked by it.

To overcome this impediment, nemawashi can be practiced in our conversations and interactions to listen to their concerns and understand their perspectives rather than having them feel we’re trying to prove them wrong or force them to agree with us (seen much too often in competitive and stack-ranked organizations). Showing people that we respect their opinions and value their input to improve or modify the proposals or approach makes them feel more a part of the solution, not the problem.

By doing nemawashi, we can create a more open and constructive dialogue with others, where we can exchange information and opinions without being defensive or hostile. We can also learn from each other and discover new insights and possibilities that we might have overlooked or ignored. Nemawashi can help us foster collaboration and trust among the people we want to influence or persuade, as well as among ourselves. And it can help us think again about how we handle change and how we change minds.

How has such an approach helped you? Tell me what you’ve found and think in the comments.

(Also on LinkedIn)