An extremely integral part of business in Japan is the process of review and comment by the concerned personnel multiple times before approving a proposal. This process, which is time consuming and quite repetitive is called Nemawashi (根回し) in Japan. Given how important this process in decision making, it is essential for any foreigner to understand the basics of nemawashi.
The Origins of Nemawashi
The roots of Nemawashi can be found in the ancient gardening traditions of Japan. Whenever a tree was to be transported to another place, the Japanese gardener would start trimming the main root around a year or half a year before the displacement. This would force new roots to sprout, which were believed to be more adaptable to a new environment and more aggressive towards development. After multiple rounds of such careful trimming, the tree could be safely moved to another place and its probability of flourishing in the new environment were higher.
Nemawashi in the Business Context
This idea has been uprooted from the gardening context and applied in organizations in Japan for decades. Given the hierarchical structure of the organization, Japanese companies have several sub-ordinate groups and divisions that need to work together on a proposal before it is presented to the deciding authority. As the responsible for the success or failure of the proposal would lie solely on the shoulders of the deciding authority, it is of paramount importance that the proposal is reviewed carefully from multiple viewpoints before submission. Hence an informal cycle of checks and balances were instituted by Japanese companies to ensure co-ordination and smoother workflow- the nemawashi.
How Does Nemaswahi Work?
The proposer first does careful research and collects all data that connected to the project. He then analyses the advantages and disadvantages of various approaches, the feasibility of certain ideas and the profitability, if necessary, of the solutions.
He then informally submits this proposal to each person in each concerned division and solicits their comments. Every time, someone rejects the proposal or gives a differing viewpoint, the proposer reexamines his data, collects new data and analyses the ideas all over again. This process is repeated as many times as required, until all players involved are satisfied with the proposal. In which case, the proposal is submitted formally to the deciding authority.
How to be good at Nemawashi?
If you are a foreigner working in a Japanese organization it could be quite challenging to understand and execute Nemawashi smoothly. The following 5-point system could ensure some amount of success.
1. Grow your network: It is important to make sure you are known by all members of the organization who could be in some way linked to your projects and that you maintain a cordial relationship with them all. Take every opportunity to introduce yourself to cross-functional colleagues.
2. Identify the right people: You cannot submit your proposal to anyone but those who are eligible to review and comment. Hence knowing the right position of people in the hierarchy in other functions and their exact role is absolutely essential. Else, the entire exercise could just fall flat on its face.
3. Do the Research: Intensive research is critical. So is knowing where to get data from and from whom, when data is not easily available to you.
4. Be Dynamic: Do not hesitate to approach actively, when possible, the comments of other players implicated in the process. Be prepared to spend time and effort, and quite a large amount of it, to attain some amount of success.
5. Go Bottom-Up: Remember to follow hierarchy and take the nemawashi gradually up the hierarchy, even though it is an informal process.
Why the Japanese love Nemawashi:
Japanese believe that Nemawashi can reduce differing view points from the final decision authority and give them enough logical ammunition to counter questions and give persuasive answers. It avoids unpleasant surprises as the proposal has been evaluated from many points of view. It also makes sure that you do not lose face to your superior by giving him an under-cooked proposal. In fact, in a survey conducted in 2017. 37% of Japanese employees attributed to their success in an organization to their ability to get nemawashi done well!