Deciding the decided

Let me tell you about meetings in Japan. Wait, they’re not as boring as you think! Actually, like everywhere else, they generally are, but they’re different in a rather interesting way.

My view as a Westerner is that a meeting is where a bunch of people pile into a room, hear about something someone wants to do, then shout a lot at each other until someone gets bored and the other person gets their way.

That’s not how it works in Japan.

Photo: how meetings do not work in Japan

In Japan, there’s a system known as nemawashi. Nemawashi is a decision-making process discreetly carried out before the decision-making meeting itself. The meeting largely just approves what’s already been decided upon.

The person suggesting a new idea quietly works their way up the seniority tree, ensuring that everyone understands and will comply with the proposal before anyone steps foot in a meeting room. Even though everyone knows what the meeting outcome will be, during the meeting all the appropriate questions get asked, and all the correct and already-known answers are supplied. With the ritual complete, the decision can be approved.

So, why have the meeting at all? Well, the decision makers still need to be formally presented with the idea, and everyone needs to be on board. Having unexpected and severe opposition to an idea in the meeting itself would destroy the wa (harmony). Rejected ideas can be quietly discarded as they find resistance during the nemawashi process with no loss of face.

I’ve seen nemawashi first hand, too. In a large teleconference, there was the opportunity to ask questions. Phone muted, one of the junior staff members declared “I’m going to ask them if we can do x”. No sooner than he had pressed the unmute button, his superior snapped his hand out to mute the call again. He hissed “You want to ask about x!? We haven’t even discussed x with them yet! You’re forgetting nemawashi!”.

This makes decision making a fairly slow, but harmonious process. I make it sound like there’s a black and white divide between Western and Japanese meetings, but naturally, that’s not true. There are Japanese meetings that exchange untested ideas and are a bit lively.  Likewise, I’m sure you’ve sought out people’s opinions before a meeting, making sure your thinking is straight before you presented it to a larger audience. Now you’ve just got a word for it – nemawashi.


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