The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

(translation of article in Diamond online) @whsaito

I have said, any number of times, that I believe it will not be so difficult for Japanese corporations to display creativity and regain a leading position in the world. When asked what needs to be done to this end, I suggest the three following points:

1. Build teams based on deep communication
2. Empower subordinates with authority and responsibility
3. Provide sufficient incentives for staff, based on fairness and transparency

Of the above, I have previously touched on items 2 and 3. Here, I’d like to discuss building teams based on deep communication. This may be the most difficult, considering the degree to which efforts have been lagging. I define “team” as an organization composed of diverse people, who enthusiastically support one another with the aim of achieving an objective. It forms the basis of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Japan at present has homogenous teams, and virtually none that are made up of different kinds of people organized to realize the same objective. That’s a problem.The essential point of the team is the relationship for engaging in mutual support, but do you understand what is needed to make this happen?

You might find it surprising, but it’s knowing each other’s weaknesses that enables relationships of trust. By being able to have frank mutual discussions over weak points and failures, feelings of trust will be created naturally within the team.

In this context, the key person at the workplace is the supervisor. It’s necessary for him to take the initiative by revealing his own weaknesses, thereby creating an environment in which members of the team feel at ease discussing their own weak points.

But, alas, most Japanese bosses are too proud to discus their own weak points with subordinates. I suppose they fear it will invite disrespect.

That said, a boss is also human, so it’s natural for them to have weak points, flaws, and shortcomings. Giants of US industry, such as Jack Welch or Bill Gates, are no exception. In tests administered to aspiring job candidates in the United States, the reply of “none” to the question “What are your weak points?” generally results in an automatic deduction from the score.

After all, by not knowing one’s weaknesses, it’s impossible to fix, or compensate for, them. And, since a person claiming to have no weaknesses is not considered trustworthy, no one wants him or her as a member on the team.

If the team can be founded on a relationship of trust, even when opinions clash violently during meetings or conflicts occur, the disagreements will not be drawn out. Actually, when debates are conducted with sincerity, it’s natural for differences to occur. It is that friction which excites the imagination and leads to revolutionary ideas.

Recently [July 18], at TEDx Haneda 2015—a conference in which Japan Airlines Co., Ltd. (JAL) took part as a core partner—a sense of team power was evoked. TEDx programs, which help communities, organizations, and individuals produce events at the local level, are a spin-off from the better-known Technology, Entertainment and Design conferences for innovators.

Meanwhile, TED Talks, which have the stated aim of promoting “ideas worth spreading,” have become established in various places around the world, and I have also assisted in some of these events.

What was interesting about the recent conference is the process by which a party held after the event was planned. One organizer suggested that an aircraft hanger be used for the party. Initially, most of the others involved felt doing so would be impractical. But the person responsible at JAL persisted, persuading his colleagues to go along.

Eventually, he obtained permission, including that to serve food and beverages at the site.The party turned out to be a lot of fun.

This case evoked memories of the Portuguese folk fable, “Stone Soup.” For those unfamiliar with the story, it concerns a traveler who, short of food, came to a village. There he told the residents he possessed an amazing stone that, when boiled in water, would produce a tasty soup. He requested the loan of a kettle and some water.

Moved by curiosity, the villagers complied, and he placed the stone in the water once it had been boiled. Taking a sip, he remarked to them that, “adding a bit of salt would make it even better.” A villager went home and brought some salt. This process was repeated with rice, meat, vegetables, and so on being added to the pot.

In the end, the traveler invited the villagers to share his delicious meal of stone soup. What had enabled the traveler, with no provisions, to make a tasty stone soup was his ability to generate ideas and harness the efforts of others.

Back in the 1980s, “nomunication”—a word formed by combining nomu (Japanese for the verb to drink) with “communication”—was taken up in the Harvard Business Review as an important element of Japan’s creativity.

Of course, this does not suggest that it is good for people to go drinking together just for its own sake, but, rather, that when in their cups, people often can exchange views with more frankness than under normal circumstances.

Nevertheless, believing the practice was meaningless, many companies put an end to the custom of nomunication during the so-called two lost decades following the collapse of the bubble economy . . . [That change in custom] can be considered a major loss.

So this summer, how about trying to work at building the ties of trust that come from being open about oneself? If conducted with sincerity, when plans and ideas are advanced, cooperative people will flock around you to collaborate in preparing a tasty “stone soup”—thereby building links for the creation of a strong team.

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William H. Saito is an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, TV commentator, speaker, and author of bestselling novel The Team. He has founded several businesses and serves as a special advisor to the Cabinet Office of Japan and other G-8 governments.

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