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Death by Screens Tip: use Nemawashi to avoid surprising stakeholders

Published 11 months ago • 4 min read

This week’s update is a heady mix of gardening, learning from Japanese business culture, power phrases for UX people, and to finish, my trip last week to Japan to keynote UX Days Tokyo! Sāikō!

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Failing about failing

Within about fifteen minutes of starting the meeting, I could tell it probably wasn’t going to end well. I was there to present the results of service design research, and a senior stakeholder started to get annoyed when I began talking about how customers were feeling about the service. He started lecturing me on how some of the data was wrong (it wasn’t, and it wasn’t even mine...). In the end, the presentation was a failure; he could not accept any critique of the customer experience in front of anyone else.

It was some of my best research synthesis; I only wanted to help make things better for the customers and the business. I'd delivered the presentation a few times at this point in the project: I didn't think I was saying anything particularly controversial. I felt like a messenger getting shot with both barrels.

The truth is that for weeks I’d been trying to get an audience with him, to no avail. There was some bad news to deliver, so I knew it would be best not to surprise anyone. On that note, let’s talk Nemawashi.

The patient gardener

Nemawashi, a traditional Japanese term, has its roots in the gardening world. The word itself is a combination of two Japanese characters, “ne” (根) meaning “root” and “mawashi” (回し) meaning “to wrap around” or “to go around.” It refers to the process of gently digging around the roots of a tree and preparing it for transplantation. Sometimes you do this by transplanting some soil from the new location to the old one, so that the tree gets used to it’s new environment in advance. It’s a meticulous procedure requiring patience and care.

As a metaphor, it’s been adopted by Japanese business culture to symbolize the importance of laying the groundwork for consensus-building and ensuring a smooth transition of ideas. Nemawashi emphasizes the need to engage with stakeholders before making crucial decisions, to create a shared understanding, and to foster harmony. It’s not just about presenting an idea and expecting immediate agreement; it’s about nurturing relationships, gathering feedback, and iteratively refining the proposal.

Meetings about meetings

For some in the West, Nemawashi has come to represent a collosal waste of time. You might even call it “meetings about meetings”. In Japanese business culture, it happens because saving-face is so important: nobody wants to be surprised, or seen to be asking basic questions in front of others. So you show individuals the work first, and they can give feedback freely. The final presentation to everyone becomes a formality.

While there is a lack of efficiency in such a practise, we can’t ignore the universal need for careful consensus building, or “preparing the roots”. Our need to be efficient is sometimes in conflict with the pace of change that an organisation can handle. Some cultures (both nations and organisations) are faster than others in handling change: it’s up to us to be good scouts, and learn ahead of time how it might receive an idea, particularly in hierarchies. It’s a kind of ‘slowing down to speed up’ (an idea I’ve spoken about in the past).

The tension I’ve found when practising it, is that it takes time to get people up to speed, time they often don't want to give you. It would be great if you could just send the presentation by email and expect them to ‘just get it’, but as design doesn’t speak for itself, that’s a tough call. You need some time to warm people up to the ideas.

So how can we put it into practise in small ways?

Tips

  1. Start small. If you’re looking to talk to a very senior stakeholder, try sending them a smaller part of the work to gauge interest, or even just engage in short email dialogue that might lead to a meeting, e.g. “I’ve found out x, would you be interested in learning more?”
  2. Find your allies. These are the people who are close to power, know how successful change has happened in the past, and how to present it to the right people.
  3. Find expert outsiders. One of the power moves an external or new person can make, is finding outsiders (like consultants) who can give a more objective view of how the organisation functions. I’ve always made an effort to speak to the people who created existing, relevant research when starting something new.
  4. Be explicit about avoiding surprises. It’s reassuring when you tell people that you’re looking to avoid surprising them in almost any context - think utility bills, or repair work to your home. Knowing what’s coming builds more trust.

Nemawashi can test your patience, but when you get it right, you can be the source of major change in any organisation. Hell, they might even end up thinking it was their idea - and frankly, if it’s a positive change, and you get some credit, let em have it.


Bonus: five power phrases

Jared Spool’s Leaders of Awesomeness programme sent me a great email last week containing the following five phrases for UX people, relevant to this week’s email. Presented without comment (or a link, as there isn’t one...):

  • “How can I help you be successful?”
  • “Let’s talk about outcomes first.”
  • “Where is this priority coming from?”
  • “What I hear you saying is…”
  • I’m trying to avoid surprising you down the road.

Japan update

Last week I had the great honour of keynoting UX Days Tokyo with my new talk, sharing many of the lessons from Death by Screens. The other speakers were, frankly, awesome. Having never visited Japan, but admiring the culture for so long, it turned out to be a magical trip. Not least because the Sakura were blossoming, with people celebrating under cherry blossom trees everywhere. Can't wait to go back!

I also now have a Japanese publisher! Thanks to the strong interest in the subject of the book we’ll likely see a Japanese edition of the book in the next year or so (probably with a new title, as it doesn’t really work in direct translation).

The day after the conference, I had thirty designers attend my day-long workshop. It was an awesome day, and I managed to get them working and laughing together despite the language barrier. I learned a lot from them too: many of the methods in the book aren't applicable in Japan without some tweaking. Strong nemawashing vibes.

Oh.. and they made badges OF MY FACE for attendees! 🤣 Until next time...

Death by Screens: the newsletter

by Ben Sauer

My book "Death by Screens: how to present high-stakes digital design work and live to tell the tale" - is here to help designers tell better stories about their work. Get three winning presentation tips from the book by signing up below!

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