Nemawashi (根回し) is the standard process of bringing people slowly around to your way of thinking before attempting to make a proposal.
In a western country, a proposal is generally considered logically, by judging its merits, drawbacks, costs, etc. In Japan, that is reserved for final stage of negotiations, if it even happens then. More important are the feelings of the people involved. Fire off some information with no context and you’ll surprise your colleague (or spouse, or buyer, or anyone else); request a quick response to that information, and you’ll probably offend them.
Even proposals that align with common sense and company policy require nemawashi. In short, you need to build momentum by getting anyone you can on board with your idea, especially the people closest to you, both horizontally and vertically. At the same time, you could ask questions of key people further away to plant the context in their mind, even if they don’t know that a proposal is coming or what your position might be.
The hard part is knowing the relevant information that’s behind the scenes. For example, the relationships of the people you are talking to—whether they have similar or different ideas about the sort of thing you’re proposing or about the overall direction of the company, and whether they have conflicted in the past. Also, knowing how people came into their current positions will help you discover past power structures, i.e., who will not want to feel like they are taking direction from whom. Finally, a general knowledge of how information will flow depending on who you give it to, including who is a listener, who is a talker, and who just wants to give directions.
Here’s a painful example that’s happening right now:
My initial rough job description, compiled by the president, includes cross-division responsibilities. This weekend there is an event that should trigger one of those responsibilities—not just one that I should perform, but one that will give me critical information that will help me do my job better. Unfortunately it’s in a different division than I am in.
I mentioned the event to a mid-rank person in that division casually, thinking that I’d be included in it, but he told me that because of the timing they would maybe call me next time.
I was surprised and went to my supervisor next. Unfortunately he’s not a great listener. I finally got my point across, but when he next approached my division chief he didn’t really pass along my core message.
At this point, the only person who could help me was the division chief of the other division, but my division chief then went to talk to the #2 over there—the guy who seemed to be opposed to my being involved, which none of us knew at the time. By going to him, my division chief cut off the ability of that division chief to override his decision.
My division chief came back and instructed my supervisor to sit down with me, then have a meeting with the other division chief and the #2. The next day I approached my supervisor and asked, “So what is the next step on this issue?”
He replied, “Now we wait until they call us to talk to us.”
In short, a fustercluck. And I’m not going to be able to be present at this event, which will just hurt the company. Oh well.
In the future, here’s what I’m going to do differently:
I’m going to mention these opportunities with my immediate coworkers, to see how they would approach the situation.
I’ll use my section chief, who is not relevant to these activities but who is a better listener.
I’ll gently remind my division chief at the right timing of what can be gained by having me fulfill these responsibilities, so that he gets the idea and so my supervisor won’t have the power to block communication so much.
At some point I’ll have to suss out the president regarding these responsibilities, which could be hard to do without raising an alarm in the other division.
Finally, I’ll have to somehow find out what the other division chief sees as my contributions to her group. That one will be the hardest. If she’s not on board with what the president outlined for me, then my overall contribution to this company could be very limited.