Nemawashi. Digging around the roots for sustainable change.

A bramble root.
This beauty fought till the last. It came out of the ground to the sound of screams (mine). Just like a ‘Mandrake’. There are plenty of others left behind. My image.

Digging around the roots. If you’ve ever transplanted a tree, or spent time digging up deeply rooted brambles, you’ll get what I’m talking about here.

If you haven’t, I’d recommend it. There’s a lot to be learnt from nature*, and a bit of ’17th century Peasant work’ as my son described it. It does a lot to focus the mind, and occasionally makes you long for a desk based zoom meeting. If anyone is looking for a bramble digging experience, I have opportunities…

Carefully transplanting trees. The Japanese phrase Nemawashi has it’s origins in the activity of transplanting trees and literally means ‘digging around the roots’. Great care was taken to dig around the roots to avoid damaging them, and give the tree the greatest chance of survival in its new home. There’s even some talk of placing soil from the new location around the roots before you move the tree, so that it gets familiar with it. Its a serious business.

Outside of tree transplanting enthusiasts, the concept of Nemawashi has been adopted in Japanese manufacturing culture, most notably by Toyota, details here. The basic idea is that you talk informally with people about and idea before a formal decision. The ‘talking’ is a social, human process where you shape the idea and build consensus. This helps make the formal approval literally a ‘formality’. I’ve tried to capture the concept in the graphic below.

Sustainable change. For me, there’s a lot more to Nemawashi than just ‘socialising an idea’. It’s a more gentle and engaging approach to decision making. Done right you are involving lots of the people who will be affected by the idea or change. If you are willing to refine things as you go along, what you end up with might be different to the original concept. I think this is important. If you are seeking a large scale change, better to spend some time, ‘digging around the roots’ if you want it to be widely accepted and sustainable.

Diana Reynolds talks about how real change is a two way thing. You need to be prepared to change yourself, not just change everyone else. It’s closely associated with co-production, explained in this ‘quick tip’, How do I start co-producing?

The idea of changing your position might be a tough ask for people who are busy ‘driving through change’. However, I would argue that it gets a better result in the end. The view of many practitioners is that the time you spend on digging around the roots (talking) is amply paid back. Mainly by not having follow up meetings to put things right.

Nemawashi Nemesis. Nemawashi works in Japanese manufacturing culture, but in other ‘cultures’ you may have seen something ‘alternative’? For example, meetings where people appear to agree, but go away and resist or do the opposite. Dealing with that situation takes time and resources – better to have spent time beforehand ‘digging around the roots’.

Here are a few things that feel like the opposite of Nemawashi; (feel free to add yours).

  • Decisions made by a few people (central planing etc),
  • Driven through with ‘ruthless efficiency’ (often accompanied by a ‘road map’),
  • Arbitrary milestones and targets (to meet requirements higher up the hierarchy),
  • Broadcast communication (‘if we need to tell them 50 times, we tell them 50 times’), and
  • Lack of tolerance of questions or dissent (telling people they are ‘resistant to change’).

Less ‘yanking’ more gentle digging. Nemawashi is a metaphor that keeps on giving. Whilst I was working on the bramble roots it occurred to me that successful transplanting wasn’t my objective. I wanted them out of my potato patch, never to return… No need for gentle digging, some brutal ‘yanking’ will work fine, just force those roots out of the ground.

Unfortunately the ‘yanking’ doesn’t work, for a few reasons. First the bramble roots are powerfully anchored – to the point that you can bend the steel spikes in a heavy duty garden fork and nearly pass out in the process. Believe me! The second point is that ‘brutal yanking’ frequently damages the plant and leaves sizable chunks of root in the ground. I’ve learnt that these will come back to cause just as much trouble next year. Just like with transplanting – better to spend time digging around the roots. I’m sure there’s a useful metaphor somewhere in there about how the people who are labelled as ‘resistant to change’ are treated…

Nemawashi has close cousins. If you know anyone from Silicon Valley you might have heard them use the phrase ‘socialising an idea’? It’s not unreasonable to expect that lots of cultures will have their own version of Nemawashi. From a Welsh perspective I’m looking at Cloddio’r Pridd – digging the soil. I’m checking with my historical advisors about links to the ancient tribe of Silurians who lived around South Wales. I know we didn’t respond well to the change the Romans tried to impose upon us…

Keep talking – the bonus step. You might have noticed the ‘bonus step’ – Number 8, in the Nemawashi graphic? Lots of writing on Nemawashi suggest that talking and maintaining networks should be continuous. This left me wondering if the creation of informal networks really is an added ‘bonus’. Something that helps to build resilience into the organisations that practice it? The concept of informal networks, that can be activated at a time of crisis, is something Dave Snowden talks about in Managing complexity (and chaos) in times of crisis. A field guide for decision makers inspired by the Cynefin framework. Something else to think about…

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Informal conversations really work. It’s a social process where lots of things happen.
  2. Nemawashi, socialising a idea, co-production and cloddio’r pridd have lots in common. Its useful to find your cultural equivalent of ‘digging around the roots’ to create sustainable change.
  3. ‘Digging around the roots’ and carefully preparing for change is more effective in the long run than trying to ‘yank’ things out of the ground.
Some more roots. I don’t just pick on brambles. My image.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

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