I started my career working in one of Japan’s “big five” trading companies. I enjoyed the job, except for one thing: the meetings.
Various unwritten rules governed how meetings were conducted. It was understood that the only people with the right to speak were elderly males high up in the hierarchy. The rest of us—like children in Victorian times—were only meant to speak when we were spoken to. Speaking up spontaneously was frowned on and came with risk.
Besides, even when someone junior had the guts to speak out, it was very unlikely to make a difference. Why? Because every meeting’s outcome had already been decided in advance among the key players. (This practice is called nemawashi. The term comes from gardening and refers to digging around the roots of a tree prior to transplanting it.)
For the first years of my working life, most of the meetings I took part in were just hollow, formal ceremonies where creative discussion was stifled, not encouraged.
I always thought there had to be a better way to do things. To me, a meeting should not just be a place to exchange information and make decisions; it should be a place where you can educate and motivate yourself through interaction with other people. A “good” meeting should expose you to positive role models and behaviors that reaffirm the fundamental values of the company.
That’s why, when I set up my own firm after coming back from the US, I consciously set out to do everything in opposition to Japanese tradition and exclude all the bad, old practices of seniority, male dominance, rubber-stamping, etc.
To make sure that meetings at our company achieve the objective of educating and motivating, I even devised “The Meeting Way”—five simple guidelines to ensure that our meetings are positive experiences for all concerned.
1. Clear Agenda and Punctual Start
The person in charge of the meeting has to inform everyone taking part about the agenda 48 hours in advance so they can prep themselves. The meeting must also start right on time.
2. Clear Goals and Duration
The person in charge has to open proceedings by stating clearly what the meeting’s goal is. The second thing to communicate is what time the meeting is scheduled to end. (We aim for one hour maximum and an average of half an hour.)
3. Constructive and Focused Discussion
Wacky and creative ideas should be listened to with respect, not rejected automatically. We want to hear the widest possible range of opinions while also adhering to the agenda. Irrelevant, emotional, irrational, or overly long comments are not welcome.
4. Disagreement and Commitment
Once the majority has reached a decision, everyone—even those people who disagree—have to commit to it. (This is an idea we took from Hewlett-Packard.)
5. 24-hour Reporting
A report of the meeting should be mailed out within 24 hours. It must also be sent to those people who for one reason or another were unable to attend the meeting. If any of the absentees have a serious objection to the outcome, they can request the reconvening of the meeting and even overturn the original outcome. This “right of protest” ensures there is no coercion at any point in the decision-making process.
Thanks to these five principles, our meetings are not just effective, efficient, and punctual. They are also democratic, transparent, and totally credible.
I should add that, as the boss of the organization, I do my very best to keep quiet and stay out of the way during meetings in order to encourage everyone else to come forward and speak. Doing nothing to achieve the best results is a leadership philosophy I really believe in.
I believe that the fact that we give everyone a voice within a constructive framework was a major reason why OpenWork, a website that evaluates companies based on direct employee feedback, listed us as the No.1 company for motivated employees in all Japan.
So yes, incredible though it may sound, meetings can be motivating, rather than soul-destroying, and fun rather than boring!