Social Innovation in Japan

I am back in the beauty of Japan.  Last week I worked with a group of 40 business leaders on social innovation.  We met in the autumn beauty of Nasu, a rural area north of Tokyo.  Those who came are the original members of the Future Center initiative from Fuji Xerox’s KDI — Knowledge Management Initiatives.  KDI began 10 years ago, working with the ideas of Professor Nonaka around knowledge management.  They’ve begun to see that knowledge management is important, but what is essential is creating new spaces and processes by which innovation can occur.

We gathered in a lovely room, in a sparse and beautiful circle to begin our time together.  The day began with each person introducing themselves with a movement — what were they here to do.  We used this sense of sparseness and brevity many times during our two days together.  Seeing how little could be said to express a fullness. Time unfolded.

The Japanese word “ba” is translated literally as “place.”  But it actually means much more. The essence of coming together in Japan is the creation of good ba — the creation of a space of hospitality, respect, deep listening, high regard.  Because of their cultural attunement to ba, it is normal to have a conversation which references the good ba that is present in the room.  We had good ba in Nasu.  The stated purpose of our time together was to introduce the KDI Future Centers to Art of Hosting practices.  They already know that a core part of their work to spark innovation is to host conversations that matter.  The context we worked in was their personal and professional dreams for the future. The deeper purpose of this time was to deepen a field of relationships so they can support each other in the coming months and years as they and others create future centers.

We had silent walks in the lovely surrounding forest.  We brought out play doh and used it to model the Future Center they dreamed of. We sat together and talked in pairs and in World Cafe sessions.  We harvested — often asking for just one word.  The conversations were animated and powerful.  In so many ways people came alive in this authentic space.  Of course, they always do!  I was somewhat surprised at the length of the pause at the beginning of our one Open Space Technology session.  In my western mind, I simply judged it as Japanese hesitancy to stand up.  But my colleague Takahiko Nomura gave it another frame.  “You know about KY, don’t you,” he asked.  I shook my head and he went on to explain it to me.  Kuuki yomenai means “not reading the air.”  He went on to explain that his experience of the pause was that people were being careful not to be judged to be KYing; instead they were “reading the air” to see what they might offer in Open Space which would be of deepest service to the group.  Such a subtle and interesting shift from “what do I want to present” to “what do I think will be of greatest service to this group at this time.”

It is things like this which continue to blow me away in Japan.  There is a deep cultural competence about being in relationship — with each other and with the planet as a whole.  After 150 years of the so-called modern era, people know something else is needed.  AND, they are discovering how to work together to get it.

In my work here I keep coming back to a couple of key points.  The first is that the Meiji Restoration of 150 years ago ended the feudal era in Japan and ushered in the modern era.  It feels like these are the beginning years of a new Japan Restoration.  The second is to use a proverb in Japan — “the nail that sticks up is pounded down” — to ask how the rich weave of relationships here might be used to help all nails stand up?

The Japan I was introduced to 40 years ago is barely visible. Three, let alone four-generation families have almost disappeared. It is nearly impossible to have an omiai (arranged marriage). Life-time employment is simply a distant memory. It would have been unthinkable then that the vigorous middle aged men and women who lived in the single family homes near my host family in Fushimi-ku in the south of Kyoto would live alone 40 years later as widows and widowers. The idea that there would be a rising population of dokushin josei (bachelor women) and that the size of the Japanese population would be declining would have been unimaginable. People probably wouldn’t be as surprised that the uncompromising pressure on Japanese secondary school students would only get worse.

Last year’s defeat of the LDP after 54 years of almost continuous power is one obvious sign of the changes gripping Japan. But it is only visi­ble because it is something we know how to look for. What’s less obvious is the churning going on beneath the surface as people of all ages and all walks of life are stopping to question what Japan society is today and what they want it to be. It is an exciting time filled with possibilities.

The commitment people from these Future Centers have to finding a new way forward is refreshing.  They know innovation is essential and they know it has to come from the community as a whole.

Great to be here!

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4 thoughts on “Social Innovation in Japan”

  1. Hi Bob,

    Thank you very much for describing what you felt at the Nasu workshop. As you wrote, we KDI have been fostering a community of change leaders who struggle to transform their companies based on the concept of the Knowledge-creating Company, which was coincided by Professor Ikujiro Nonaka. Prof Nonaka wrote his famous book, named Knowledge-creating Company, about “ba” and knowledge creating process in organizations in 1995. His definition of “ba” was “shared context in motion.” He emphasized a characteristic of good ba as a combination of the sense of community and it’s dynamic changes. I believe the principles of good “ba” is similar to the principles of AoH.

    I’m very excited to host the 4th Future Center Summit, which will be held at KDI in Tokyo, with Bob and our Future Center Community members. The information about the Summit is as follows:

    Happy Future!

  2. I cannot believe that that was happened only two weeks ago. Those two weeks, every single day was a new day for me. I have been thinking about many things happening in my workplace connecting to concepts of AoH and “Future Center (FC)”.

    And I found a lot.

    Actually, I can not say that I fully captured the harvest of the meeting at the end of it. I think I’m in a step of figuring out the meaning of the session one by one. The latest thing I got was the actual meaning of “Appreciative Inquiry”. Now I’m looking for is the meaning of “elegance”.

    This workshop reminds me that I’m (or our company is) not alone. There are many reformist allies and we can use the power of us each other. That will be the image of FC community. This encourages me a lot.

    Well, I’ll back to my work and have to pick up a next minimum “elegant” step from many options. Thank you for your support.

    “Live long and prosper!”

  3. Delighted to find you both here, Taka and Hiro!

    This is very exciting work. “Shared context in motion,” yes I had forgotten that was the key definition of ba. And there seems to be a deep cultural competence in Japan around sharing of context. As we said in our design meeting the other day, the Berkana Institute frame of NAME:CONNECT:NOURISH:ILLUMINATE seems to have some value here. You have NAMED the shared context call Future Centers. You have begun to CONNECT Future Centers in Japan with each other, with Future Centers in other parts of the world, and with other enterprises doing the same work as Future Centers, but with a different name. The upcoming Global Summit with NOURISH them. And we will work to ILLUMINATE them to themselves, as well as to the world.

    Yes, Exciting!

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