After moving back to the U.S. after 10 years in Japan, one of the aspects of culture shock I felt was how hierarchical the decision-making process in the U.S. is. Although the generally “healthy debate” and “may the best idea win” approach to decision-making permeates U.S. culture, I found this is often mitigated by a lack of power-sharing by top execs, who in a real way operate in a system where glory results in more money. Humility is often seen as weakness.

Still, I think the U.S. benefits from a model where ideas are in competition with each other, and there is a ‘winner’ among the pool of presented ideas. This approach results in a much more quick and agile decision-making process than Japan. The problem is that it sacrifices long term organizational health in comparison to the Japanese approach.

The Japanese are famous for being slow decision-makers. This is because, in Japan, harmony and consensus is prioritized over quick decision-making. Some people like to talk about the Japanese ‘saving face,’ and ‘reserving their true thoughts’ for private conversations in informal settings. But I think there’s a different way to look at the long, consensus and compromise approach to Japanese decision-making: It nurtures and protects long-term collective intelligence.

When one let’s go of the ‘best way forward,’ and allows the team (in my experience including teams of 40-50 people) to talk collectively about a subject over the span of weeks (often over a daily, morning meeting), then even if everything isn’t expressed openly, a much more complex understanding of the issue, the connected issues, and the larger system which fostered the issue, can settle in for both the collective and individual.

Perhaps the decision is less than timely, and also not the ‘best’ one, since it incorporates thoughts from diverse set of minds, but what is gained is a deeper utilization of collective intelligence. This collective intelligence is made up of individuals who have not only a complex understanding of the system, but also an understanding on how each of their team members thinks. This knowledge can be used daily, in normal business operations. 

There is real anti-fragility in the Japanese approach. A singular super computer may work faster than a network of regular computers, but if the fan breaks on the super computer you’re screwed, whereas a few fans could break on your network and you might barely notice.

I remember years ago reading an article about how Bandai had planned out their strategy for the Gundam brand for the next hundred years. The article considered it a waste of resources. Not only that the author of the article said it would hinder adaptability in a rapidly changing world. What the author didn’t consider was the collective intelligence creating such a plan would nurture. In Japan lifetime employment (though decreasing) is still prevalent. The Gundam brand keeps plugging along as healthy as ever, while U.S. hobby companies come and go. 

Sometimes it’s better to let go of the best way forward, in favor of harmony.