Design Thinking in Japan

Design Thinking in Japan; what works, what doesn’t and why?

Insights from a Design Thinking facilitator

launchlabs: “Brittany, do you still speak Japanese?”

Brittany: “Sure; you never really forget, just like riding a bike.”

And with one phone call, my 5 year hiatus of working in Japan was broken.

Together with an extremely talented and even kinder co-facilitator, off we went to Tokyo to run a series of Design Thinking sessions (and yes, in Japanese) for almost 200 participants.

Design Thinking mirrors the more traditional Japanese management principles of Kaizen 改善, Kanban 看板 and The Toyota Way. The focus is on people, empathy and iteration. Yet, we don’t see Design Thinking as readily embraced in Japan as we would expect. Design Thinking can be difficult to execute amongst Japanese participants if you facilitate the session with no sensibilities of the Japanese culture. However, I’ll save the post dedicated to the challenges of Design Thinking in Japan for another day.

Right now, I’ll share with you a method that actually does work – Round Robin. Round Robin is an ideation method that encourages group alignment by building on each other’s ideas through written and silent brainstorming.

After 40 hours of Design Thinking, Round Robin was the clear favourite Design Thinking method and in hindsight it’s not hard to understand why. Let’s go into the reasons this method may work so well.

1. Silent, written, collaborative methods break down seniority hierarchies

There are two common hierarchies in Japan, both of which are founded in the principle of seniority. Seniority is achieved either through chronological age or years spent at an organisation.

With a trained eye, you can often guess the chronological age but company seniority is much more delicate field; where standard small talk can become a battlefield of formal Keigo(敬語)and uncertantiy. Moving from oral to written communication, helps breakdown these structures.

For example:

Nice to meet you Matsushita-San.

Likewise, Katō-San.

Which department are you working in?

I’m in CRM and you?

I’m in MKT. CRM is the newly formed task force group right?

Yes, I joined the company to set up and manage the new business initiatives.

Oh great to hear, good luck! Let me know if my department can assist you in any way.

I will, thank you for the offer.

There you have it; an example of how a simple, short conversation can set the foundation of their entire business relationship. Matsushita-San has been at the company a longer time and is now considered senior and Katō-San should act and speak accordingly.

In the Round Robin method, all ideation is done without discussion. This is an advantage as it’s not necessary to manage the sensitivities usually present when those of different hierarchies come and collaborate.

2. Structured roles fast track feedback and consensus

I often hear, “the Japanese don’t share what they think.”

A more accurate description would be, “Japanese take a long time to share what they think.”

For those more familiar with a fast pace conversation, from the moment you invite the Japanese to share what they think, to the moment the begin to open up can feel like an eternity. An eternity of slight head tilting, short breaths through the teeth, looks left and right to see how others are responding and endless strings of「どうしましょうか。どうでしょうか。どうですかね。」.

The hardest thing in the world, for me at least, is to shut up and sit through this silence. I’ve been practising for 10 years and still I need to guide myself through conversations. I ask a question. Silence. I go to clarify, thinking maybe I wasn’t clear. Then I say no, wait stop, hold on another 30 seconds, and sure enough before my 30 second time box is up, comes,「実は、我々にとって。。。」

Much time is invested in conversation as there’s no clearly structured starting point. Do we start with the good, the bad, the questions? Where?! The Round Robin structures the conversation and takes the ambiguity out of leading the discussion. You start with Idea 1, move on to why Idea 1 will fail, then build Idea 1.2 based on previous feedback – easy.

3. Utilises the exceptional high wrote language skills common to the Japanese

How is it that Japanese people can write perfect emails in English, yet when it comes to having that exact same written conversation in the spoken word, they struggle? This is for me a question for the ages.

If the seminar is in English, most likely not but in the off case it is, you can prevent the native English speakers from steamrolling the Japanese by utilising their exceptional high wrote language skills.

The Round Robin technique is in written form and doesn’t rely on participants being extroverted or able to verbally communicate their thoughts.

4. Manages the Un-said in high context cultures

The Round Robin also manages high context cultures, where the importance lies in how something is said or moreover, what is not said.

“That’s going to be difficult” says Sakamoto-San.

“Tell me exactly where the challenge is for you and let’s see how we can support you.”

Japanese manager looks at me in panic and his eyes say, ‘tell him what I really mean so I don’t have to.’

I jump in.

“Mr. Müller, without reallocating resources from Department B, Sakamoto-San and his team simply don’t have the capacity to take on a new project before the end of this financial year.”

Round Robin requires you to write down your thoughts and pass it along to the next person with no verbal explanation so you need to be explicit. You can’t reply on tonality to communicate your real thoughts, i.e. that COULD work, that could WORK.

Of course, there are still many issues surrounding the execution of Design Thinking in Japan. For example, one of the foundation blocks of design thinking, the “How might we” method translates very poorly to Japanese. Another is that rapid oral brainstorming (aka territory mapping, brain dumping) is a complicated initial methodology for the Japanese market, and we’ve just seen why. That being said, the more we practice, the more success stories we have and therefore, the more likely we are to build best practices for Japan.

Japan is and always will be my first love and my wish is to simply share the cultural sensitivities I’ve learnt along the way help you achieve better relationships with your partners and clients.

At launchlabs, we strive to make your Design Thinking experience unique. Your teams can learn who to use this versatile skill set, not on our terms, but on yours. Reach out to launchlabs today should you be looking to for a learning experience that will also fit the cultural sensitivities of your team.


A big thank you goes to Brittany for sharing her insights, for her amazing intercultural work and the photo!

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