During a past business trip to Japan, I had the opportunity to reflect on the factors that make it challenging for innovation to thrive in the country. Over two weeks, which was longer than my usual visits, I engaged in client meetings, media interviews, interactions with my company’s Japan office staff, social gatherings with friends, and participation in various events.
These experiences led me to three key observations that shed light on the difficulty of fostering innovation in Japan today. If you’ve ever worked at a Japanese company, then these observations may sound all too familiar.
1. Value the Metric of Potential Over Traditional Business Metrics
In Japan, my interactions with business owners and individuals from the investment/finance industry revealed a predominant focus on traditional “business” aspects, such as company size, annual sales, capitalization, profit margin, and market capitalization.
While these metrics may be relevant from a business standpoint, from an American perspective, I found this line of questioning to make for uncomfortable conversation.
In the United States, the emphasis lies in exploring the interesting aspects of a business, its contribution to society, its uniqueness, and its strengths. Investors and venture capitalists prioritize the business’s potential and differentiation rather than fixating solely on numerical figures.
If Japanese companies were to shift the evaluation criteria from financial success to innovation and distinctiveness, they will be able to overcome this significant hurdle in their pursuit of innovation.
2. Become Comfortable with Deviation from Tradition to Encourage Creative Thinking
To foster innovation and create something truly novel, it is crucial to challenge existing paradigms and approach problems from fresh perspectives.
However, in many Japanese companies, there seems to be an excessive reverence for established processes and conventions. Even minor deviations from the norm can be met with skepticism or viewed as inappropriate.
In contrast, American companies, particularly those located on the West Coast of the U.S., embrace playfulness in their work culture. From vibrant office interiors adorned with graffiti to individual work environments that encourage self-expression, they foster an atmosphere where new ideas can flourish. Meetings are often characterized by humor and lightheartedness, stimulating creativity.
In Japan, on the other hand, the prevailing sense of compliance often stifles the expression of interesting ideas. Additionally, the lack of diverse interactions outside of work limits the cross-pollination of ideas among individuals from different backgrounds.
By encouraging a more playful work environment and facilitating opportunities for diverse social interactions, Japan can unlock its innovation potential.
3. Reduce Overworking to Promote a Healthy Work Life Balance
One of the striking differences between Japan and the United States is the high cost of survival faced by employees in Japan. Excessive working hours and a pervasive prioritization of work over personal life lead to a lack of time for meaningful interactions outside of professional obligations.
Many Japanese employees find it challenging to meet with friends or attend events due to their demanding work schedules. This stark contrast to the work-life balance valued in the United States impedes the generation of new ideas and hampers the pursuit of innovative endeavors.
To foster innovation, Japanese companies should consider adopting policies that prioritize work-life balance, provide flexible work environments, and offer extended periods of leave. By reducing the burden of survival and creating an environment conducive to creativity, Japan can empower individuals to think beyond immediate tasks and focus on generating innovative solutions.
As an advocate for innovation, I have witnessed the emergence of promising developments within both established companies and startups in Japan. However, I also recognize the challenges posed by the current societal and cultural environment.
To reignite Japan’s innovative spirit, it is essential to redefine the evaluation criteria for entrepreneurs, embrace playfulness in work culture, and foster a healthier work-life balance. By creating an environment that values uniqueness, encourages unconventional thinking, and allows individuals the freedom to explore beyond the confines of work, Japanese companies can allow for the possibilities of innovation.
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