Design Thinking in Japan; what works and what doesn't?

“Brittany, do you still speak Japanese?”

“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.

The next time you’re running a Design Thinking workshop in Japan and are stuck between ideation and prototyping, try this method and let me know how it went!



Is understanding cultural context worth the investment?

What's the return on investment of understanding the cultural context of your new markets?

Here's an example for you...

Imagine you're moving to Berlin to open the European desk of your organisation and you're looking for an apartment to live in during your time there. 

The real estate agent organises an apartment viewing and while, you're happy with the apartment and its location, you recognise there is no kitchen. You find this very odd and ask your real estate agent on earth where the kitchen is and they reply, "Sorry, we don't have any properties in our portfolio with kitchens."

What, not a single apartment with a kitchen? Crazy! 

You would right this agency off as untrustworthy, unprofessional even, and look for a new agency. However, the same thing happens again. They also show you three new properties, ALL with no kitchen. You begin to question if maybe you're the crazy one.

Here's some context for you, if you're looking to rent or buy property in Berlin, it's probably helpful to know than the majority of apartments come WITHOUT a kitchen. 

Imagine how different your experience would have been if you were prepared. Imagine when you contacted the real estate agent, they said, "We'd be happy to help you look for a property. It's probably useful to know that most of our clients look for properties without a kitchen as they wish to install their own. As you're not our typical local client, I'd just like to confirm if you'd like to see our portfolio with or without kitchens?"

You'd, of course, reply, "I'm new in the city and am most definitely only interested in viewing the apartments with a kitchen."

Et voilà, the situation did not change, your information changed. You now know what to expect as your enter this new market, allowing you more time and energy to focus on setting up your business. 

The ROI is not simply knowing the 'top 10 cultural facts,' it's about being prepared and not making costly mistakes. 

Until next time,


Change your subject line & your chance of success

If you’re applying for an internship in Australia, you’re walking a difficult path. The concept of internships do not exist in Australia like they do in Europe or Asia. This means you are not only selling yourself but you’re selling the entire concept of ‘internships.’ To further stress the situation, if you’re writing to a company for the first time, you don’t get an elevator pitch nor even a 30 second pitch. You get a subject line pitch. That’s it.

Your dream, whether it’s working in Australia or anything else in life, begins with someone, somewhere in the position to make that happen, OPENING YOUR EMAIL.

Read More

This accent is for real, My first Keynote in German.

As we began getting into the details of the event, I recognised something was terribly wrong.

“Sorry, just to clarify, the 1 hour Keynote will of course be in English, will it not?”

“No, of course not. Brittany, this the German Entrepreneur and Enterprise Day.”


Admittedly, I’d be somewhat shocked if the Australian Entrepreneur and Enterprise Day was held in German.

She heard my silence.

“Brittany, your German is perfectly fine. We’re speaking German now, and the workshops you do are outstanding, that’s why I’m calling you.”

Silence again.

Before I go on, you must know about the Honourable Lord Mayor of Melbourne, John So. John So was remarkable for many reasons. Not only was he the first Lord Mayor ever to be elected by the people, he was also the first Lord Mayor of Chinese descent and consequently, the first Lord Mayor to not speak the Queen's English. Queue the Commonwealth shock. He endured heavy criticism surrounding his accented English from the mainstream media, yet his ability to win the hearts of people never faltered and until very recently was the longest serving Lord Mayor of Melbourne.

I remember precisely the "John So is my Bro" t-shirst and thought if the Lord Mayor of Melbourne can have an foreign accent and win the hearts of people, then by jolly, so can I. 

I went ahead and said yes.

Then I remembered, I am not John So.

And got nervous again.

Being able to speak German is one thing. Being able to speak German in a coherent 60 min Keynote is quite another. In moments such uncertainty, I turn to my secret guiding star -YouTube.  I came across an endearing video of Ariana Huffington at the infamous INBOUND conference. Ariana, originally from Greece, made her money and moreover, her legacy in media and communications. She refers her accent as "the bain of [her] existence" and unapologetically opened her speech with, “For those who have not heard me speak before, this accent is for real.”  

I laughed out loud. 

Brilliant, I thought, I've just found my introduction.  

I'm not Ariana but perhaps I can use her joke.


Statistics say people would rather die than speak in public. Jerry Seinfeld joked that the person giving a eulogy would rather be in the coffin. Yet, people LOVE being entertained, particularly at your cost. All the audience wants to do is learn from the times you’ve thrown yourself on the line so they don’t have to and all the speaker wants to do is come across as polished as possible. It doesn’t work. One has got to give.

My goal was to allow my terrible accent to inspire them. Perhaps, they'd have a 'if she can do with that accent, so can I!' moment. Perhaps, they'd leave the room with more courage and fire to present their businesses in public forums. I wanted that of the millions things they had to do that today, they left feeling more excited and inspired about their lives simply from remembering one must not need to be perfect to share their story. 

Your audience wants to learn from you how THEY can be better. Not simply have you explain to them how great your are for 60 minutes.

This also explains why a speaker can deliver a talk with all the "right" information and do all the "right" things, yet you still feel something is missing. Do any of your university professors also come to mind? That something was them. They weren’t there. They were scared to show you they make mistakes, so they stuck to the facts and left stories at the door.

Your audience wants to learn from you how THEY can be better. Not simply have you explain to them how great you are for 60 minutes. As the speaker, it’s your job to lead by being vulnerable and representing, in real time mind you, how to make mistakes and move forward anyway. An accent is a short cut to building trust and a closer relationship with your audience.

Until next time my fellow explorer,