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SYPartners Interview with Jarin Tabata, Hints for Revitalizing Purpose in Japanese Companies


(Interviewer : SMO Mikiko Saito, Justin Lee)

 

Saito: It is a pleasure to see you after 3.5 years.

Jarin: The last time I came to Japan was in December, 2019, just at the start of the pandemic, when Keith (Yamashita) and I visited SMO. I am now a Senior Advisor at SYPartners ("SYP") and I started my own private practice last summer.


Saito: Now that you have started your own business, what specific areas or projects will you be working on?


Jarin: I'm still working in Purpose and transformation, primarily focused on activating the Purpose, connecting the Purpose, Vision, and Strategy to the brand and experience, the verbal and visual identity and story, and their implementation. Being independent has been giving me more flexibility to work with more varied clients, in more varied engagements.

Saito: Now that you have experienced the pandemic and emerged from it, how do you feel looking back?


Jarin: The pandemic was a huge force for change. Everyone was forced to work remotely or do hybrid work. When people were unable to move for a while, "indigenization" became a keyword as well—people who seemed to be constantly on the move, had to be quiet, and their values changed. On the inside, people bonded more with their families and loved ones, and individuals spent more time reading, thinking, and self-examining. I think that's how people have become more deeply connected to their purpose. They found meaning in what they were doing and began to think more slowly and deeply about the world around them.


Challenges of Hybrid Work in the U.S.



Justin: Do you feel any differences between visiting Japan before and after the pandemic?


Jarin: I hear there is a big movement to return to offices in Japan. I took the train this morning and it did not seem so different from before the pandemic.


Saito: It is true that there is a trend to return to the office in some areas, but I think that the way of working is becoming more hybrid in Japan than before. What do you think about the hybrid situation in the U.S.?


Jarin: The hardest part is creating a culture for new employees. I myself found remote work to be comfortable and great, but a friend who has maintained an office told me that "all the young people want to come to the office, and more and more want to work for us just because we have an office." Young people want to feel part of something and learn, but it's hard to do that at home on a PC screen. So it's great that SMO also has this office (CIC Tokyo) where all can gather.


Saito: How do we balance where we work, how we feel, and foster a sense of belonging to a culture and community...these are issues that many companies are still grappling with.


Jarin: I myself learned a lot from working face-to-face with Keith at SYP for 7 years. I think everyone learns how to see, perceive, and think through their work, and there are many opportunities to wake up to that. I can't say the same for everyone, so I need to check my biases.


Changes in the Business Environment in "Beautiful Business"


Saito: I remember Jarin and Keith talking about “Beautiful Business” three years ago, just before the pandemic. Has that concept evolved?


Jarin: By "Beautiful Business", we mean more thoughtful, considered, humanistic business. I think stakeholder capitalism is a powerful idea that connects to the larger realm of how what we do, our business, and our lives affect others and other systems. Right now, there is a move toward decentralization and networked systems rather than a hierarchical approach, isn't there? I think this shift reflects how systems in nature work, and we can learn a lot from that.


Justin: What used to be about shareholder supremacy and a single stakeholder is now about every other party: the planet, customers, community, society, and the next generation. How do we manage this paradigm shift?


Jarin: There is a materiality assessment tool created by SYP that maps stakeholders. It uses a series of questions and metrics to understand how a number of decisions and actions affect different stakeholders. Systems, and networks, are so complex that it seems difficult or impossible to fully map a network and understand the impact of our actions on all of them, but tools like this will become more sophisticated and developed in the future. AI, for example, with its large-scale language models and appropriate prompts, will be a much better tool for understanding and engaging different stakeholders. Individually, it will help us look out beyond our biases and limited perspectives. I expect these tools to become more sophisticated and applicable to this problem.


A Global Perspective on Japan's Purpose Trend


Justin: Clearly, to deal with complexity, an anchor or guide is needed, and perhaps that is the role that Purposes can play. In Japan, "Purpose" has become a buzzword and is now being called a "Purpose Festival," with many companies announcing new Purposes over the past two years. (See the document.) Did you know about this situation?



Jarin: We understand that Purpose has become a big deal and a trend, and that there are many publications in Japan these days on the topic of Purpose.


Saito: Looking at Japan from a global perspective, what do you think of this movement?


Jarin: I think that the Purpose situation in Japan is parallel, albeit happening later than in the US. First, we are in the first step of "becoming aware" of the power of anchoring an organization's existence to a greater good or greater meaning, which is a great thing. What happens next is "activating and actualizing" that purpose. It is one thing to make a statement, and quite another to make it real. How to make the purpose real for employees, customers, and society... This requires creative work, not to mention budget and persistence. Now that we have created their Purpose, companies have to activate and realize it. This is where the true power of purpose is unleashed.

Saito: So, what are some examples of activation and realization in the U.S., which is a few years ahead of Japan?

Jarin: There has been a lot of talk about the amazing letter, the radical action Patagonia took at the end of last year. The founders of Patagonia are realizing Purpose and structuring everything on a larger level to make it real in the world.


Saito: Taking a quick look at the Purpose Statement in Japan, do you see any differences compared to the U.S. or other countries?


Jarin: What I found from this "PURPOSE STATEMENT LIST 2023" is that many of the statements are rather broad and vague, such as "to advance society" or "to make life more convenient". That's fine, but the more vague the purpose, the harder it is to activate in a meaningful way. For example, if it's progress or advancement, for whom and by what metrics? There is much strategic definitional work that needs to follow such high level purpose statements.


Saito: Do you have any advice for companies that have such a vague path on how they should go about realizing that path?


Jarin: A vision is born from a path, but I think it is better to focus on the vision and make it clear that "this is what we are aiming for, this is what we are trying to do".

Saito: One problem is that many Japanese managers seem to think that they have to formulate a "Purpose" because "everyone else is doing it", but I don't think they give much thought to the subsequent activation and penetration of the Purpose.


Jarin: I guess it would be if companies have the power, such as incentives and motivation, to push for it. If companies like Patagonia start to realize that they are making a difference, starting something for Purpose and creating a story, I think we will see another wave of other companies saying, "This is what this company is doing", but I don't think we are there yet.

Saito: In terms of the transformation around the path after it has been developed, the path activation, and the transformation around the path, it seems like we are still in that phase in Japan, but what about the challenges and obstacles in the US, where we are already several years ahead of the curve?


Jarin: From the creation of the statement, to the series of actions that make the story a reality, to the more evolved details and brand graphics & language.…there is much to do. But to make all of these elements connect, to make them feel like they all speak to the same philosophy—that excites me when I think about it. But from a leadership aspect, it requires a lot of thoughtful intent, attention to detail, and care for people and the world. The challenge is to think about how your company will impact society over a long time horizon, and to design systems to do that.




Saito: In terms of advice to Japanese companies that have just established a Purpose Statement, please let us know if there are any tools or methods that would be useful in revitalizing it.

Jarin: SYP often uses a tool called the 'transformation map'. This is a very useful framework to help us connect purpose to strategy—what we want to see in the world, what we want to impact, and what our strategic pillars are. 


I think you always need to define and focus, and then check yourself along the way. "Does our brand reflect the system we're describing?", "Does it need to be expressed differently?" "Does it need to look different?" "What is the story we want to tell?" "Who are the various stakeholders?" We will ask these questions.


It is also important to find a balance between defining things too much and defining them to the point where they can be understood and embodied. Where they have enough space and flexibility for people to make the purpose their own. While striking that balance, we will determine what is unique to us and what is organizational work.




Encounters with interesting projects during the pandemic


Saito: Is there an actual Purpose project underway in Japan?


Jarin: There are many things that could not be done due to the pandemic, things that have been closed down, etc. This trip is also a business trip to reestablish development in Japan. There is a lot of new energy in Japan right now to accomplish something.

We would love to help Japanese companies "Design for Purpose", or in other words, organizations that have a Purpose to activate it by connecting their vision and strategy, brand expression, experience, and product to realize it as a single journey. The challenge is that the larger the project, the slower the speed of realization.

Saito: In that sense, is there great potential for startups?


Jarin: I think startups will grow more in the future. At Harvard Business School, 70% of graduates of the business program used to want to go to large companies, but now 70% want to go to startups, so I think there is an interesting change taking place.


Saito: Please tell us about any startups or impactful projects that you have been involved in over the past few years, especially during the pandemic period.

Jarin: The Airbnb project I was involved in during the pandemic was very interesting. We delved into the perspective of what hosting is. It's about caring for people, opening up your space, helping people get used to the area. And unlike extractive tourism, perhaps giving people the opportunity to integrate into the community and contribute something. Airbnb is trying to do that, which is great.

 

A project SYP is leading is around AI and ethics. When we started, when data was a hot topic, we focused on data, started with data ethics, created a consortium group that companies could join, and then formulated a question to focus on to build solutions and tools for the consortium. The theme at the time was for companies to have ethical data policies, but now, years later, it has become much more AI-focused.

Personally in terms of AI, I'm working on a project with the first generation of innovators in Silicon Valley, some amazing data scientists who have been inventing at the cutting edge of AI for decades, and they have developed a product called CloudSmart to help teams and organizations navigate the uncertain business environment. CloudSmart is a patented, AI-driven tool. It acts as a super-facilitator for meetings with as many as thousands of people— analyzing and grouping their ideas, and then synthesize them at super speed to reveal: these are the ideas that are most important and most relevant to the entire group. The CEO and interns can contribute ideas on the same footing because it is anonymous, which can lead to ideas that would never come up in a typical (human-only) meeting. It is very interesting to help human intelligence partner with AI, and I think this is the way we can get the most our of AI without falling into some of its truly negative potential implications. And, if large groups can share reality and define it collectively with tools like this, I think we can see the interactions with actual reality and the predictive elements.


Saito: That sounds like they are already far beyond our expectations.


Jarin: There is a concept called self-fulfilling prophecy, and I believe in it. In a decentralized system, what we agree upon and define is reality, from which we create our future together. We need to understand what is happening to each other and work together to resolve uncertainties. There are dangers in just relying completely on technology, but I believe that technology can help us collectively create better futures, in the face of uncertainty.


Saito: In these uncertain times, we are making good use of AI and technology to do what only humans can do, and we are moving forward. I think that is what we are trying to do. As for the realization of Purpose, I think it is something that cannot be done by AI, because it is related to human instincts and emotions. I hope we will both deepen this activity. Thank you very much for visiting us today.


Jarin: Thank you for inviting me.


 


Jarin Tabata

Senior Advisor, SYPartners


Jarin led a variety of projects at SYP, including a global culture and behavior change project for IBM, envisioning a consumer-facing future for UnitedHealthcare, helping Airbnb define the host experience, co-leading an initiative with IDEO to reinvent aging, and creating a new business in Tokyo that combines beautiful spaces, the practice of mindfulness, and the power of innovation to unlock Japanese corporate culture. In 2022, he became a Senior Advisor to SYPartners, and now leads his own independent global transformation and innovation practice.

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