Kenichi Ohmae is an impressive man. Visiting his office in downtown Tokyo is to step into a parallel universe of influence and connectivity. The building is also home for Ohmae, not to mention the slightly bewildering variety of businesses he is active in (a business school and broadcasting company among others). There is a concert hall in the building as well. Ohmae is, after all, a gifted flautist, not to mention a nuclear physicist, a prodigious author with dozens of books to his credit, politician and long-time star of the consulting firm, McKinsey and Company. Indeed, when he left McKinsey to stand for the governorship of Tokyo in 1995, the consultancy firm’s departure announcement noted Ohmae was “a great consultant, a compelling speaker, an incredibly prolific writer, a musician and a motorcyclist”. As career epitaphs go this is one most people would accept!
Among all his other books – and there are many not yet available in English – the one which stands out for its influence is The Mind of the Strategist. The book was published in Japan in 1975, but did not reach the American market until 1982.
The sub-title in the first edition was “the art of Japanese business” and the book was published in the West at the height of enthusiasm and interest in Japanese management methods — when the book was first published in Japan, the West remained studiously uninterested in the possibility of learning from Japanese best practice.
In The Mind of the Strategist Ohmae challenges the simplistic, but then widely held belief, that Japanese management was a matter of company songs and lifetime employment. Instead, Ohmae argues that Japanese success could be significantly attributed to the nature of Japanese strategic thinking. This, says Ohmae, is “basically creative and intuitive and rational” — though none of these characteristics were evident in the usual Western stereotype of Japanese management. Offering solace to the bemused and increasingly uncompetitive West, Ohmae suggests that the necessary creativity can be learned.
Ohmae points out that unlike large US corporations, Japanese businesses tend not to have large strategic planning staffs. Instead they often have a single, naturally talented strategist with “an idiosyncratic mode of thinking in which company, customers, and competition merge in a dynamic interaction out of which a comprehensive set of objectives and plans for action eventually crystallizes”.
Ohmae explains that an effective business strategy is one by which a company can gain significant ground on its competitors at an acceptable cost to itself. This can be achieved in four ways: by focusing on the key factors for success, by building on relative superiority, through pursuing aggressive initiatives, and through utilizing strategic degrees of freedom — focusing on innovation in areas, which are untouched by competitors. While the outcome or objective is the same from East to West, Japanese entrepreneurs use holistic and intuitive approach at the beginning, as opposed to statistics and surveys often used in large Western corporations.
The central thrust of the book is that strategy as epitomized by the Japanese approach is irrational and non-linear. (Previously, the Japanese had been feted in the West for the brilliance of their rationality and the far-sighted remorselessness of their thinking.) “In strategic thinking, one first seeks a clear understanding of the particular character of each element of a situation and then makes the fullest possible use of human brain power to restructure the elements in the most advantageous way,” writes Ohmae.
The Mind of the Strategist is not an unquestioning eulogy to the Japanese approach to strategy. Indeed, Ohmae notes the decline in naturally strategic thinkers in both Japan and the West. Both systems, he says, encourage orthodoxy to the extent that innovative strategic thinking is neither encouraged nor possible.
The Mind of the Strategist began the process of questioning the then pervasive Japanese mythology through providing interpretations of strategy which were not hidebound by habitual cultural or traditional behavior. It opened minds, a task Kenichi Ohmae is especially suited to.
Kenichi Ohmae, The Mind of the Strategist, McGraw Hill, 1991