He was struggling with the words to get the interviewer to understand. Why was this so difficult? He realized there is no real conversation between paradigms.
He knew the interviewer meant well, so he wanted to give a good answer. But despite the interviewer’s knowledge of cinema, manga, anime and Japanese culture, the very fact the question was asked suggests lack of perspective. How is Japanese cinema and story telling different from the American one? He smiled and thought to himself that they might as well have asked him “how is a sheep different than a calculator”?
Yet he still tried to give a good answer. And he chose his words carefully, his response should not only explain, but also be in itself an example. He looked at the interviewer, a pleasant smile across his face, and said:
“American cinema is about addition, Japanese cinema is about subtraction”.
The interviewer smiled, feigned understanding, and apparently satisfied that the answer sounded smart and cryptic enough to make the question look good, moved on.
Pity. The idea of subtraction has been in my head lately. There was Nassim Taleb talking about how omission does not have unintended side-effects and is therefore a robust strategy (as opposed to addition). There was Bas Vodde essentially saying LeSS was more robust than SAFe because they were less bloated. And then this Japanese director poetically laying down the truth while bridging paradigms.
It is hard to tell a story with only a few words. It takes real craftsmanship. But if you can pull it off, it will be more powerful than all the words in the world because it can only be about purpose. There is no added fat, no filler material, no gratuitous anything. Like Aretha, it’s pure soul.
I couldn’t help but see a parallel to the coaching and Agile transformation work I do. Companies hire consultants to help solve some problem, and consultants (as Taleb likes to point out) typically make money by adding things to the organization, not subtracting. A new project management framework, a new electronic tool to handle your Product Backlog and taskboards, a new ideation process, a new… thingamajig. Unnecessary additions. Just like this last phrase.
But in today’s complex work environment of knowledge workers, addition is likely the wrong strategy. Organizational leaders need to spend their efforts scaling down their organizational complexity instead of trying to scale-up anything. Forget about adding yet-another-quick-fix on top of the rubble of all previous quick fixes. What they need is to start removing everything that is not essential. Leave only the loose boundaries that help self-organizing teams deliver. This process of subtraction, much like Japanese cinema, would help them re-discover something they lost a long time ago - their purpose.
Every time I start coaching at a new company, management wants answers to all sorts of addition-type questions. When in reality, I would rather take them in the opposite direction. What can we simplify or remove? And I’ve come to realize there is one question that reigns supreme when it comes to these transformations. It’s the question great organizations can answer on the spot, without thinking. It’s the question that weak organizations stumble on, often times stuttering a long-winded, meaningless answer full of hype-type words like “innovative”, “disruptive”, “changing”, “new” or “value”. The question?
What is your purpose as an organization? How are you a value-add to your stakeholders?
The answer to this question is going to guide your subtraction exercise as it helps you understand what is essential and non-essential. It’s only by scaling down your organizational complexity, getting rid of the rubble and fat, that you can start with the interesting changes. And if you don’t know the answer to that question, the de-cluttering exercise will help you find it out.
Because if you can’t answer this question, you don’t know what to simplify. And so you will go back to addition. And back to expensive consultants who can give you new ideas of what to add next. And you will try to adopt Scrum, and you will evaluate which Agile scaling framework is better suited for your organization, and you will use all the appropriate buzzwords, eloquently explaining the difference between a Minimum Viable Product and a Minimum Marketable Product. You will have managers do stand-ups, and engineers give kudo cards. You will do all these things. All these additions. All these changes.
And nothing will change.