What do Mercedes-Benz U.S.A., Hewlett-Packard, and the Public Broadcasting Service have in common? When their CEOs, all running powerful brands faced with big-time challenges, needed original advice on how to make radical change for their companies, they called on the same consultant: Keith Yamashita, the 36-year-old cofounder and principal of Stone Yamashita Partners (SYP).
Keith Yamashita may be the most influential consultant you’ve never heard of. For nearly a decade, his firm’s eclectic team of designers, writers, and technologists (plus a poet, a sociologist, an ex-attorney, and not a single MBA) has tackled tough problems for some of the world’s most powerful companies. Working from a sun-drenched, brick-walled loft space in San Francisco’s warehouse district, this unlikely band of strategists has produced a dazzling array of inventive tools and artifacts, among them short films, off-size books, gargantuan story scrolls, dynamic Web sites, unconventional events, and immersive customer environments. Less visibly — but with even more-profound effects — Yamashita and his team have recast the work of strategy as a rich, human-centered, fast-paced, and results-oriented activity.
“Change doesn’t have to be a pedantic, regi-mented process,” says Yamashita, who ran the launch of Apple’s celebrated but ill-fated Newton PDA at age 26 before founding SYP with fellow creative director and designer Robert Stone. “The final deliverable isn’t a 120-page PowerPoint deck. The deliverable is a set of easily understood actions — executed two weeks out, four weeks out, six weeks out, or one year out — each of which triggers another set of actions. Today more than ever, the job of a leader is to move that chain reaction along in the most inspired way possible.”
Nowhere is that chain reaction more evident than at HP, which is undergoing one of the world’s most scrutinized transformations. Earlier this year, shareholders approved HP CEO Carly Fiorina’s bet-the-company decision to merge with Compaq. But Yamashita and his colleagues had already been working with HP for more than five years. In addition to advising on the firm’s Internet strategy (SYP produced a short film, arranged a global roadshow, and created a $20 million executive-briefing center and sales environment), the firm worked with Fiorina on a reinvention and rebranding effort (which included a Comdex keynote, a boxed set of guidebooks that narrate the story behind HP’s Invent brand, and a 300-person BrandJam event). More recently, Yamashita’s team tackled the internal-communications challenges around the Compaq merger.
Accomplishing such a dizzying range of work comes naturally for SYP, says Debra Dunn, HP’s senior vice president of corporate affairs, who served as Fiorina’s head of strategy and corporate operations during the company’s reinvention process and who has worked with Yamashita on a number of projects across the organization. “The people at SYP don’t just craft strategy,” says Dunn, “they bring it to life. Not only do they produce tangible outputs, but the experience of having a meeting or an engagement with them actually changes the way you approach your work.”
Finding Your North Star
“All meaningful change starts with the right aspiration,” insists Yamashita. “Doing strategy is ultimately about engaging human beings to take a leap. The animating question is, What will you become?” That means unearthing what’s true to the company’s core, or, as Yamashita calls it, the north star: “A powerful north star answers questions like, What are we doing that’s different from what everyone else in our industry is doing? Why do we exist? What makes employees passionate about their work? What excites our customers?”
The challenge for executives is to manage the tension between an expansive purpose and the day-to-day shocks of the business environment. “The way to make sense of that dilemma is to initiate a conversation about what’s purpose and what’s just practice,” says Yamashita. That’s what Fiorina did from the moment she stepped into the job at HP. Her mantra was, “Preserve the best, reinvent the rest.” What’s the best at HP? Says Yamashita: “Popularizing technology in a way that’s intimate, useful, humane, and high quality.”
Make Strategy Visual and Visceral
The centerpiece of effective strategy involves intellectual design: What are the ideas that drive the company? But an often overlooked element of the strategy process involves creating a design for communication: How do leaders make their ideas tangible and compelling?
That’s why every artifact or event produced by the SYP team is packed with compelling visual cues and energizing visceral connections.
“Strategy is not something that’s done in a box with only a rational hat on,” says Stone. “It needs to be visceral, human, and often emotional.” Ultimately, agrees Yamashita, “what we’re trying to do in our work is engineer epiphanies. We’re trying to move people to a place where it makes sense to act.”
Consider its work with Mercedes-Benz. SYP joined forces with Kaleidoscope Productions in New York to help then-CEO Mike Jackson elicit support among dealers for a plan to reinvent the customer experience. Yamashita says that Jackson “guaranteed resistance” — and SYP went to work, writing and producing a short film that reflected a progressive vision of the customer experience. SYP aired the film in an amphitheater at a sales conference in Hawaii. When the curtain rose, the characters from the video appeared onstage to lead the dealers through an interactive play that took place on a set called “Dealership of the Future.” After the experience, an overwhelming majority of the dealers signed up for Jackson’s plan.
Think Fast, Act Faster
“Change is a chain reaction, but you have to be deliberate about where you start,” says Yamashita. “You can’t fix everything at once. The trick is to find the minimum number of leverage points that can make a dramatic impact.”
Once you settle on the hot buttons, he continues, “the most important thing is just to get stuff rolling.” Within days of establishing a guiding vision, Yamashita usually has a half-dozen strategic initiatives in the works.
Finally, if the work of change seems too daunting or the pace of change too slow, Yamashita suggests a surefire (albeit high-risk) ignition tactic: “Hold your company hostage,” he says. “Declare your vision in a public way. It’s human nature to procrastinate. And without any kind of enforcement, your strategies will remain exactly that — strategies with no action. Avoid the problem by committing to a timeline. The good news is that it’s also human nature to perform — especially when you have a big audience.”
10 Ways to Reinvent Your Company
Here’s a crash course from Keith Yamashita, cofounder and principal of Stone Yamashita Partners, on the art and science (mostly art) of creating strategy and unleashing change.
- Outlaw PowerPoint. Write down your vision as a story — with a beginning, middle, and end — to clarify what must change first.
- Don’t rely on words alone. Bring your thinking to life: Create an exhibit, use diagrams, prototype ideas.
- Make strategy an everyday act. The creation and re-creation of strategy shouldn’t be a process that you undertake only when budgets are due.
- Argue forcefully against your most dearly held hypotheses. Only then will you know if they stand up to scrutiny.
- Make decisions, right or wrong. There’s nothing worse than waffling.
- Take over the TV station. Airtime is everything. Reinforce your messages in everything that you do. Use every ad, press release, store, package, and event to tell your story.
- Embrace thine enemy. Make a list of the people who could legitimately stop your big idea from taking root. Befriend them. Convince them. Make it their responsibility to improve on your vision.
- Don’t hold meetings longer than two hours. (Otherwise they’re workshops, which require more planning.) And don’t walk out of a meeting without assigning a name to every item that needs follow-up.
- Startle people. Break out of your comfort zone, and do something unexpected. Run an offbeat ad. Institute casual-dress Tuesdays.
- Don’t throw anything out. Don’t kill ideas that won’t work right now. Someday soon, the world might be ready for them.
Polly LaBarre (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior editor based in New York. Learn more about Stone Yamashita Partners on the Web (www.stoneyamashita.com).