The Liberator

Companies that are stuck in a rut look to Keith Yamashita to find out how to get back on track.


Keith Yamashita is about to run a one-hour session with a group of publishing executives at Penguin Group, but you’d never know he was the one in charge. Relaxed and jovial, cuffs flapping open under a sweater, absentmindedly brushing his straight black hair out of his eyes every few minutes, Yamashita looks more like a grad student in architecture than a top consultant to the world’s most powerful companies. Even as he begins to speak, his soft, high-pitched voice and soothing tone seem better fitted to the leader of an AA meeting than a strategic thinker who’s about to reveal why you–and your company–have hit a brick wall. “The first step is admitting that you’re stuck,” says Yamashita. “If you can diagnose what’s going on, you can move to unstuck.”


Simple words, really. Trite, almost. But it is his ability to reduce deep-seated corporate problems to their bare essence–and then fix them–that makes Yamashita, 37, so successful. Before you know it, his regular-guy patter has disarmed the group, making everyone feel free to let loose frustrations and reveal constraints they’ve kept hidden for years. “It all plays to his advantage–his age, his laid-back style, his appearance, his down-to-earth approach,” says Robert Stone, Yamashita’s business partner. “He’s a great listener and a real-time analytical thinker, not a highfalutin or stuffy consultant.”

It’s not just about Yamashita’s style (though he’s got plenty of it). It’s the way he and his team at San Francisco consulting firm Stone Yamashita Partners go from talk to action. By engaging people in a nonthreatening way and listening to their cues, Yamashita is able to identify structural and systemic problems in a company or its leaders. Then he rolls up those cuffs and goes to work, approaching the problems through an unorthodox mix of analytics, branding, and design rather than a formula or a template.

No platoon of MBAs. No 6-inch-thick change manual binders. No 100-page PowerPoints. Instead, Yamashita employs a varied toolbox of specialists, linguists, anthropologists, and artists, first to help a company define its purpose–and then to communicate that purpose both inside and out. Unlike many consultancies, SYP then sticks around for months or more to make sure the business actually makes the recommended changes. Among the companies that have tapped into Yamashita’s eclectic approach are Gap Inc., JP Morgan Chase & Co., Herman Miller, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM. Although each interaction is different, Stone Yamashita generally starts an engagement at the top, holding a summit with senior execs to figure out how the system works, and where it has gotten bogged down. “When you do that right, it starts a chain reaction,” Yamashita says. “After the diagnosis, we often bring in field research conducted by anthropologists and others to help leaders better understand their customers.”

Once the problems have been identified, the company uses Stone’s background as a designer and Yamashita’s as a marketing and branding expert to define a vision–or a solution–and then moves downstream, bringing people on board by hammering the message home with creative, sometimes wacky, training sessions. “Their group, more than any group I’ve ever seen, pays attention to every word,” says Paul Pressler, CEO of Gap, which has been working with the firm for the past 10 months in an effort to redefine Gap’s culture and vision. “They get us to think differently and out of our comfort zone.” The role of design becomes paramount, as SYP produces a document, a film, or some form of media that expresses the vision.

Ultimately, says Yamashita, it’s all about getting unstuck as an individual or an organization. He believes that 85% of all companies and more than half of all people are stuck, a condition that isn’t defined by declining market share, falling productivity, or losses on an income statement. Being stuck, says Yamashita, is all about human feelings–not financial measurements. It’s about feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, directionless, hopeless, battle-torn, worthless, or alone. Why does that matter? “The most successful leaders understand they must win the hearts and minds of employees in a way that is true, authentic, and real,” he says. “If you get those human components right, the performance of the system can work. Without them, you’re nowhere.”

For some obvious reasons, Disney and Kodak are stuck, says Yamashita. For a less obvious reason, so is one of his own clients, eBay. “[It] has to think about how to deliver on the second chapter of [its] history,” he says. “EBay is making money hand over fist, but the leadership there has to decide what the company’s destiny will be.”


Which is to say, being stuck isn’t necessarily all bad. “You could be stuck because you are incredibly ambitious and you’re trying something new and have hit a roadblock. You could also be plain old stuck because of inertia.” Most people, he says, don’t even know they’re stuck. “You can go through any organization and find capable people who seem like they’re performing well. If you dig deeper, they’ll confess that they don’t know what they’re doing. They feel directionless.”

Because Stone Yamashita has remained deliberately small, few organizations have the opportunity to work directly with the group to get unstuck. Yet bringing this philosophy to a broader audience is one reason why Yamashita and Yale School of Management professor (and Yamashita’s freshman dorm mate) Sandra Spataro have collaborated on a new book, Unstuck (Portfolio, April 2004). This is not your typical consultant opus, full of multisyllabic phraseology and complicated hieroglyphics meant to suggest deep intellect. It is small in size and economical in words. It’s a tool, not a treatise, illustrated with bold fonts and graphics and written plainly enough to appeal to nonbusiness folks, like Spataro’s mom or Yamashita’s masseur. (“I gave the book to my massage therapist in San Francisco, and he realized he was stuck,” says Yamashita. “He quit and moved to run his own business in Monterey. It was a bummer for me.”)

A systems thinker, Yamashita views every organization’s problems through the lens of a system in balance. Purpose is at the center of a universe orbited by five components: strategy, culture, people and interaction, metrics and rewards, and structure and process. A company gets stuck when one component is off-kilter, or when the process and the system are misaligned. “There is no voodoo to how to get unstuck,” says Yamashita. “It’s about taking actions every day in a sensible way with a little bit of creativity and invention.”

If, for example, your team is stuck because an “enemy” is trying to defeat the team’s idea or approach, here’s what Yamashita advises: Make a list of the people who stand against you and then 1) befriend them, 2) convince them, 3) get into a true dialogue that can improve your idea, 4) invite them in, and 5) have them headhunted into a different company. All of this may sound a bit oversimplistic, and sometimes it is, but it’s also dead-on.

In part, Yamashita’s approach comes from his experience as both an insider and an outsider, born to a third-generation Japanese-American father who helped design control panels for the Apollo space program and a Chinese-American mother who was a professor. At an early age, he felt stuck himself. One of only two Asian kids in his Tustin, California, junior high, Yamashita had a hard time fitting in until his mother convinced him that the only way to improve his lot was to take charge of it by running for school president. He won. “That really shaped my belief that you don’t have to accept the conditions you’ve been given,” he says. “I both fit in and was completely separate at the same time, which is what my company is about.”

Leadership came naturally to Yamashita, who was president of his class at Stanford and graduated with a BA in quantitative economics and a master’s in organizational behavior in 1988. So, too, did chutzpah. He turned down several job offers, announcing he wanted to work only for Apple, although it wasn’t recruiting. He snared an informational interview and charged in, announcing, naively, “I’m here for a job. I’m fascinated by Apple. Tell me what you have available.” The woman replied politely that there were no entry-level positions. Yamashita, stunned, said that couldn’t be true. Pressed, she admitted that there was a writing job in education marketing, but it required 8 to 10 years’ experience. “That sounds perfect!” an ebullient Yamashita exclaimed. “I know how to write. If you hire me and it doesn’t work out, we’re no worse off.” Yep, he sweet-talked his way into the job.


Yet by the time he arrived, the job had morphed into a speechwriting position for the new CEO, John Sculley. At the ripe old age of 21, Yamashita found himself offering Sculley his (unsolicited) opinions on corporate strategy. “So I start asking questions,” he remembers sheepishly. “What is the state of the enterprise business? What is our licensing strategy?” Yamashita caught hell for putting the boss on the spot, but learned something else. “CEOs are people too and they don’t have all the answers,” he says. Steve Jobs then recruited Yamashita to come to Next Computing as a speechwriter and marketer. There he learned the difference between having a creative vision and the right motivation behind it. “The company lacked a purpose, partly because it was founded out of spite and vengeance.”

Yamashita left, and joined Apple as a creative director to launch the Newton, the company’s too-early-for-its-time PDA. “He exceeded my wildest expectations,” says Michael Tchao, who headed Newton’s marketing and is now general manager for technology ventures at Nike. “One thing he taught me is that you can have the conversation, but it’s the presentation that helps drive the point home.”

It was 10 years ago, in 1994, at 27, that Yamashita set up shop with Robert Stone, a designer he’d worked with at Apple, and Diane Harwood, who has since left the firm. “We realized that the combination of design, communications, and strategy was our differentiation,” says Stone. Over time, he says, the firm has evolved from a design outfit that helped bring out a company’s purpose and strategy to “a strategy firm, and design is the secret sauce that makes it work.”

Communicating a message is tough, but actually changing a company’s culture, says Yamashita, is the toughest. At Gap, he and Pressler have run two-day training sessions with the top 200 U.S. executives, a project so ambitious that Pressler says it has taken up 50% of his time. Now the group is training the next level down and rolling out the new vision–expressed in five (still under wraps) values to store managers. A common mistake, says Yamashita, is that executives know what needs to be done but never take the time to make sure everyone else does, too. Although he says his goal is to help the company effect change on its own, executives sometimes forget SYP staff aren’t full-timers but rather consultants who work on retainer. “We can’t let go of them,” jokes Pressler.

Sounds like he, like so many of the firm’s clients, is happily stuck on Yamashita.

Sidebar: Unsticking Yourself

Keith Yamashita and Sandra Spataro’s new book, Unstuck, offers some straightforward solutions to each of the “Serious Seven” states of stuck.


State of Stuck

1. Overwhelmed

Description Too much going on, not enough people or time.

Action plan Be clear about which mode your team is in–“blue sky” (big picture) or “tuning” (what works now).

State of Stuck

2. Exhausted

Description Your team is paralyzed, burned out.

Action plan Look at your watch. Companies that measure results against the time invested tend to outperform their peers.


State of Stuck

3. Directionless

Description No big picture; action but no results.

Action plan Put your idea in words. Articulating it will help you see potential problems that can then be addressed.

State of Stuck

4. Hopeless

Description The passion is gone; the team lacks purpose.

Action plan Come up with a moonshot–a big, ambitious goal to unite and motivate the team.


State of Stuck

5. Battle-Torn

Description Your team is at war.

Action plan Build a common identity or choose a common enemy before going forward.

State of Stuck

6. Worthless

Description Poor metrics make measuring success impossible.

Action plan Prototype the end objective rather than constantly debating where the team is going.


State of Stuck

7. Alone

Description Your team isn’t in sync.

Action plan Use public recognition and praise as a motivator.

Discussion Guide

Interested in further exploring some of the ideas and issues in this article? Consider starting a Fast Company reading group. Here are some possible conversation catalysts:

Keith Yamashita makes a living out of getting companies unstuck. Where are you stuck, personally or professionally? Look at the guidelines to help you decide; does the “action plan” fit? Can you be personally happy, but still stuck? Analyze your purpose using Yamashita’s standards of anthropological methods. What’s the first step for change?