What can a 1,400-year-old carpenter teach you about agility?

Board effectiveness

4 min read

In 578 BCE, Japan’s Prince Shotoku invited a trio of Korean carpenters to build his country’s first Buddhist temple, Shitenno-Ji. It marked the beginning of Buddhism’s rich cultural influence in Japan, and for one of the carpenters, Shigemitsu Kongō, the birth of a family business. Kongō Gumi, based in Osaka, traded as an independent firm until 2006. It still exists, with the motto “Inheritance of techniques from 1,400 years ago to the future”, building and maintaining Buddhist temples by hand with the Kongō family’s involvement, as a subsidiary of construction giant Takamatsu.

Think about that. In all that time, across 40 generations of family leaders, the company was never left behind, never encountered a competitor it couldn’t match, and never made a single fatal mistake. The average modern company succumbs after only 21 years. By contrast, Kongō Gumi outlasted Genghis Khan, the bubonic plague, the rise and fall of the shogunate, the industrial revolution, two world wars and Japan’s aggressive modernisation, to reach the dawn of the digital era. So, what set them apart?

What was so special about Kongō Gumi?

It would be a grave mistake to assume that this family firm, steeped as it is in ancient Buddhist carpentry practices, somehow stayed still for all this time. You don’t persist for 1,400 years without great adaptability and, dare we say it, agility.

After all, agility is nothing new. And it’s about time someone reclaimed the word from its unfortunate association with the move-fast-and-break-things Silicon Valley start-ups who tend to shout the loudest about being agile, only to then crumble after nine months.

Organisational agility is about survival, not sleep pods. It can look different in different places, but it always involves the ability to rapidly and effectively respond to opportunities and threats without losing the company’s coherent sense of long-term direction.

Examples from Kongō’s history show what it looks like in action. During the Meiji restoration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the pro-Shinto authorities cracked down heavily on Buddhist practices, threatening the company’s traditional core business. Kongō Gumi responded by diversifying into commercial and residential construction, a winning move in a country that was modernising so quickly.

When the firm’s 37th leader Huruichi Kongō committed suicide in the interwar Shōwa depression, his widow Yoshie took the helm, breaking 1,300 years of uninterrupted male leadership. Faced with extreme financial pressure, she instituted key western-influenced reforms like separating managerial from practitioner roles.

Yoshie also found an ironically lifesaving new revenue stream during the Second World War, building wooden coffins. Even in the late 20th century, the business continued to adapt when circumstances required, becoming the first to use computer-aided design and concrete in traditional wooden temple construction. It was only when the Japanese property crash of the late 1980s saddled Kongō Gumi with unsustainable debt - at a time when donations to temples were also drying up rapidly - that the company finally faced a situation it was unable to survive.

What do agile organisations do differently?

What these episodes had in common was that Kongō Gumi’s leaders recognised major threats and opportunities, understood how important they were and what changes they required, and acted swiftly and decisively in response. Each of these is a skill that can be developed both in individuals and organisations, as we explored in our recent guide to agility.

Seeing opportunities and threats requires no special prescience. It primarily comes from keeping your head up and being alive to external trends and events. People miss things when their heads are down in their day-to-day tasks. Agile firms give the space for people to look around for threats and opportunities because they have a clear focus on their long-term purpose and vision.

In Kongō Gumi’s case, it was a commitment to traditional construction of extraordinary quality, maintaining trusted and reciprocal relationships with customers over many years, and the good name of the family - not just building temples. Thinking critically means understanding the implications of what you’re seeing and separating the signal from the noise.

For Kongō, the Meiji Restoration wasn’t a headwind, it was an existential threat. Critical thinking also allows agile firms to figure out an effective response by clarifying ideas, testing assumptions and probing weaknesses.

How much shall we diversify? Should we focus our efforts here or there? What needs to be true for this plan to work, and how will we find out whether that’s the case? What happens if it doesn’t work as expected?

The final, essential ability for agile firms is to be able to communicate effectively. It’s not much good if one of your carpenters has the company-saving idea that you could start making coffins if it never reaches the top or convinces anyone there.

Similarly, if the leader is unable to make a strong enough case that conveys urgency, they will be unable to bring people with them during a major, sudden change. This means channels of communication must be open between different parts of the business, and the messages themselves need to be clear, succinct, relevant and impactful.

While it’s easy to ascribe the deft reinventions of agile firms solely to visionary leadership - and Kongō was ruthless in its approach to succession, passing over eldest sons for more effective sons-in-law when required - they depend just as much on organisation-level capabilities such as these.

That’s why ideally you should work on them before times dictate what you need to do. The key is to approach agility as a set of practices, attitudes and behaviours that you can control, rather than some vague aspiration that will come about through force of will alone.

Doing so may not guarantee you’ll last a millennium or more like Kongō Gumi, but it will at least give you a fighting chance of making it to the next century, through all the profound changes that will entail.

   Download your guide  The ExCo’s Guide to Agility  71% of UK C-level leaders admit they are struggling to make their organisation  more agile. Read our findings, then take the test to learn what your agility  barriers are, and how to overcome them. Get the guide

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