Dan Adelman on the Decision Making Process at Nintendo

If someone wants to talk to Nintendo but they cannot understand, just ask Dan Adelman. A newly-published interview on Dromble with Nintendo’s former champion of digital wares was full of revealing nuggets about the Japanese giant. We’ve learned about why third parties are averse to their platforms, but now we have a greater sense of the malaise that plagues Nintendo.

Dan Adelman spoke about how hard it is for bold ideas to push through the company’s bureaucracy, such as his own ideas to improve the company’s digital marketing. He says:

Nintendo is not only a Japanese company, it is a Kyoto-based company. For people who aren’t familiar, Kyoto-based are to Japanese companies as Japanese companies are to US companies. They’re very traditional, and very focused on hierarchy and group decision making. Unfortunately, that creates a culture where everyone is an advisor and no one is a decision maker – but almost everyone has veto power.

Even more problematic is the company’s staff of elder statesman, including company president Satoru Iwata. These older executives’ histories with defining the early era of gaming have made it hard for them to relate to newer innovations in technology.

Even Mr. Iwata is often loathe to make a decision that will alienate one of the executives in Japan, so to get anything done, it requires laying a lot of groundwork: talking to the different groups, securing their buy-in, and using that buy-in to get others on board. At the subsidiary level, this is even more pronounced, since people have to go through this process first at NOA or NOE (or sometimes both) and then all over again with headquarters. All of this is not necessarily a bad thing, though it can be very inefficient and time consuming. The biggest risk is that at any step in that process, if someone flat out says no, the proposal is as good as dead. So in general, bolder ideas don’t get through the process unless they originate at the top.

There are two other problems that come to mind. First, at the risk of sounding ageist, because of the hierarchical nature of Japanese companies, it winds up being that the most senior executives at the company cut their teeth during NES and Super NES days and do not really understand modern gaming, so adopting things like online gaming, account systems, friends lists, as well as understanding the rise of PC gaming has been very slow. Ideas often get shut down prematurely just because some people with the power to veto an idea simply don’t understand it.

This comes around to how major companies like Nintendo (but especially Nintendo) prefer to follow what cash-making formula works, rather than try something risky. Bottom line: if Dan’s interview is any indication, you are not allowed to voice new ideas at Nintendo. The company would prefer you stick to what has worked in the past.

The last problem is that there is very little reason to try and push these ideas. Risk taking is generally not really rewarded. Long-term loyalty is ultimately what gets rewarded, so the easiest path is simply to stay the course. I’d love to see Nintendo make a more concerted effort to encourage people at all levels of the company to feel empowered to push through ambitious proposals, and then get rewarded for doing so.

The entire interview is well worth a read, as we learn a little more about why Nintendo is so unique and yet so behind “the times” in the gaming world.

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Editor-in-Chief (Former)

A man with a plan. My favorite video game franchise is Pokemon, but his favorite video game is Resident Evil 4. I can also tell you trivial cartoon factoids.