Change, to the Power of Ten

When Keith Yamashita looks at the world, he sees complexity — a beautiful and rich one, if we can visualize our place within it.

As chairman of SYPartners , a consultancy that has worked with leaders at IBM, Apple, Facebook, Target, Blackstone, Target Financial Services, Bloomberg, Starbucks and The Coca-Cola Company, Yamashita is a master at helping people define themselves against the backdrop of a profoundly shifting business landscape. The task requires tremendous empathy, he says, a singular understanding of what clients need and want.

“The biggest fallacy of business is that it’s only rational,” he says. “All business is personal and all business is human.” Yamashita is intensely curious about what makes people tick. Who are they? What are their deep aspirations? What do they need to be successful? What’s holding them back?

Ambition. Love. Fear.

The human component of consulting goes deep. “We hope for people what they wish for themselves,” Yamashita says. “I’d like to think that when we show up in a room, we authentically care about the people in that room and that they sense that.”

Still, it is not enough to simply identify a dream, Yamashita tells his clients. The only way to stand out is to be fully aware of how you fit into a wider spectrum, to figure out what unique part you play, given the circumstances around you.

It is a notion that began for him on a smog-filled day in Santa Ana, California, when he was eight years old. Kept inside for recess because of the pollution, students were corralled into the multi- purpose room to watch a movie about math. Yamashita vividly remembers the 9-minute film, “Powers of Ten,” by the husband and wife designing duo Charles and Ray Eames. It starts with an overhead view of a couple lounging on top of a checkered picnic blanket in a park. The camera zooms out and appears to rise into the atmosphere, into infinity, marking off the distance from the picnic blanket in powers of ten, until it is far outside the galaxy. Then it zooms back in.

“Up to that point, I had no idea that anything existed beyond the three blocks around my house,” Yamashita recalls. “That film has stuck with me for the rest of my life. It shows connections, and how one thing here affects that thing over there.”

The Eames film is a remarkable demonstration of perspective and association. The sun is a mere pinpoint and a proton is a critical force; a micron and a galaxy carry equal weight in the vast arrangement of the universe. This is the vision Yamashita has for his clients—and for himself. A well- defined position makes one invaluable within a larger system.

But there is an uneasy corollary to this reality: changes far and wide across that system reverberate, causing tremors underneath us. This is why, Yamashita cautions, we have to know exactly what role we play so that we can adapt intelligently when things take a turn.

“Because we live in a world that is more interconnected than it’s ever been, we are particularly susceptible to the dynamics at play,” Yamashita says. “People feel overwhelmed—it’s a natural outcome of the world we live in. There are more systems problems that require creativity than there are creative people in the world.”

To minimize the potential fallout from system shifts and to maximize the positive impact we can have on the world, Yamashita urges a return to authenticity. He says it’s a question of unlearning bad habits and relearning what comes naturally:

“I do believe that people enter this world with a certain amount of greatness. So many people, through the pressures of society or the way we’re educated, unlearn that greatness. They fritter it away. They start limiting themselves. It’s really about reclaiming that greatness—people learning about how to be just themselves, fully alive and aware.”

The positive exponential effect of all this self-awareness arises when individuals begin working together. Yamashita encourages his clients to build “powerful duo relationships” that require one of the trickiest human emotions: trust. “The duo is the smallest atomic unit where trust is built,” he points out. “If there’s only two people, you can’t shovel blame.”

With competent, self-aware individuals who relate to others on the basis of that trust, an organization has the potential to expand by the power of ten, just as in the Eames film. Zooming out, Yamashita sees a universe where companies design their own destinies by connecting purposefully to a wider array of players in order to work on a tougher set of problems.