OPINION: Danish leaders’ inclusion struggles are losing them innovation

Reengineering or 'crowdhacking' Danish work cultures can lead to bigger ambition, more risk-taking and more significant contributions from foreign experts, writes guest columnist Skip Bowman.

OPINION: Danish leaders' inclusion struggles are losing them innovation
Photo: Syda_Productions/Depositphotos

Last week, one of Denmark’s most prestigious and significant companies announced to the world that it is looking for more ambition and risk-taking to maintain its success in the future. And I also read that Copenhagen is poor at making experts from abroad feel welcome.

READ ALSO: Foreigners taking fewer jobs in Denmark: report

Some years ago, I got to work on a PhD project looking at the connection between innovation and organizational culture. The hypothesis was that transactional cultures, where people are selfish and competitive in their relationships with colleagues, are less effective at innovation.

Whereas transformational cultures, where people invest in and benefit from relational capital, work towards more common goals and strive to work by shared values, are more innovative. Now, while we didn’t prove the correlation conclusively, there is a lot of support for this hypothesis.

Now, Danish companies are more high-trust and transformational than most, when we look across the globe. It’s part of the explanation for the high productivity Danish employees have. For example, Danish employees and leaders spend less time managing and supervising each other than in other cultures. This leads to higher levels of autonomy, which motivates.

Secondly, Danish workplaces invest in training and development, which leads to higher levels of mastery, which also motivates. This is all good when we consider some of the drivers of innovation. But we’re missing two other things: ambition and inclusion.

What I have learnt since the PhD project, is that innovation has too forms: 1) exploiting existing ideas and areas of expertise by going deeper; and 2) integrating different areas of expertise in innovative ways.

For example, at GN Store Nord, making a better and more efficient hearing aid is type 1 and integrating the hearing aid with the cloud to create “Teleaudiology” is type 2. When you are doing type 1, you benefit from strong ties (connections) with lots of tacit knowledge and implicit understandings. For this, you need stability of relationships, trust, familiarity and regular close interactions.

For type 2, you need weak ties with many connections to lots of different people AND the ability to bridge between two or more different areas of expertise. Otherwise, you will never understand each other well enough to profit. You also to build trust swiftly: what I call “Fast Teaming”.

Now, the point of all this theory is that Danish leaders and experts are not good at building relationships with new people. They like strong ties and are rather uncomfortable with weak ones. They really suffer from the culture of “not invented here” or “Danish ideas are better than others”; or both. And they tend to shun what they regard as superficial relationships or small talk.

And I know it’s a stretch, but the article about how unfriendly Danes are towards experts from abroad is some evidence to support my provocative and big generalisation. Great ideas and new areas of knowledge come in all sorts of heads and bodies. So, active inclusion and a willingness to spend more time building a network of acquaintances, rather than spend time with old buddies, is a priority.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Why do Danish leaders seem rude?

Speaking English rather than Danish is also critical to including experts from abroad. I spent last week with an executive team, and again I experienced lots of Danish being spoken despite the fact that three out of the eight people in the room were non-Danes. You exclude people in often very subtle ways. It’s unintentional. However, it is highly impactful. If you want to get the most out of your experts and leaders from abroad, you have to do more to make them feel comfortable and confident about expressing their ideas. Without access to informal social conversations, deep trust is never established.

Curiosity is one of the biggest drivers for innovation and inclusion. When you ask questions, show interest in others, work hard to understand the different perspectives, get excited about new and different ideas, encourage people to challenge your assumptions, and put yourself in the shoes of others, you build trust and you create the foundation for solving difficult problems and creating innovative solutions. And the biggest enemy of curiosity is sarcasm.

Danish leaders and experts need to reduce sarcasm to almost zero if they want to build relationships with new and different people and bring the best out in foreign experts.

So what can we do about the lack of risk-taking and ambition in Danish innovative companies?

Danish organizations have a strength in the fact that they are often significantly more participative and collaborative. However, without a strong strategy to create inclusion at all levels and in all parts of the organisation there is a risk that other countries and leaders from different cultural backgrounds will prove better in a world of radical innovation and globalization. And ambition and risk-taking must be addressed at the team and organizational level. When everyone is rooting for change, new ideas and working hard together to make ideas into real products and services, then you have a truly innovative company.

Skip Bowman is CEO with consulting company Global Mindset. This article was originally published on Global Mindset’s social media channels and this version is republished with permission.  

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OPINION: If you can’t go home for Christmas, Denmark is a good place to be

After missing out on seeing his family for Christmas 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Local Denmark editor Michael Barrett got to try out Danish Christmas for the first time.

A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve.
A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve. File photo: Vibeke Toft/Ritzau Scanpix

We’d always planned to spend last Christmas in the UK. My daughter was born in March 2020, coinciding with the outset of the global coronavirus pandemic but, as worrying and uncertain as everything was at the time, we were sure it would have all settled down in nine months’ time. We started planning for her to spend her first Christmas with her grandparents, cousin and the rest of our extended family in England.

As we all know, this was far from how things turned out. The autumn and winter of last year saw spiralling Covid-19 cases across Europe and countries responding by introducing more and more restrictions, including on travel.

I’m not sure exactly when we conceded we’d have to cancel our plans to go to the UK for Christmas in 2020, but I do remember the look of resignation on my parents’ faces when I let them know. The writing had already been on the wall for a while by then.

Visiting my partner’s mother in December, I looked out of the window at the greying skies over Jutland, the dim lights of a distant Føtex store and the limp red and white pendants on flag poles as bare as the trees, and nothing felt familiar.

This was because, despite having lived in Denmark for almost a decade and a half, I’d never spent Christmas in the country. Every year I’d head home by the 22nd or 23rd, usually returning just before New Year to enjoy the rowdy firework displays in Aarhus or Copenhagen after a week of putting my feet up and savouring the familiarity and comfort of Christmas at home.

Denmark famously has its own Christmas traditions, comparable but certainly different to the British ones. I knew about them – I’ve exchanged information about national Christmas customs with many Danes over the years – but never witnessed them first-hand.

The big day came around quickly, not least because it all happens on the 24th, not the 25th.

Festivities did take a while to get going, though. Not until 4pm in fact, when ancient Disney Christmas special From All of Us to All of You, known in Danish as Disneys juleshow began on main TV broadcaster DR. Usually I’d have been watching an early-1980s David Bowie introducing The Snowman around now. A cup of warm gløgg (spiced red wine with raisins and almonds) was thrust into my hand, and I missed Bowie a little bit less.

After a couple more glasses of gløgg and wine, we sat down for Christmas dinner: roast duck, brown potatoes, boiled potatoes, gravy and red cabbage. It was of course already dark and a prolific number of candles were lit on the table and around the room, adding to the festive feeling of the star-topped tree, paper hearts and other decorations.

For dessert, we had risalamande, the popular cold rice sweet mixed with whipped cream, vanilla and chopped almonds and served with cherry sauce. By tradition, one whole almond is left in the dessert and whoever finds it wins a present, which is customarily a julegris, a chocolate pig with marzipan filling. This game is often fixed so that a child (or children) wins the prize, but the only child present was a nine-month-old and I ended up finding the almond in my bowl.

Then it was time to dance around the tree and exchange presents. Most of us had too much dessert, so it was a more sedate affair than I expected. After the little one was fast asleep we sat back on the sofas and had a couple more glasses of wine or maybe a few snacks.

It was all over before Santa traditionally lands his sleigh on rooftops and hops down British chimneys in the small hours of Christmas morning.

Danish families with young children often assign someone to dress up as Father Christmas and come round to deliver the presents to excited youngsters before dinner on Christmas Eve.

Maybe I’ll get the chance to audition for the role next year because our Danish-British family will be in Denmark every other Christmas for the foreseeable future – by choice, not restriction. I’m looking forward to it, because my first Danish Christmas gave me a better understanding of why this time of year is loved by so many Danes.

READ ALSO: My five favourite Danish childhood Christmas memories