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.
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.
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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.