Business not as normal in the Nordics … the best ideas for growth from Nordic Business Forum 2019

October 15, 2019

Helsinki in October is not the time for ideas. It’s getting cold, dark and wet. Summer is long forgotten and time for hibernation is nigh. It seems only a few days since I was here, working with the fantastic Valio food business on their strategy, when the sun still had some warmth.

However October is also the month of great ideas each year at the Nordic Business Forum. 7500 participants flock to meet the inevitable rockstar line-up of speakers. Will Smith, Barack Obama and this year, George Clooney, are not your average business gurus. But they certainly sell the tickets.

Founded in 2008 by two young entrepreneurial Finns, Hans-Peter Siefen and Jyri Lindén,  they told me that most of their audience are young and more interested in the rockstars than the real gurus. The 17% of CEOs in the huge audience take off their ties and hope to catch some words of wisdom in between the pop acts.

This year’s NBF event followed close on the heels of the Thinkers50 European Business Forum – held each year in Odense, Denmark’s city of storytelling – which is much more of a thought-provoking, leadership-focused event for Europe’s top business people and the world’s top business thinkers.

This year in Odense we focused on growth with inspiration from Asia, and surprisingly so did our Helsinki friends. But just so you don’t feel you missed anything, here are some of the most useful messages from NBF19:


Parag Khanna explored the rise the Asian economy …

He analysed why the growth of the Asian market is significant for businesses in Europe and the U.S, arguing that if “you want to do business in the twenty-first century you have to go there, they’re not coming here.”

Today, 51 percent of the world’s population lives in South and Southeast Asia. Population density already indicates that Asia will continue having the majority of the world population. Although China is extremely large, there is more to Asia than just China and Japan.

The “breakneck economic growth” began in the post-World War Two period, as Japan’s economy overtook West Germany in 25 years. Suddenly, Japan was the world’s second-largest economy. This boom inspired a second wave of economic in- vestment and growth in what is called the tiger economies of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping opened Shenzhen as China’s first economic zone, triggering the third wave of growth. The fourth wave of modern economic growth in Asia is currently happening with rapid development in South and Southeast Asia, centered around India.

“When you think about Asia, you should be thinking about this huge population. Its geographic diversity being much more than just China—especially looking at the ur- banized population,” Khanna summarized. These are not poor rural people, who can wait for new technologies and lifestyle components. Accepting the negative conno- tations that “poverty is an opportunity,” Khanna urged to use this reality as a means to positively develop and help improve the quality of life in poorer Asian countries.

“Don’t be afraid.” He views that Asia is “just catching up” and taking up its “rightful side by the west.” He encouraged the audience to be excited about a “dawn of a new era” full of opportunities.

  • Asian development in the last 30 years is distinct from Europe and the U.S.
  • Regardless of trade wars, there are untapped service and IT markets in southeastern Asia.
  • Uplifting people from poverty can help found new business ideas.
  • Megacities and connectivity beyond national borders is the future of Asia.

Dan Pink talked about the scientific secret of perfect timing …

We may believe that timing is an art, but it is really a science, explained busi- ness expert and bestselling author Daniel Pink. It is incorrect to only base decision-making on intuition, as there are scientific evidence and research to suggest otherwise. Pink recalled that, when he first looked into the issue of timing, he was surprised to find that researchers across many different scientific fields “were asking similar questions, but they were not talking to each other.” This cemented his resolve to piece together current research results and create guidelines help people “to make better, smarter decisions about when to do things.”

  • Find a personal rhythm and determine the hours of the day that are most productive for specific activities.
  • Smart planning, timing, and scheduling make a big difference in terms of efficiency.
  • Cognitive abilities change throughout the day, and it’s different for every person.
  • Our working habits change when the end is in sight; endings have great meaning for working productivity and everyday life.

Brené Brown got passionate about courageous leaders …

“We are in desperate need of braver leaders and more courageous cultures. We cannot address the problems we are facing today without more courage.”

If you have a shame based culture in your company, innovation and creativity die right away, she said.

When interviewing creative leaders from all over the world Brown was asking what is the future of leadership. The striking result was that every single leader gave the same answer regardless of business or country: the future of leadership is courage. – We are in desperate need of braver leaders and more courageous cultures since we simply cannot address the problems we´re facing today without more courage.

When getting into the subject Brown asked what are the skills that overpin the courage. Most of the leaders were of the opinion that it doesn´t require any specific skills, you either have it or you don´t. For Brown it meant they couldn´t identify what courage looks like.

So, she turned the question upside down and asked what does the absence of courage look like and what are the leaders facing every day when there is not enough bravery? This is what came out from the responses:

  1. The lack of ability to have honest tough conversations
  2. The lack of attending to the feelings and fears that are driving bad behaviour in the organisation
  3. Being stuck in setbacks
  4. No courage to stay in the problem (to learn) since we are so eager to solve the problems quickly
  5. Organisations that are not built on inclusivity, diversity and equity
  6. Shame and blame

Do you armour up when in fear?

Brown then asked the audience what is the biggest barrier from being courageous leader at work? – The answer is armour, she said. – It´s not that we´re afraid but how we respond to fear. We´re all afraid. The question is when you´re in fear do you armour up? The armour is getting in the way of courage, not our fear. We put our armour up because we don´t want to get our heart hurt.

According to Brown armour has a lot of different forms: perfectionism, scarcity, cynicism, hustling for our worth. Armoured leaders put more importance of being right, courageous leaders put more importance on getting it right. – There´s a big difference in need to be right compared to the need of getting it right, she reminded.

Brown said she came to the conclusion that courage is not inherent but teachable and introduced four skill sets you need to build in order to grow your courage:

  1. Rumbling with vulnerability
  2. Living into our values
  3. Trust
  4. Learning to rise

What do these skill sets mean? Here are a couple of examples:

Rumbling with vulnerability. There is no courage without vulnerability but the most vulnerably feeling is joy. We tend to be so afraid of joy that we rather choose disappointment. Replace the armour with grounded confidence and curiosity. The best transformational leaders don´t have the best answers but instead the best questions.

Live into your values. It is better not to have values if they are not translated into real behaviours. Otherwise they mean nothing.

Vulnerability is the new normal. We cannot get where we want without being brave and we cannot be brave without being vulnerable. Vulnerability is the ability to show up and to be seen and stay engaged when you´re in fear and uncertainty. The number one reason we feel ashamed at work is the fear of being irrelevant. When we are afraid of being irrelevant we armour up. But remember that the armour you wear during change will guarantee your irrelevance. Vulnerability is scary but not as scary as having to ask yourself what if I hadn´t taken the chance or haven´t started the business. Change is the time to take the armour off, get curious and grow!



Alex Osterwalder on what it takes to be invincible …

Even “if you have room to expand your innovation abilities,” it does not mean that you actually should, began Alex Osterwalder, most famous for his business model canvas.

Alex started by telling the classic tale of Kodak’s fall. Although an early inventor of digital cameras, Kodak did not prepare for the even- tuality of digital. Instead, they chose to keep investing in their core analog products. Since its inception, Kodak had been innovative, but it did not innovate to future-proof or remodel their business. Kodak’s main competitor reacted to the decline of analog film differently, taking its business innovation in another direction. Rather than trying to find more ways to sell its current products, FujiFilm fought to find completely new markets to explore, based on the expertise it already had. It used its expertise to de- velop high quality skin care products. Its healthcare and cosmetic product lines are now its most profitable, alongside its technology business. What Kodak missed but FujiFilm recognized is that innovation is about the future.

Alex asked people to define what they thought were the key “characteristics of an invincible company.” After some discussion amongst the audience, Osterwald labeled the four key elements that indicate if a company is invincible: 1. Culture: innovation and execution; live in harmony 2. Leadership understands and supports innovation 3. Organizational design gives innova- tion power to act 4. Innovation teams exhibit world class Innovation practices.

Basically, corporate culture, defined here as “the values, beliefs, and behaviors practiced in organizations,” needs to ensure there is an appropriate working culture for innovation.

  • To ensure a company is invincible, it needs to focus on innovation.
  • Successful innovation needs to be reinforced from the highest levels of leadership.
  • Observe and learn from the innovation practices of other companies.
  • Innovation is a mindset, not a one-time endeavor.
  • Portfolio management helps figure out which ideas to explore, focus, and exploit.
  • Ensure that resource allocation is focused on innovations and new projects.

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer …

Woz’s inventions have impacted the daily lives of people and companies. Steve Wozniak shared how his early interest in engineering lead to his life’s work. “What you want in life is a goal that you’ll keep pursuing, and try to find a way to get there,” Wozniak said, “It’s more important, even, than the knowledge that you have.”

Wozniak credits his father for providing an environment that allowed his interest in computers and design to flourish. “He always threw out a lot of the alternatives in life and let you decide—except that education was important and being honest was important,” Wozniak remarked fondly. Whenever he had questions, his father would work with him to find answers, leaving him to explore and read further on his own.

When asked what his first invention was, Wozniak recalled a time in sixth grade when, after studying logic, he built hundreds of transistors. He nailed them to a board so that it would play Tic Tac Toe and never lose. “I was not just an engineer,” Wozniak explained, “I would get an idea and think, oh my gosh, I’m going to go into the labo- ratory. … I’m going to build this up and then show off for my friends and have fun with them.” Once Wozniak’s interest and knowledge of engineering began, it snowballed into a lifelong passion for using engineering to make the world a better place.

When talking about the future, Wozniak voiced excitement and concern. At first, he thought AI would take over human life. “I believed these computers were going to get conscious and understand you like a human being and even have feelings and care about you,” he revealed. When other industry leaders started saying that “AI is the greatest threat to humanity,” Wozniak began to rethink his stance. Now he believes that “computers are going to do the things they always have that help us, humans, do things that we like to do.” However, AI cannot replace human thought.

People inventing new technologies have a profound responsibility for people’s lives. “You’re supposed to create technologies that actually perform a service that humans want,” Wozniak encouraged. The inventor’s job is to fine-tune and improve a product to make the world a better place.

  • Engineering can make the world a better place, as long as they don’t take advantage of people in the process.
  • Build and design things for you, that will ensure your continued interest.
  • Do things for the right reasons, not because they will maximize personal wealth.
  • Rules don’t matter. Innovate until it works.

Next year, NBF20, it’s that ultimate business guru, yes Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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