Excellence is not created overnight

On the threshold of its centenary, Finland is again going through an economic transition – which is unlikely to be news to anyone. Economists have explained that many of the pillars of our national economy have been crumbling for a long time. Many industries which had deep roots in Finnish soil have either been offshored in search of cheap labour or have simply folded. At the same time, many companies have thrived – some due to efficiency and streamlining; and some by reinventing themselves and introducing new products and services based on new, special expertise.

Although the Finnish economy has been growing strongly in 2017, such reinvention has not been broad enough to keep the Finnish economy growing for many years. It is said that economic and industrial transitions should be executed fast and efficiently, because economic change is faster than in the early days of Finland’s independence. But is this true? Are speed and efficiency the right answers to the economic transition? Where can we find the recipe for Finland’s growth and reinvention?

For decades, our nation’s well-being and wealth have been based on education, science, technology, and innovation. We strongly believe that these will also be the key success factors for Finland in the future. The change and associated challenges are positive issues, or we can make them so by our own actions. But what will this require from Finland? We have two main takes on this.

First, we have to accept that ambition is a wonderful and useful thing; we should be excellent in some areas. Secondly, we need to dare to take risks, fail and sometimes even be inefficient.

Let’s start with ambition and excellence

Finland discovered an amazing recipe for success after the Second World War. We industrialised and built a welfare state that has been admired by the rest of the world in many respects. Back then, Finland’s vision was based on perseverance and hard work. In addition to hard work, the Finns intended to build expertise based on a high level of education, which would produce goods that were wanted around the world. Unfortunately, others have learned the same recipe and taken it much further.

We believe that ambition will be the prerequisite for success also in the future. Ambitious and determined people continuously challenge themselves to give top performances and improve. To be the world’s best in business, science, art and sports, thousands of hours of work and practice, a broad grasp of the theme in question, and immersion in detail are required.

We should seek to be among the world’s best in selected areas of science and technology. We should not settle for being the best in Finland. For some reason, the public discussion in Finland has been characterised by caution and insularity – is this a fit of national self-pity, or have we lost trust in our ability to cope?

We should move forward, perhaps selfishly, to drive issues that benefit Finland and help us to thrive amongst tough competition. We need to engage in cooperative selfishness, pursuing Finland’s interests in a way that allows our partners to succeed alongside us. Although science, technology and business are highly international and networked, we cannot flourish if we do not seek to be the best and dare to act accordingly.

We believe that Finland could liberate itself from many of its current quandaries if we could pluck up the courage to view our actions from a broader perspective. In which areas are we genuine world beaters, or have a unique, new perspective or expertise, and on what should we focus in order to differentiate ourselves?

To reinvent ourselves, we must dare to take risks, fail and even be inefficient

For decades we have been taught to be productive and continuously streamline our operations. The goal is incremental improvements, small enhancements made on a tried and trusted basis, with a continuous but small gain as a result. One step forward at a time, as we are continuously being told! There is nothing wrong with this – even the best can always be a little better. However, efficiency is best suited to robots; new, creative thinking and innovation suit people best.

Innovations, i.e., new and creative ideas put into practice as ways of organising businesses are needed in order to grow the economy and societal well-being on a broad basis. Our well-being and sustainable growth are based on human creativity and inventiveness. But are the faster pace and frantic quest for efficiency the reasons behind the failure to create great breakthroughs?

To create sustainable national well-being, we must be willing to make risky, science-based investments. Technological risk-taking involves long-term thinking, because it can take decades to develop the required expertise.

Innovation is built on learning from experiments and failures and giving ideas the time to mature; they do not appear overnight. The history of science, art and product development are full of examples in which a creative, problem-solving process has lasted for years without results. In his book, “Luova laiskuus” (Creative idleness), Professor Hakala describes several such cases involving some of humankind’s key inventions and the stories of figures like Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, the chemist August Kekulé and the Finnish writer Mika Waltari. It is often thought that solutions to challenging problems appeared suddenly and spontaneously, as if due to a series of lucky coincidences.

However, long-term thinking and research lasting decades and involving multiple dead-ends lie behind most major inventions. For example, Hakala describes how Mika Waltari’s international best-selling novel, Sinuhe, took only around three months to write. However, in reality the formulation of the plot took over a decade of thinking and research on Ancient Egypt.

In other words, it seems that ‘coincidences’ barely even feature in work that requires creative thinking. Such breakthroughs and major inventions are more often the result of painstaking immersion in an issue. High ambition and long-term efforts towards achieving a vision underpin work that leads to major inventions. Finding a solution often requires time, discussion, experimentation, cooperation and the combination of seemingly irrelevant issues. This process is not advanced by continuously faster speed, short-term focus and efficiency. We firmly believe that it is high time to learn, once again, to be inefficient, take risks and permit failures. At least if we want to make major transformations.

In 2016, we engaged in strategy work together with our experts at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. Our strategy rests on two cornerstones; our desire to solve major societal challenges on a long-term, visionary basis, and our aim to develop our research and technological expertise until it is world-class. To achieve these goals, we are ambitious and persistent, encourage risk-taking and tolerate failure and occasional inefficiency; we believe that these form the basis of excellence and innovation.

Katri Kallio, Manager, Strategy & Antti Vasara, President and CEO
Twitter: @katri_kallio, @ahavasara

Antti Vasara ja Katri Kallio VTT
Reference: Juha T. Hakala, 2013, Luova laiskuus: anna ideoille siivet, [Creative idleness: unleash your imagination]. Gummerus Kustannus Oy.

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