• Sarah Freiesleben

Is Hygge Killing your Transformation?

Hold onto your kanelsnegle, it is another blog about “hygge”, but if you have any interest in driving or participating in making a business transformation successful in Denmark, I hope you will consider this an invitation into a conversation about how we can transform the transformation. I am writing this with a spirit of learning and curiosity and not in a spirit of fostering negativity, so although I do hope you will participate constructively, debate, offer your insights, etc., I do no want this to become a forum for complaining about Denmark. On the contrary, I hope to analyse how the things that make Denmark great, can sometimes hinder transformation if not actively mitigated.

So let’s get started.

Conflict is not Hyggeligt In fact, “hygge” relies on a sentiment of togetherness and if you are having a conflict, some synonyms you might feel are “at odds”, “in opposition”, or “different” - which is essentially as far as you can feel from being “together”. However, unfortunately for projects to be succesful, you need to create an environment where conflict has a space - sometimes a large space. I have worked in several large Danish companies on complex, expensive and hugely scoped transformation projects, and as much as it pains me to say it, only one of them has been successful. And many of the failures have been train wrecks; not cute, trendy, Google X style rewarding failures. I have seen millions of Euros invested in a roll out whose end product was thrown in the trash, programmes labeled as “must win battles” that never get started due to simple governance not being organized, “start, stop, continue” prioritization initiatives that cannot get started due to no one being able to communicate which things fall into which category, middle managers not buying into so called “mandates” from the c-suite and sabotaging the process instead of having the conversation with the source of the mandate. I could go on but I think you get the point.

Yet despite working in a world surrounded by failing projects and statistics that tell us over 70% of transformations fail, almost every status I see at steering and board meetings is either green, or has yellow/red indications with sugar coated descriptions that seem to purposefully not attract attention. Of course, we’ve all seen the watermelon KPI, green on the outside, red on the inside, and one can easily point to the project manager for purposefully deceiving management about the reality of the deliverable to save themselves. And in some cases, I definitely think that happens. But in Denmark I believe this trend is not often connected with deception, but rather specifically linked to the fact that conflict is not hyggeligt. Please don’t get me wrong, I do not think Danish leaders are weak and only need to have cozy conversation or expect their employees to be “yes men” - indeed not! In fact, I have worked with many great Danish leaders who I believe have quite an appetit for knowing when something is not working. But, since the Danish society has such a tight connection with the feelings of a collective whole, and since that group mentality would prefer to avoid bringing up the elephant in the room, the ones who rarely do venture down the path of bravery to take the fight are often seen as a pariah and quickly start modifying their behavior to protect their reputation. And when someone measures the reputational tradeoffs and still dares to take the conversation, since it is indeed so rare, it can be confusing to senior leaders when only one person is trying to talk about an elephant that no one else seems to acknowledge. They then see it as an outlier or complaint instead of a courageous reflection of a person trying to solve a problem that indeed is ironically impacting the wellbeing of the whole. And the biggest tragedy of all, is that the whole group usually craves the benefits these changes will bring and feels the same way about the problem, but they do not want to speak up about it.

Of course, I do not think this is uniquely a Danish problem. In her Ted Talk, “Dare to disagree” Margaret Heffernan asks the question: “how do organizations think?” she continues, “Well for the most part, they don’t, and that isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s really because they can’t. And they can’t because the people inside of them are too afraid of conflict. In surveys of European and American executives, fully 85% of them acknowledged that they had issues or concerns at work that they were afraid to raise; afraid of the conflict that that would provoke, afraid to get embroiled in arguments that they did not know how to manage, and felt that they were bound to lose…It means that organizations can’t think together. And it means that people who (…) run organizations and go out of their way to find the best people they can, mostly fail to get the most out of them.”

Avoiding awkward conversation might seem like a small thing, but when you are dealing with a huge transformation, the biggest problems are usually offshoots of fundamental issues that potentially could be improved with just a few small changes. And those small changes usually require having uncomfortable conversations. But if the result is turning around a project, isn’t it worth it? Would you believe that by merely ensuring roles and responsibilities and governance is clear, a large majority of the projects I have seen, could have been saved. But those simple topics more often than not, do not get discussed directly, quite possibly because they are just too obvious and it somehow seems petty to need to discuss such a thing.

Foundation of Trust

In Meik Wiking’s Little book of Lykke, there is a chapter about how trust is one of the keys to Danish happiness. He describes how trust in the communities and in the workplace are commonplace in Denmark and I feel this as well. I also have witnessed it, in the operational teams I have worked with…they have Friday breakfast and stand in the coffee room discussing their families and hobbies. They have great relationships built on a foundation of trust. Honestly, I sometimes have dreamed about finding a non project related job just so I can also be part of that team spirit that I see in well established Danish teams. I realize these teams have conflicts, but they also often know each other very well and know how to play to each other’s strengths and weaknesses, know that they do not mean any harm when they are grumpy, etc. Denmark is very fortunate to have this as a common cultural characteristic because it is the foundation of building a great team. In The 5 Behaviors of a Cohesive Team, trust is listed as the foundation upon which to build a team that can deliver results. And the key factor to this triangle that I believe is critical to working in Denmark, is that only after that trust is built, can you create an environment where conflict is acceptable.

But that relationship building takes time, and perhaps a little more time in Denmark than in for example, the US where we build and lose trust more “on the fly”. And often times projects get put together quickly and abruptly, sometimes snatching people out of their comfort zone and work family, and immediately get into execution mode. No time to build trust, let’s start delivering. In fact in many cases, it is in the name of agile that it is done like that, as more often then not, companies have bought into the wonderful concepts that agile brings to ensuring user acceptance earlier in the development process, without understanding that maintaining “old fashioned” practices from the good ole waterfall days, like setting up teams and governance structures still are required to work effectively in this way. After a team has been thrown together like this, inevitably, conflict occurs and unfortunately many times the team members do not have a relationship prepared to handle it, so instead of supporting each other and using each other as sparring partners, they work against each other.

I would posit that if project and programme managers would take a little more time, scoping out what needs to be done, building a team and investing in quick trust building opportunities, that you would be able to create the trust that Danes have come to expect in their work (and all cultures can benefit from) and then you can build a much more succesful project team who can even potentially handle conflict better and possibly even get good at talking about the elephants in the room together to make something great.

Conclusion In conclusion, just like every country has cultural norms that make them great and also potentially harm them, I believe that some of the things that make Denmark great, also could potentially lead to harmful and costly pitfalls when dealing with large business transformation. If more focus could be spent on building up trust in our teams quickly and creating an environment where conflict can be welcomed instead of shunned, then I believe we could create the strong communication channels between hierarchies needed to ensure the right actions are taken to ensure project success. It sounds like a dream, but I think that it just takes a few simple steps.

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