Tuomo Alasoini: The Day of the False King

12/3/2012

Moominmamma, Gandalf, Papa Smurf and so on - the list is a long one. We're accustomed to considering the elderly to be wise, stable and level-headed. However, they're actually conservatives and – at their most radical – just reformists. The real revolutionaries are either young or come from outside the prevailing genre.

It's tough at the top

This also applies in the corporate world, which is apparent when browsing through lists of the largest and most successful companies. And it can be really tough. For example, just one in four of the 100 largest companies in the United States in 1980 were still on that same list in 2005. Exxon Mobil, General Motors, Ford and General Electric continue to be big players. But who remembers the great days of Kodak, which was hammered by technology development, or the notorious Union Carbide? On the other hand, the number one company in 2005 came from completely outside the genre and wasn't even on the 1980 list: Wal-Mart, a rural chain of stores from Arkansas.

It's hard to build future success on past greatness. Extended success can be deadly to many companies. Success means that managers retain control for too long and begin to consider themselves irreplaceable. Success entitles managers to recruit clones of themselves to the company. Trying to clone success sows the seeds for a future crisis. The only thing that history proves is that it does not repeat itself.

Cloning the management creates a culture of arrogance inside a company – a culture characterised by inflexibility, rituals and irritating flattery of superiors. You can bang your head against the wall like a woodpecker, but nothing changes.

An antidote to arrogance

Fortunately there's an antidote to the culture of arrogance. Managers that really try to keep up with development practise reverse mentoring. Rather than retreating to their offices, they get out and listen to customers and employees.

They want to learn how to see things in a new light. They want to gain good digital literacy skills and the ability to understand the logic of the online world and the resulting communal way of operating and solving problems. This is the only way to succeed in the innovation economy. They delegate authority and responsibility in order to gain time to stop and think. There is no other way to deal with the flood of information and constant tyranny of time pressure.

People who have read Mika Waltari's Sinuhe the Egyptian will remember how ancient Babylon celebrated the Day of the False King by turning the hierarchies upside down once a year. This idea would also be suitable for modern corporate life. Of course, the difference is that, instead of becoming servants for their customers and employees once a year, managers would adopt an open and receptive attitude all the time.

Tuomo Alasoini
The author is the director of Workplace Innovation and Development at Tekes

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