When Sweden Rules the World

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Creative Social has published its first book. Here, an abridged excerpt from a chapter written by Patrick Gardner, CEO, Perfect Fools.

ABBA brought us disco and still spawn catchy show tunes at an alarming rate. IKEA, the friendly furniture giant, won its way into our homes by serving up bookshelves and beds with a side order of... meatballs?

With a mere 9 million inhabitants Sweden has enriched the world with a wildly disproportionate number of popular creations – a fact also true in our own sphere of digital advertising, where the work of native digital agencies and production companies like FarFar ("Grandpa"), North Kingdom, Acne, Perfect Fools and B-Reel has been well known for years.

All this while less than .15% of the world's population is actually Swedish. So what gives?

I'm an American by birth I've lived and worked in Stockholm since 1994, almost all of that time in digital advertising. Along the way I've had a unique chance to watch the Swedish digital industry grow from an embryo into a svelte teen.

20 years ago I studied a unit on "The Swedish Way" as part of a college economics course. Swedish Social Democracy seemed to offer the best of all worlds; with its national healthcare, generous vacations and other social benefits, the nation's inhabitants clearly enjoyed a startling quality of life.

But after arriving in Sweden I found that Swedes today work not within the system described by my textbook, but rather in the system's aftermath. Sweden in the past thirty years, like the rest of the world, has drifted much nearer to democratic capitalism.

Yet the Swedish Way rolls on. Reformatted for the 21st century, Sweden 2.0 seems just as successful as ever. At its core remains a set of principles that have probably always driven the Swedish story. These are:

Responsibility with freedom
Swedes work hard and require each and every member of the team to deliver. In return they expect and generally get a degree of freedom to decide over their own work environments.

A willingness to stand up for healthy work-life values
As hard as Swedes work, they are equally demanding when it comes to their free time, with a state-mandated minimum paid vacation of five weeks. Any organization that would discriminate against them for taking necessary time away to relax is not one worth working for. This point of view may seem to reflect a slacker mentality but nothing could be further from the truth. Swedes take their careers very seriously so when they do finally get down to work they are recharged, full of new ideas and ready to get things done.

Swedish culture is self-effacing and it is considered "fult att skryta," "ugly to brag". In fact Swedes take modesty almost to a fault with a phenomenon known as "Jantelagen," Jante Law, an unwritten rule that can be summed up with: "Don't think you are special." Under Jantelagen behavior that even smacks of immodesty can be grounds for ostracizing.

Swedes are extremely competitive. But as members of a small nation they have also developed a keen understanding of the advantages and even necessity of effective collaboration. The result is something I've come to think of as "collabetition", a system that is competitive yet cooperative. Collabetition exists both within and between organizations. Within a business flat management structures enhance the personal sense of creative ownership and speed information transfer between all members of the team. Competitive Swedish businesses sometimes team up in order to overcome obstacles that may be too big to tackle alone.

Honesty, fairness and mutual loyalty
In Sweden, people speak their minds, lifting uncomfortable truths to the surface where they can be aired and exorcised more effectively. A sense of compact or loyalty also exists between employee and employer. When taking a job an employee generally aims to stick with their new place of work for three or more years. These many forms of honorable behavior enable simpler, more rational and at the same time longer-term choices.

Technical innovation has been a key ingredient to Swedish business success. Today's Swedish digitals benefited in their childhood from the country's innovation tradition in many ways, including access to state-subsidized home computers, as well as high-quality, government-funded communications networks.

Acceptance of failure
Finally, if all of these factors make the stereotypical Swede sound superhuman, take heart. They do fail, and pretty often as it turns out. However, a good cultural pressure-release valve comes to their assistance: a willingness to accept and learn from failure. While other cultures might blindly contend that failure is not an option, Swedes generally accept that some failure is inevitable. As long as it is honest and not repetitive, and especially if it is learned from, it is tolerated.

All in all, there are many elements of the Swedish Way that do make the country highly effective, and a number of these have also contributed to the success of Swedish digital advertising around the globe. Despite cultural differences these principles are just as applicable anywhere as they are in Stockholm. Swedes would never want to rule the world, but many aspects of the Swedish mentality do rule.

Ten Tips to Make Your World a Little More Swedish

1. Work hard every day that you work and be modest.
2. Prioritize your private life and refuse to compromise it away for work.
3. Tell uncomfortable truths and skip the jargon.
4. Always innovate. If it has been done before do it differently or don't do it at all.
5. Collaborate and give credit where credit is due.
6. If you've got that sweet corner office turn it into your team's project room and move your desk back out onto the floor.
7. Keep structures and titles as flat as possible. You may need your title on occasion but don't take it too seriously or use it as a wall.
8. Promote the doctrine that everyone contributes ideas.
9. Kill your darlings for the good of the project.
10. Cultivate a culture of responsibility with freedom and let people know they're allowed to fail.
More about the book and a link to buy here.
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