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Inspire 925 Conference

Yesterday, September 21, 2013, I had the pleasure and good fortune to attend the Inspire 925 Conference at the HUB Zurich. Having previously reported on what Inspire 925 seeks to do (See article on Newly Swissed), I will briefly summarize here. Inspire 925 was founded by Sunnie Tölle with the expressed purpose of helping businesses increase their employee engagement so that workers are happier, more creative, and innovative with the bottom line being that these soft factors lead to higher profits in these firms. To prove this point and show just how this can be done Sunnie pulled together a group of inspirational speakers from industry and academia.

Johnson and Johnson — A family of companies spreading ideas

Without giving a full summary of the conference, I would like to provide a brief overview of what I learned and took away from the conference. First, the companies that are not only opening themselves up to employee engagement, by actually helping their employees to engage and inspire each other are seeing the benefits. Johnson and Johnson is an example of this. Thanks to Steve Garguilo’s interest in TED and the organization of internal TED talks has given Johnson and Johnson a breath of fresh air. Employees from different departments are interacting, and knowledge, skills, and ideas are coming out and finding the important collaborators to turn them into reality and therefore helping the company to develop new products. However, it is important to note here that the company leadership firmly believes in this. This was surely not an easy development, but seeing the positive effects the Johnson and Johnson’s leadership has allowed Steve to create a new position for himself to ensure that this continues. Steve also told us that thanks to this new engagement highly talented employees who were considering moving to other firms, have found a new love for their work and doing more. For them, what they think and do matters, which is exactly what Google wants of its employees.

Doing things that matter

From an HR perspective, Daniela Landherr, Program Manager EMEA, responsible for employee engagement at Google, gave insights into Google’s hiring requirements and the company’s belief in communal areas where ideas can be exchanged and where employees can inspire each other. From an engineer in Zurich having the idea of gmail, one of the world’s most popular e-mail services, and his colleague giving him the motivation to tackle the idea, to group sessions of ideas and critique and reworked plans, community and human interaction is important at Google for turning ideas into products and services. Working in open spaces also gives employees the ability to tap into knowledge bases and skills of other people to get more work done. Googlers, Google employees, understand the idea of collaborative work. Of course, like at Johnson and Johnson, this only exists because the company directors and leadership have entrusted their employees with the freedom to gestalt their own workday and move freely between spaces. From several speakers and commentators at the conference, I took away that trust is a key issue. It starts with the leaders giving that trust to employees and the employees respecting that trust and not taking advantage of it. The second Google motto (after “don’t be evil”) is of importance and that is “doing things that matter”. When employees feel like their work matters, they will be dedicated to it. Here is an interesting RSA talk on motivation, which backs this up.

We need to redefine work, and that takes time

Having personally visited Google Zurich on a few occasions, I also know that the theory doesn’t always work (at least yet…) – not everyone will take time away from their desk to exchange ideas or enjoy themselves. I personally believe that this has to do with our societal training, which dictates that work is work and fun is fun. One goes to work to earn money, and relaxation is done after the 8 hour workday in one’s private time. Like our education system, I believe that this model is old and is slowly dying. I know different models can work, because in my firm, we have meetings while running, and they are often very fruitful and allow for more ideas to come about. However this shift takes time, changing culture, as was made clear in Carsten Sudhoff’s workshop, takes time, and companies need to understand this. I believe Google does, which is why they have maintained their philosophy, and neither force their employees into a pattern of behaviour, but rather entrust them to make that call themselves.

Meanwhile in the so-called traditional firms

leader vs. managerAn interesting observation from people working at big banks and other large traditional firms, shows that there is a somewhat superficial understanding of employee engagement. While surveys and appraisals are seen as important, and there is a want for the metrics they provide, this is done half-heartedly by people in HR who truly believe in the importance of employee engagement. Engagement, like corporate-social responsibility can often be used for publicity and to look good, but can be meaningless. If employee engagement and satisfaction are just buzz words in your firm, the decision makers don’t get it and the efforts are futile. As an other person in the workshop said, “Pick any employee on their first day of work, and I guarantee that they will have a 100% engagement. The secret is keeping that.” I believe engagement is kept through trust, purpose, vision and a share in the results. There’s a meaningful meme out there of leaders and managers. If employees believe that their manager is working with them, and not that they are working for him/her they will work better. There is a reason why Alexander the Great conquered the known world. He was the first into battle and the last out and fought shoulder to shoulder with his troops. He had their respect, because he was putting in what he was asking them to — that’s what leaders do. Businesses with high engagement have great leadership. Leaders who work with their employees, fight for them, help them develop and who show their their gratitude.

Great leaders facilitate engagement

Einstein FishLeadership is the other idea I took away from the Inspire 925 conference. Great leaders practice a few things themselves — there are plenty of online lists of the habits of successful leaders and gratitude is one of them. Leaders realize that they lead people, but the success they experience is the result of the collaborative work of the people they are leading. Leading also means finding strengths. The idea of strengths is Dr. Willibald Ruch from the University of Zurich discussed. A proponent of positive psychology and the teachings of Dr. Martin Seligman (I recommend Seligman’s book Flourish), Dr. Ruch spoke about finding our personal strengths and honing them. Again there is the famous meme based on the Einstein quote about a fish climbing a tree. Great leaders, help their team members build their strengths and then coordinate strengths (people) to achieve the optimal results.

Empowerment = power

To end this post, I would like to end with this thought: companies face two ways to improve their bottom line. They can make cuts: cut employee programs and the number of employees, which shows that its leaders do not have much hope for the future of the firm or its employees. Or companies can invest in their employees, invest trust, provide great leadership, connect strengths and believe that there is more potential in their company than meets the eye. The resulting creativity, innovation and collaboration, when this is done, is what will give the most successful companies with the happiest employees the chance to catapult themselves forward in an ever competitive business environment. A business is like sports team: If you train and praise your players correctly, they’ll bring you the wins you’re looking for. And lastly there is the old maxim that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. That holding true, a company is only as innovative as its least engaged employees. Maximize their engagement and you’ll maximize your innovation and get ready to be surprised.

Companies wishing to learn more about how this can be done, would benefit from contacting Inspire 925.

I highly recommend this post from Fast Company as well.


Early this morning the Euro countries headed by Germany came up with what they hope will be a solution to the Greek problem. They will give Greece another 130 billion euros at a very attractive interest rate. According to German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble this should help get Greece on financial track by 2020.

I don’t believe this will help. In six months Greece will still have the same problems as they have right now. How could this be you may ask?

The problem is Germany. Life in the German speaking countries has predominantly been dictated by a mentality of saving. Germany itself is an industrialized country where outputs are maximized and people worked till late in life. This morality of saving dictates how the Germans believe the whole mess started. They believe that Greece was simply wasting money and wants them to save save save. This is much like the Republicans in the USA pushing for ever more spending cuts. However, the issue is not just Greeks saving. In fact the cuts they’ve made have actually been more detrimental to the country. Since the start of the crisis GDP has fallen 9.5% and unemployment has risen to 14.8% (doubling since 2008).

Greece’s biggest problem, like that of many countries is that it’s income is not high enough. The EU and especially Germany should have got off their high horse of fiscal discipline and looked at the real causes of the fiscal anarchy in Greece.

The right way forward would be to understand why Greece has traditionally operated subpar on an economical level. The country needs an industry that goes beyond tourism. Why is the country producing less agriculturally than it did 7 years ago? Why is Greece not producing anything of real economic value for the rest of the world? Until Greece solves that problem it will not solve its real economic problems. Like many other countries, Greece is contending with a lost generation of educated but unemployed young people. These are people who would rather be working than protesting. However, similar to what happened in Scotland in the 19th century the well educated will immigrate to other countries in search of stability and opportunity and put the country into a further tailspin as it will not be able to innovate.

Back to balancing the budget at the utter hypocrisy of the Germans and the French, the Greek military has also just received a budget increase of 0.05% of GDP. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s 4.7 billion euros. In comparison, the budget cuts its been forced to make this year should save the country 3.1 billion euros according to the European Commission. While France and Germany can plan to profit from the military budget by supplying Greece with military equipment, the people of Greece will have even less money and services to help get them out of the fiscal mess they are in. Cutting military spending and asking the EU to act as a protector of Greece should Turkey ever try to attack would have been a better idea.

The European Central Bank and the German government would be well advised to talk with Mr Krugman on what works and what doesn’t when you try to grow your economies. Unfortunately strict financial morals will not gain investor confidence. Investors want to see growth and profits before they invest again.

Until Greece’s main economic problems are solved — making the country a productive member of the EU and creating a viable industry, no amount of money can save it.

The other day I was teaching English at a corporate client’s office when we started discussing politics. The discussion was started by a Thomas Friedman article from the New York Times. However, my students soon started to see the similarities that current Swiss politics have with American politics. And from there a great many issues surrounding the October elections were discussed.

Up until that moment I was quite aware that many Swiss people are not happy with the political direction that Switzerland is headed down. Books like “Die käufliche Schweiz”, written by insiders, show that these are not simply the feelings of some people with little time for politics, but real issues.

At the heart of the matter is a really the same problem that America and most Western countries face. It is an identity crisis mixed with an understanding of the big picture. By big picture I mean that many countries and even smaller political units fail to see that they are part of a bigger unit. There is a real need for systems thinking in world politics. People need to understand that the entire world, politically, economically and culturally is now connected. With this in mind I believe that Switzerland needs a party that addresses the following issues and posits a similar credo.

  • Switzerland is a country of diverse cultures and histories. Historically, different cities had different political structures. The country has four official languages and many many more dialects. Coupled with recent immigration patterns, Switzerland is a multicultural country and these differences and their ability to live together need to be celebrated. The people also need to respect others’ rights. That the country is being charged by the  Human Rights Court in Strasbourg is a shame. The country is better than that. No Switzerland is not being bullied, it is clearly in the wrong. That a mayor has resigned because of threats after voicing his support for multiculturalism in his city is disgusting. Again the country is better than that. Radicalizing opinions is dangerous. Tradition can and should be supported, but it cannot be put before societal progress.
  • Switzerland needs to be more active internationally. Despite the famous myth of Swiss neutrality, we need to acknowledge that neutrality does not exist. Up to the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) the Swiss cantons were exempted from fighting in Europe as along as they delivered mercenaries to the waring kings, princes, and dukes in Europe. During the World Wars they aided both sides and thus kept their people from needing to fight, but were connected with both sides. Today Switzerland is part of the UN and could be part of the EU and other organizations. Joining these associations would give Switzerland a voice in European/world politics.
  • Switzerland is not an island. Though many Swiss believe that the wealth of the country has come through their hard work, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Wealth from outside the country has poured into Switzerland since the First World War. Tourism and banking may be industries, but they can easily leave a country. People need to understand that every country is connected and without trade a country is doomed. Switzerland needs to cooperate with other countries to do what is right for everyone. To make an analogy: Switzerland is like a knight in chess — it’s easier to play with the knight, but you can still win the game without him. At present the country is seen as a cherry picker by the international community. This has to stop, Switzerland needs to show itself as a willing collaborator in ensuring that international laws and and regulations are upheld and that the betterment of the current world political and economic systems is of importance.
  • Switzerland’s greatest wealth is in the minds of its people. Innovation on all fonts needs to be the driving force of the Swiss economy. Research and development spawn new companies, sources of employment and wealth. Solving key environmental issues such as power generation would bring unimaginable business to the country.
  • A great part of Switzerland’s wealth lies in its nature. There is hardly another place on earth that has so many UNESCO world heritage sites so close together. Be it glaciers, bridges, old cities or vineyards, Switzerland’s natural beauty is a source of pride for its people and keeps tourists coming back time and again. This needs to be protected and the only way to do this is to make sure that strict environmental policy is implemented and enforced thereby challenging industry to innovate. 

Lastly, the Swiss and anyone who sympathizes with Switzerland’s political system need to be told that direct democracy is not a right, but a duty, a challenge and in many ways a burden. I say it is not a right, because a right does not intrinsically implicate responsibility.

  • Direct democracy is a duty in that it demands that all citizens vote, otherwise it becomes very easy for a minority to soon dictate the laws for the majority.
  • Direct democracy is a challenge, because it demands that the constituents be politically active and understand everything that is at stake. Political posters and fliers do not provide the full picture. Decisions must be evaluated for their full meaning and repercussions.
  • Direct democracy is a burden, because when excepted it must be carried out faithfully and always. Every citizen accepting direct democracy resigns their right to not vote and says that they will be politically active and always do that which is best for the country and best for the future of the country and future generations.

I believe that every Western country has it within their ability to secure themselves and change the world.

Swiss Innovation

July 21, 2011 — Leave a comment

Switzerland, a country that has often been compared to an island, comes across even more as being insular with the turbulent waters of the European Union’s debt crisis surrounding it. As the single European currency, the Euro seems to be on an ever continuing downward spiral the Swiss Franc, much to the chagrin of one of the country’s most important industries is rocketing to new heights. This of course has sent the Swiss out into the world as they seem to buy up whatever they can while its to be had. Even the national airline Swiss International will give passengers an extra 3 kilograms of baggage weight to lug back their loot from shopping trips to New York.

Then last week INSEAD released their annual Global Innovation Index for 2011, which had Switzerland at the top flying its white cross on a red background as a victor over other countries like Sweden (#2), Singapore (#3), Hong Kong (#4) and the USA (#7). When the news came out many Swiss proudly gave themselves a pat on the back and went back to work, while many of the Expats in the country looked around baffled. When they think of Switzerland innovation is not exactly the first word that comes to mind. Rather words like farming, tradition, isolation and finance are tops.

So how did Switzerland top the ranking? First off one must understand that the factors that make up the ration used to calculate the index are heavily sided on input. These sets are: Institutions (political, regulator, business), Human Capital and Research (education, tertiary education, R&D), Infrastructure (ICT, energy, general), Market Sophistication (credit, investment, trade & competition), Business Sophistication (knowledge workers, innovation linkages, knowledge absorption). The higher the ranking in these factors the more apt the stew is to brew up the innovative outputs: Scientific output (knowledge creation, knowledge impact, knowledge diffusion) and Creative Outputs (creative intangibles, creative goods and services). Looking at it, we see that more inputs are needed than outputs.

It is with regard to inputs that Switzerland has a great advantage. Geographically we are dealing with a small country with a high population density. This has allowed the country to build an amazing infrastructure from rail to energy. Then there is of course its stable government structure. Add to that a very low taxation rate and wealth pours into the country as it seeks to hide from larger less efficient state tax authorities. To legitimize themselves many of these companies of course carry out massive amounts of R&D in Switzerland. Also being home to many of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, high-end engineering and food science firms also helps.

What one needs to understand though is that it is not the Swiss themselves that are producing all of this innovative wealth. It is taking place in Switzerland, but is in large part being done by Expats, who are filling the high paying jobs in Switzerland as the country has a huge gap in its knowledge market. The ship of Switzerland has many wholes to fill and institutions eager to fill them and keep the boat afloat are stuffing them with highly educated Germans, Brits, Indians and Americans.

This phenomenon has two lessons to be learned as well as highlighting an intrinsic fact about Switzerland.

The first lesson is that a constructive tax policy can be beneficial to many countries hoping to attract foreign capital. This comes with the caveat though that taxes remain high enough to cover the costs of infrastructure that industry and economy need. It must also work hand-in-hand with social laws that protect worker’s rights and guarantee a good quality of life. Taxes can be low if companies are then required to take proper care of their employees. In the USA companies like Walmart are actually a problem, because they pay their employees so little that they employees actually still require financial aid and other social services from the state. Anyone working a full time job should not need to rely on any government aid for their survival.

The second lesson is that even a developed country like Switzerland, where there is a high demand for highly educated people, can experience a shortage of brain power. The most valuable natural resource any country has today is not found in the ground, but in its people. Imagination and problem solving are worth more than oil and gold. Any country wishing to secure its future must invest in education and aim to be the first to solve the problems that the world faces today: climate change, energy production, disease, food production.

The last idea that I believe is often ignored when looking at Switzerland is its size. The country is one of the smallest in the world with a fairly high population density located in a few key positions. Each canton acts nearly autonomously when making tax laws. The advantage is competition between cantons to ensure the best choice for constituents. However, this too can become a race to the bottom, when short sighted tax cuts will leave coffers empty to fund the maintenance and development of infrastructure, which was one of the main attractions for foreign investment in the first place. However, it must be said that smaller units do a better job addressing problems. Thus the best performing companies have offices of maximum 150 people. With this fact it is also not surprising at Singapore and Hong Kong are also located near the top of the index.

Switzerland is a country where a great deal of innovation takes place. This is due to its strategic positioning regarding inputs. The politics of the country have allowed it to be innovative. Many of these innovative inputs are actually sourced from abroad and the innovation they produce on Swiss soil is actually exported. If Switzerland hopes to remain on top though, it would be well advised to invest more into its education system especially in regards to critical scientific thinking.