Suomalaiset Arvot, paralysis by analysis and organisational design

two weeks ago, a story broke on how a Finnish ministry missed out on a joint procurement deal by the EU to place a bulk order on PPE (protective gear).

Due to “uncertainty” on the process, who was in charge, etc., etc. Finland missed joining the bid. Roughly at the same time stories broke on the purchase of “off-market” stocks of PPE from people with a tainted past – purchase which were seemingly made without the regulatory tendering processes.

This story shows a behavioural tendency which is built on cultural values.

Finland, like every other country, has shaped its own emotional preferences for dealing with certain situations. One is that in Finland, people like to listen to people who they deem to be experts. This has led to a situation where, in general, those who get promoted into managerial positions, are the experts (similar to e.g. Germany and Japan).

Now imagine a situation where you are part of the PPE procurement team and you are faced with an immediate need for certain equipment and you trust your boss to know what he/she is doing, as he/she is the boss, and thus must be an expert. But let´s say you are that boss, and you don´t know what you are doing, as you have never faced this situation before (and hence cannot be an expert).

In Finland, people are well equipped in scenario thinking – which is the ability to prepare for multiple scenarios and quickly jump from A to B should scenario parameters change.

The downside of this however is, that when confronted with a situation which is not planned, things stall. In order words, people do nothing (paralysis by analysis). The behavioural tendency to structure risk (planning the unknown) is something we call “Uncertainty Avoidance”. 

The problem is that when no responsibility is taken – this behaviour becomes the norm. And people forget that every upside (scenario thinking) has its downside (paralysis by analysis). In Latin American countries it can lead to the “mañana, mañana” stereotype, in the Middle East it can explain the “Inshallah” word – When people have done all they possibly can within their own means – it is left to higher forces. In Finland the result appears to be “we do nothing and hope this passes over”.

In organisations where people do not take responsibility for their failure to have planned for the unknown, there is an increased risk of organisations not being able to “think on their feet” as everybody will be looking for an expert. The problem with subject matter expertise is a limited field of vision. Not something you wish to have in your key leadership positions, where people are supposed to be able to look around them and make calculated decisions (based on input from subject matter experts).

As the future will only hold more “Unknowns” and HR as a business partner will need to help organisations with other issues coming from the VUCA acronym (Vulnerabilities, Uncertainties, Complexities and Ambiguity), there are a few things you can do:

1. Make sure you understand how Finland, as a country, has chosen to shape its approaches to six social dilemmas (of which Uncertainty Avoidance is one). (https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/) - these are the behavioural tendencies people, at group level, tend to show when dealing with threatening situations (like COVID-19).

2. Understand how these value preferences are spread throughout your own organisation (this can be measured)

3. Understand who you promote and how emotional preferences can lead to working practices being followed or more easily by-passed (this can be measured). In times of crises, people will generally fall back on sub-conscious emotional preferences instilled by group behaviour (not individual behaviour).

Egbert Schram

Egbert Schram is a Dutchman, residing in Finland. He acts as the Group CEO of Hofstede Insights, a global cultural advisory, advising individuals, organisations and governments on the impact of culture on work life. Currently having operations in 60+ countries, and a global practice of about 150 people (of which 93% outside of Finland).