The Little Country that Could.

“I think I can… I think I can… I think I can.”

Sweden and Africa

We previously covered how (relatively small) Sweden dominates modern music and how that domination helps other innovative Swedish successes. In that same article, we also covered African creativity and innovation. Now we will move the focus to another part of the globe.

In a recent Red Bull related post of ours, the heroes are the Dutch engineering innovators.

This writer spent some years managing a Dutch-owned software house and thought that it may make sense to see what we can learn from the Dutch way of doing things.

The Dutch

Dutch history has more twists, turns, trials and tribulations than many South Africans (with a Jan van Riebeeck focus) would expect. South Holland, for example, was controlled by Spain between 1556 and 1714 - with Van Riebeeck arriving at the Cape during that period. The Eighty Years' War only managed to secure independence from Spain for the northern parts in 1648 - a mere 4 years before van Riebeeck arrived in the Cape. The Dutch anthem, today still, has the following words:

Een Prinse van Oranje ben ik, vrij onverveerd,
den Koning van Hispanje heb ik altijd geëerd.
Prince of Orange am I, free and fearless.
To the King of Spain I have always given honour.

Dutch Innovation

Holland is only about twice the size of the Cape Winelands. Yet this small (and thus potentially insignificant) country has since 'forever' been a hotbed of innovation and creation.

Even when Western Europe grabbed control of the rest of the world (roughly between the years 1500 and 1900), the Dutch did so largely through private enterprise, rather than as the Dutch state. Their Dutch East India Company (the VOC) was the world's first joint-stock-megacorporation (and therefore an innovation in that sense of the word too).

Here is a list of some of the most prominent Dutch innovations.

Outperformance of the highest order

Here is a staggering fact: Despite it's small size, limited availability of good agricultural soil, and imperfect climate, Holland is one of the world's top three largest exporters of food. How? Through innovation.

So, innovation seems to be their super power. How do they manage to innovate so much? Let's try to answer that question from personal experience and opinion (rather than through research, so please note this caveat).

The Secret Sauces

The Dutch are extreme pragmatists. If it makes sense, then they do it. And if it does not make sense, they don't do it. They generally don't do things for political or other such nefarious reasons. They don't endlessly talk, consider or dilly dally. They get information, make a decision and then they do (or they don't do).

They are extremely competent strategists. They consciously focus on strategy. A client of ours, for example, had one of the world's top 'engines' in a specific industry. Even so, they started work on an improvement to that 'engine' (using newer technologies) years before it was necessary (and we helped them do that). So, when the in-production 'engine' (which was also continuously being enhanced through an iterative approach) started to lose market-share, they simply deployed the new engine. They deeply understood the importance of R&D, of moving R&D into products, of making those products customer-first, and of operating those products well.

They make decisions. It was a culture shock, for me, to move from a South African retailer to working with these guys. Almost every single suggestion or proposal to them was immediately met with one of three answers. (1) Yes, let's do it. (2) No, we will not do this. (3) We need more information from you before we can decide. Light years away from the "okay, we'll have to think about this" (and then 'nothing') that is common in South African corporate environments.

They keep promises. When a Dutch person promises to "have that information ready for you by Friday noon", you get that information by Friday noon. This drastically reduces the numbers of communications, email trails, meetings, and reminders.

They are extremely demanding, but not unfairly so. When I first started dealing with them, they kept on demanding more and more until the burden became too heavy. I then pushed back and explained why the demands could not be met, and expected a huge 'fight'. They simply looked at the evidence, however, and came back with a "Okay, we understand. That's fine". This then happened repeatedly thereafter. And don't try to push back too early either. Then they won't "understand" and they won't back down.

Their mindset of continuous improvement also applies to their best practices and their dictates. In South African companies, best practices are often ancient unquestioned monoliths. The Dutch update theirs often.

Their politics is overt, not covert. You know exactly where you stand with someone (even when you are in bad standing with them). They tell you exactly what they think. The directors and I often had huge disagreements - and then we moved right along afterwards. They have fewer layers of deception and fewer hidden agendas than what is the case in most other countries.

Dutch people often have many (and diverse) academic qualifications. A person in Marketing may unexpectedly also be a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, and someone in IT may have a diploma in the History of Art too. (We will create a post, soon, about the advantages of being a generalist.)

One would think that the above traits are generally good traits - especially in business environments - and worth emulating.

The downsides to this? People from other backgrounds often see the Dutch as too demanding, not empathetic, rude, ill-mannered, disrespectful, etc. That notion even finds it way into advice such as in this article: "Dutch locals can be quite direct, which is often misunderstood as rudeness".

But, with that supposed 'rudeness' they then also have untranslatable feel-good Dutch words such as "gezellig". Google Translate says "pleasant". Uh, nope - close but no cigar.