Finland – the land of a thousand waterfalls

The difference between the waterfall way of thinking – “Diagnose, design, deliver” and the more iterative lean/agile approach – “build, measure, act” is most visible in the IT world, where much of the thinking originates. The same dichotomy can be observed also in business at large, and in the society.

I think Finns have an exceptionally deeply rooted bias favoring the waterfall model. It has served us well in the traditional businesses, which are either based on designing and delivering large-scale machinery (mining equipment, pulp & paper equipment, elevators, engines etc.) or making large-scale investments (pulp plant, power plant, paper mill etc.). When you are building something irreversible out of steel and concrete, there is no opportunities for A/B testing or minimum viable product deployment.

This bias towards the waterfall is also evident in the way Finnish politics and decision making work. The focus is almost always on designing and deciding the structures, policies and frameworks rather than focusing on action and change. Take the example of health care reform – so-called “sote” – where the past four years have been spent on debating the structural solutions. At the same time, front-line innovation and agile experimentation has slowed down as people wait for the grand design to emerge. What if the same energy spent on structural solutions for health care would have been spent on identifying, testing and refining successful ways of working in the actual front-line work of prevention and cure?

How could we get rid of the bias? Some positive observations

  • Some students are thinking in new ways. I was recently a judge in the Aalto Strategy Case Competition, where students were asked to present ideas for YLE (Finnish BBC equivalent). When a decade ago I was still competing actively in case competition, I think 100% of teams (including mine) would have proposed a “grand design” and a delivery plan based on a diagnosis of the facts given in the case. Now, 50% of the teams were still in the waterfall world, but the other half actually saw that a lot of experimentation, and experimentation culture, would be needed for YLE to find its place in today’s media world. And their solution was on how to iteratively make that “build, measure, act” approach work at the scale of YLE.
  • Some companies are thinking in new ways. We have innovative, often IT-focused, companies who have challenged the traditional ways of working. They have left the hierarchical organization model behind and are experimenting with more agile ways of organizing. They are launching products and changing strategy based on the frontline information from customers, not annual strategy processes.

But how to scale this type of thinking to the wider population in Finland?

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