In May and November of 2018, I traveled to Norway to do user research. I don’t have any depth of experience with Norwegian culture. What follows is my outsider’s view and interpretation. I doubt it’s the whole story.
I tried hard to understand my surprising findings by chatting with Scandinavian friends and by researching cultural norms, but there are always limitations in how much an outsider can truly understand.
I still have more questions than answers.
“You should never assume. You know what happens when you assume. It makes an ass of you and me. Because that’s how it’s spelled.”
Ellen DeGeneris said that, but I’ve heard it all of my life. I’m sure you have too.
I’m going to tell you a story about making assumptions in some design thinking sessions in Norway.
Help desk agent work is currently evaluated by KPIs, such as how many tickets agents resolve or how fast they resolve them. There is an industry trend toward broadening collaboration between agents, because it will help customers get their issues resolved more quickly. But if an agent is taking time to help another agent or multiple agents are working on the same problem, the metrics that enterprises use to judge help desk agents will all get worse.
So, changing the way agents work requires changing the way their work is evaluated. I went to Norway to run three design thinking sessions to do generative research, looking to discover how work could be evaluated when collaboration increased.
I met with a defense contracting company, a police department, and an information technology company.
With all three, I ran into unexpected cultural issues that had a profound impact both on the sessions themselves and on my findings.
Asking people to think outside the box or come up with wild ideas conflicted with two Norwegian cultural norms: selvbeherskelse and janteloven.
Let me explain.
Lots of people told me that it’s hard to get Norwegians to “defrost.” Design thinking sessions need people to feel free to come up with weird ideas and be creative. Selvbeherskelse, or self control, is highly valued, and I was asking people to step outside of their comfort zones. Acquaintances joked that the only thing that would help would be if I brought booze to my sessions!
The second cultural speed bump, janteloven, not only impacted the session itself, it also showed me that everything I thought about how work is evaluated and judged is actually dependent on my own cultural frame of reference.
Norwegians are taught to not stand out and to not to single anyone else out either. Imagine an annual work review where everyone is told the same thing: “Your work is fine.”
There are no superstars. There are no under-performers. Everyone is good enough. It is also culturally unacceptable to call attention to your own good work.
Norwegians call this janteloven, or the “Law of Jante… a code of conduct known in Nordic countries that portrays doing things out of the ordinary, being personally ambitious, or not conforming, as unworthy and inappropriate.”
The law was originally formulated in a satirical novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, by Aksel Sandemose, and can be summed up with “You are not to think you’re anyone special or that you’re better than us.”
Workers who are obviously trying to get ahead or appear better than others are breaking societal norms. It is uncommon to acknowledge that anyone is better than anyone else. Subsequently, layoffs and firing people are almost non-existent in Scandinavian corporations, and it sounded like annual work reviews don’t happen as they do in the United States.
This cultural norm also impacted the session. No one wanted to contribute an idea that might stand out in our session. But, more importantly, it called into question the entire premise for my visit.
Remember, I was there to find out how work could be evaluated in the future.
But I’m in a culture where…everyone is just good enough.
Curiously, despite this cultural norm, participants wanted to be superstars or wanted their poor performing peers to be called out. They felt it was unfair that they worked so hard and got no more reward than their “lazy” peers.
What they longed for was societal pressure to make people feel they had to contribute. Sloppy work from peers creates rework. Solving the same problems over and over again because the knowledge wasn’t being captured in reusable form was irritating to every single person in the room. Some fantasized creative punishments and social shaming for those not pulling their own weight.
Further, individual after individual mentioned that others did not want to collaborate because these other people wanted to be “special superheroes.” (But of course, no one in the workshop admitted to being that guy!)
There is pressure to conform, but emotionally, people still want to be better than others and want to be recognized for their work. They know some of their peers are cutting corners or are only picking up the easiest tasks and leaving the hard tickets for other people.
As a UX designer, it was humbling to see, first hand, how much my own cultural blinders limit my thinking about what people need and want in our software. If I could do it all again, I’d have taken more heed of the warnings about defrosting! And I will never again think that monocultural discovery work tells the whole story.
When I returned to the United States, I spent a lot of time trying to unpack my experiences and figure out how I could do things differently. I happened to speak about it with a friend who is involved in the acting improv community. Improv is a form of theater where the plot and how characters interact with each other are made up in the moment. Good improv requires people to loosen up and get out of their comfort zone. My experience sounded familiar to her, and she told me about improv warmup techniques.
Although I could not bring booze in, next time, I’ll draw from improv techniques to get people to warm up and have a warm-up exercise in my pocket. I would hope that even the ‘frosty’ Norwegians would likely be drawn in by some of these techniques.
As for not figuring out how work should be evaluated in the future….well…that’s part of why we do research. When we don’t get the results we expect, it’s an opportunity for creative solutions to problems we didn’t even know we had. Isn’t that why we go out into the field in the first place?