The power of small teams: lessons from Denmark for business leaders around the world

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Being a forerunner, whether in a technology, a market or even a transformation cycle, generally translates into a competitive advantage. It’s the power of small teams that can nimbly create and adapt to rapid change.

It is therefore not surprising that for my home country, Denmark (5.8 million inhabitants), being small was not a barrier to entrepreneurship. In fact, Denmark has ties to tech startups like Skype (its co-founder is Danish) and currently has eight “unicorns” – startups that quickly reached a valuation of $ 1 billion. Indeed, as we have also seen in sports such as football and badminton in Denmark, little ones can lead to big wins.

As Stephen Alstrup, professor in the computer science department at the University of Copenhagen, CEO of artificial intelligence company SupWiz and member of the Danish government’s new digitization board, told me in a recent conversation: “ In Denmark, we have been able to be successful by being extremely good in quality, but not in quantity.

It’s a lesson for business leaders around the world. Groundbreaking ideas, innovations, and solutions to the toughest problems don’t require the scale of giants like Apple, Google, or Microsoft. As the researchers write in Harvard business review have discovered that big teams are good at advancing and developing science, but it takes small teams to create disruption.

However, small, high performing teams require adequate access to talented people who have a growth mindset to continuously improve. Without this development of talent, innovation lags behind and the advantage of early entrants may be lost. As the researchers added, “if we don’t really want to support and nurture small teams that disrupt conventional thinking by generating new directions, it’s possible that innovation, the engine of economic growth, is slowing.”

From precursor to sliding behind

Denmark’s achievements in technological innovation are directly linked to its status as a pioneer in the field of information technology (IT). For example, the Department of Computer Science (DIKU) at the University of Copenhagen was founded over 50 years ago and its founder, Peter Naur, became the only Dane to receive the coveted Turing Prize for his contribution to the development of ALGOL 60., a programming language, and as a co-creator of the Backus-Naur form, which forms the basis of the formulation of most modern programming languages. After Naur, Denmark continued the tradition; for example, C ++, the most widely used programming language, was developed by Bjarne Stroustrup, also Danish.

“A lot of our achievements today are based on an investment made 20, 30 or even 50 years ago,” Alstrup added.

Given this heritage, Denmark has held a leadership position in IT and has been able to attract some of the best and brightest from around the world in areas such as algorithms, semantics, machine learning. and AI. Unfortunately, this may not be the case in the future.

As a Danish entrepreneur with operations in Denmark and the United States, I have witnessed how immigration policies and xenophobic attitudes can hinder innovation and the development of a more solid and dynamic. As a 2020 survey conducted for Digital Hub Denmark revealed, Danish business leaders continue to push for more initiatives to ‘accelerate talent attraction’. Otherwise, “the lack of digital skills can have catastrophic consequences for the growth, development and innovation of Danish companies”.

Local talent will not be enough, especially as Denmark lags behind countries like the UK and Norway in teaching IT in primary schools. “Even if we start investing heavily in talent development from today, I’m really scared for Denmark and how they will avoid falling behind,” said Alstrup.

Open more doors

Denmark is in urgent need of skilled talent, with an estimated shortfall of 19,000 skilled IT specialists by 2030. That number, Alstrup said, assumes existing initiatives will be implemented and outsourcing will continue. “But perhaps most important,” he added, “less than half of the workforce feels they have sufficient computer skills. Computing which has been produced by a few and consumed by many has become something that most of us need, both professionally and personally.

The talent situation in Denmark also reflects an IT skills imbalance that exists in many countries. For example, the shortage of skilled talent has persisted for many years in the United States, with IT being one of the most difficult roles to fill.

As regards Denmark specifically, the significant talent gaps should be addressed by investing in upgrading the skills of the workforce and opening the doors to more students and foreign workers. But it is generally the opposite.

Denmark’s homogeneity and relatively low immigration levels do not make it attractive to non-Danes. In addition, policies that reduce the number of university-level courses taught in English may make it more difficult for foreign students to study in Denmark and then find employment there.

This problem should look eerily like the outcry among tech industry leaders in 2020. When the previous US administration cracked down on immigration, tech leaders expressed concern that they could not recruit highly skilled talent from around the world.

It’s more than just a matter of numbers and filling vacancies with talent from outside a country, region or organization. The point is, while a homogeneous team may have less conflict, a heterogeneous team often excels at decision-making and innovation. If companies want to encourage more break-ups and innovative thinking, they need to make sure that not all of their team members are mirroring each other in their backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.

3 steps to closing the talent gap in Denmark – and everywhere

At the risk of being too simplistic, there are three key considerations for building small, innovative teams that can generate the types of ideas and solutions that give the first mover the edge.

1. Make people feel welcome. When a culture, be it that of a country or a company, is insular, it is difficult for others to feel “at home”. Beyond the politics and policies of the United States, Denmark or any other country, business leaders must consider their own attitudes regarding welcoming talent from anywhere and integrating it into their workplace. corporate culture.

2. Focus on the 1, not the 100. The need to build teams can shift the focus to quantity. Good talent, however, is hired one person at a time, especially when building small teams. As Alstrup observes: “A lot of times someone comes to me and asks, ‘Where can I hire 100 people? I tell them, “Think about where you can hire one person who can attract 99 more. ”

3. Invest in tomorrow. The talent of tomorrow must be nurtured today, from elementary to secondary and beyond. It is not only the purview of education leaders, but also business leaders who can influence policies, provide grants / funding, and offer internships and other opportunities to learn and apply new skills. .

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