“I want to be Peter Vesterbacka” (on Samsung and innovation)



(This column originally appeared in Tieto Viiko magazine, republished with permission of ‘No Fear’ author Pekka A. Viljakainen)

Right now Samsung is the biggest technology company in the world. It’s also the only one that all-knowing American analysts rank in the top five alongside Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google. The strategic difference with Apple is vast.

Where Apple swears by a tight focus and a very limited number of products on the market, Samsung is absolutely everywhere. When Apple says the consumer will want a screen that is X inches wide next year, Samsung will roll out 20 to 30 models with every imaginable width and let the consumer decide what’s going to fly.

There is no digital device or development that Samsung doesn’t have in its portfolio. This hits home in a very concrete manner as I walked past Samsung’s insanely huge stand here at the International CES in Las Vegas. I was an idiot like so many others and thought Samsung’s strength is in its cheap, Asia-based production, but that can’t be it. Everyone’s gadgets are manufactured in the same fields in central China.

For a Finnish manager the way Samsung is run would be a real challenge. Who’s going to go report to the corporate board that 90% of products that reach the prototype phase and 80% of products that reach production are going to flop?

Who’d be willing to shower thanks on the team that developed the see-through washing machine that went nowhere and give them the responsibility for building the company’s next hit? Everyone would laugh at this manager. Who’d want to take public responsibility for losses running up into the hundreds of millions and apportion the blame for mistakes?

No, the way we do things involves careful preparation, cold reasoning and systematic resource allocation. If anything goes wrong, the problem is dealt with swiftly, the project run down, the team broken up and the accumulated experience dispersed into the organization, silently and efficiently, and then it all starts over with a clean slate.

As I’ve said time and time again, this is a huge challenge for Finnish IT experts and CIOs. If IT-professionals are satisfied merely doing what they’re told and thinking the thoughts that are officially their business, nothing truly revolutionary will ever come out of it. Certainly no major mistakes will ever be made, but then nothing else will happen, either. Tired, flaccid and hermetic are adjectives applied to many a fallen societal model.

At a Skolkovo related event I asked the young entrepreneurs what their own learning and development goals as leaders were for 2013.

Alexey is a cool guy and can often be found in the front row. He has a handle on a potentially important technical innovation related to energy efficiency. He answered without hesitation: “I want to be Peter Vesterbacka.” His colleagues in the audience laughed and even I, in my role as a steadfast bureaucrat, had a hard time keeping a straight face.

So Alexey continued:

”Well, Peter isn’t really incredibly rich, in the looks department he is certainly no George Clooney and the car he drives is a bit crappy. As a Russian I was always taught that nothing will ever work out, I should stick with what I know and if I reach too far beyond my grasp, I’ll just fall on my ass. I’m so sick of this attitude. I want to get up in the morning and take over the world,” he deadpanned.

The people in the hall were hanging on his every word.

”An honest desire to look all over the world for new things to learn, to cooperate with and trust people… These are things I’m not good at and why I want to be more like Peter Vesterbacka.”

If you’re Finish, you might write this youngster’s comments off with something like: ”It’s easy to swan around and investigate the world if you make your money selling nothing, like game companies do. I work in an established field where everything has been invented and I already know it all. We’ll be lucky to make it through the year.”

Believe me, people, that’s not the way it goes at Samsung and it’s not the way it goes at your company. A tin machine that washes underwear is in fact an extremely interesting opportunity. Some people have the courage to explore and others don’t.

To quote Peter Vesterbacka: “This is just the beginning.”

Here is a brief video compilation from Samsung’s press conference at CES.

For those of you who are super interested, you can watch their whole key note (1:46 mins) as well.

(Text written by Pekka Viljakainen for TietoViiko Magazine, reprinted with permission of the author)

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About the author

Pekka A. Viljakanen

Pekka Viljakainen spent the past 20 years as an ambassador between business executives and technology teams. With a background in engineering from the University of Technology Lappeenranta, Pekka began his career as an entrepreneur in 1986 by establishing Oy Visual Systems Ltd. In 1998 Pekka joined Tieto through the acquisition of his company. There, Pekka's reputation and track record for handling very complex governance and political topics inside large international organizations and delivering results earned him the nickname "Bulldozer". His team consisted of 8350 people in 24 countries of Tieto International. Pekka is the chairman and author of the No-Fear project with its global network of executives. He is an advisor to the president of the Skolkovo Foundation.

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