The Tastes of Sweden

Greetings. For many of us, food is an important part of travel and a great way to get a deeper understanding of different cultures. And it is safe to say that Swedish cuisine has had a real renaissance in the last ten or fifteen years as innovative chefs have taken remarkable local ingredients and turned them into novel and award-winning creations. Gone are the days when Swedish cuisine could be summed up by Swedish meatballs, boiled potatoes, herring, gravlax or anything to do with a salmon, fresh strawberries and ice cream, lutfisk…a weird Nordic recipe of gelatinous fish soaked in  lye and surstromming…a fermented herring that was once described by a Japanese researcher as the worst-smelling (i.e., “putrid”) food on the planet. And that is saying a lot! In concert with the new Swedish cuisine, the Swedish spice cabinet has also expanded beyond salt, pepper, and dill, to include a vibrant mix of the world’s most engaging flavors.

Lax Tallrik

But let me take a few moments to scratch beneath the surface of Swedish cuisine to give you a sense of some of the country’s more interesting offerings.

Let me begin with sauce. Swedes love sauce. And it is safe to say that most meals would not be complete without the appropriate sauce. There are sauces for different types of fish dishes, sauces for different types of meat and game dishes, sauces for different types of potato dishes, and even a wide array of sauces for many of the most popular desserts including vanilla sauce, chocolate sauce, and even salt licorice sauce that can be used to top off your favorite treats. As someone who is not particularly keen on licorice I find this to be amazing at best and scary at worst.

Licorice Sauce

And Swedes are also crazy about aioli, which is kind of a sauce too.

Swedes also love food that comes in tubes. The most popular of these staples of the Swedish kitchen table is something called Kalles Caviar, a bright blue tube filled with creamy fish roe that Swedes put on sandwiches of eggs, cheese, or simply butter. It is kind of like peanut butter for Swedish children. And this delicacy has morphed into an ever growing collection of taste sensations that include caviar and cream cheese. Now Swedish engineers just have to figure out how to get a decent bagel in a tube. But that’s not all, you can buy mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, soft cheese and shrimp, and even herring and mackerel (yes, that’s right, herring and mackerel) in a tube. And, of course, you can also buy sauce in a tube.

Kalles

Swedes also adore candy (or “godis”) and the typical Swedish grocery store devotes a disproportionately large amount of space (by American standards at least) to a wide assortment of loose candy to be filled into handy little bags, packages of chewy candies like the especially popular Bilar (“Cars”), and candy bars. And even the world-renowned “Swedish Fish” which are made in both Sweden and Canada. I must admit that Swedish chocolate is delicious. And you can even mail candy bars to friends through the Swedish postal service (or “Posten”) simply by putting their address and a stamp on the bar itself.

Candy by Mail

Now I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about Swedes based on their food, because as French lawyer and politician Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin is credited with saying:

“You are what you eat.”

Though I think he said it a bit more cleverly.

Cheers! Or should I say “Skol!”

On the Road in Sweden

Greetings from Sweden. Those of you who follow this blog or have read “The Necessity of Strangers” know that I regard travel as one of the most remarkable ways to learn new things and stretch our thinking about how to reach our full potential as individuals and organizations. So during the next couple of weeks I will try to share some ideas, insights, and observations from my latest visit to the land of Vikings, Volvo, Skype, Spotify, and marinated fish. But before I get started it is worth noting that not everyone here in Sweden is blonde. Granted there are a lot of blonde Swedes, but many Swedes who have been here for countless generations have dark hair and there are a growing number of immigrants moving here from a wide range of not particularly blonde places. People who are bringing with them new ideas as well as new traditions, languages, religious preferences, music, foods, spices, and ways of doing business. It is simply becoming a more diverse place which poses challenges but also brings many new possibilities.

Swedes are really into technology and are innovators in many areas including IT and the internet, telecommunications, transportation, energy efficiency, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and medical technology, and even defense and aerospace. I use the word “even” in referring to defense and aerospace because Sweden has long prided itself on being a neutral country–a neutral country that creates and provides weapons to lots of non-neutral countries. And the Swedes also have a reputation for being quite concerned with automotive safety. They accomplish this in two ways. One, by engineering cars to be as safe as possible. In fact, for several decades Swedish automakers Volvo and Saab were widely regarded as the safest car brands. And two, by having strict societal pressure and significant penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol. As a result, a percentage of party-goers are automatically designated as non-drinking (alcohol that is) drivers who take on responsibility for driving their beverage-consuming family and friends home. And the hosts of parties throughout the country often provide a variety of special non-alcoholic drinks to make their experience a bit more palatable. On the engineering side the list of Swedish automotive safety advances is particularly long and includes three-point seat belts, side impact protection, car crumple zones, integrated child safety seats, and pedestrian detection systems. And I was struck by two interesting features of my 2015 Volvo xc60 rental car. It turns out that the car has a camera specifically designed to read every speed limit sign and to instantly post the speed limit clearly on the car’s speedometer the second that it changes. This helps drivers to stay continuously focused on the speed limit without having to remember the last sign that they passed. It also has self-adjusting high beams that turn themselves on and off when (a) another car is approaching or (b) the lighting environment changes (i.e., when driving into a town or city). This is pretty cool and makes it easier to focus on driving without having to continually be on the alert to turn off the high beams before blinding an oncoming driver. And there are probably a bunch of other things the car can do that I simply haven’t discovered yet. It is also worth noting that the highway department in Sweden has the ability to preempt every car radio to provide information to drivers on accidents or road closings along their way.

road-sign-recognition-keeps-you-aware-of-speed-limits-and-potential-hazards

We win in business and in life when we are continually innovating in ways that matter. And when we are all focused on traveling and driving as safely as possible.

Cheers!

A Failure to Communicate

Greetings. One of the great joys of summer is the time we spend in a small village on the west coast of Sweden. Here along the North Sea we visit with family and friends, kayak, fish, hike along the rocky cliffs, pick mushrooms, berries, and mussel shells, experiment with new and creative recipes using our favorite local ingredients, and swim in beautiful and refreshing water that is remarkably warm given our location at 58.33 degrees north (roughly the same latitude as Juneau, Alaska). It’s warmth is a gift from the gulf stream and the twenty-plus hours of sunlight on most days that is part of Sweden’s magic this time of year.

And we also try to understand and appreciate the habits and traditions of the people who live here throughout the year…habits and traditions that have been shaped by geography, culture, history, the calendar, the weather (without question the primary topic of conversation here), and the very nature of being human in a world constantly reshaped by technology. And one of my favorite habits and traditions here in this peaceful corner of the country that gave us Skype, Spotify, and a bunch of other online innovations is the act of going to the mailbox (or mailboxes) along the main road at 10:30 every weekday morning when the postman or postwoman arrives. It is an event that provides an opportunity to connect with neighbors, talk about the weather, and to hope for an actual letter from a close friend or relative somewhere in Sweden or half way around the world.

Vassviken Mailboxes

It’s also an event that most of us miss in our faster-paced lives. Lives filled with emails and text messages in which we rarely take the time to write a real letter filled with experiences, meaning, emotion, hopes, dreams, questions worthy of thoughtful answers, possibilities, and real friendship. Letters filled with words that come from the heart and that offer a powerful commitment to be more open and more fully connected with someone else’s life.

Too many of us seem to have lost this ability to actually communicate in our personal and our work lives. To get beyond sharing facts or links, making essential arrangements, and handling necessary transactions. This ability to put pen to paper in the hope of building stronger connections and deeper relationships. And, as a result, we’ve lost a wonderful part of what it means to be alive and present for as little as ten perfect minutes every week day.

It is something that the residents of a remarkable little village on the west coast of Sweden refuse to give up. No matter how strong their internet connection is, their desire to connect as humans will always be stronger.

And shouldn’t we be the same way in our companies, organizations, and the rest of our lives?

We win in business and in life when we take the time to communicate in ways that really matter. And when we nurture relationships that regularly bring us to the mailbox with a sense of community, joy, and possibilities.

Cheers!

P.S. In case you are wondering, our mailbox is the one on the left with the seagull on it…and we are anxiously awaiting your letter.

The Magic of Personalization

Greetings. On a recent visit to the local grocery store here in Hamburgsund, Sweden, I was struck by the latest Coca Cola bottles with common Swedish names. Bottles that have generated a lot of excitement among shoppers who eagerly search for their own personalized refreshment. Hanna, Sara, Linda, Lisa, Hans, Erik, Mats, Matilda, Bjorn, Christian, Maria, Eva, Ulla, Sven, Lotta, Peter, Alexander, Mattias, and so on. Bottles filled with the same famous and widely-popular commodity product that has somehow figured out, after all these years, how to become uniquely personal in the simplest of ways.

If only Alan was a more popular name in Sweden then who knows, I might become an even bigger consumer of Coke.

Seeing these customized bottles also led me to recall a colleague who once lamented all of the clutter in his virtual mail box. “I’m overwhelmed by email,” he noted. “All I really want is me-mail. Mail that quickly demonstrates that the sender is thinking about me and only me.” Another hint at the importance and the magic of personalization and how all of our companies and organizations can be much more successful by connecting with those we have the privilege to serve on a way more personal level even when they buy the same basic product or receive the same basic service as everyone else.

So take a few minutes to imagine how you and your colleagues might make things even more personal and meaningful for your customers. And if you are a bit stuck, trying wandering around your community or the web for examples of how other leading businesses are changing the equation.

Coca-Cola

We win in business and in life when we personalize our offerings. Even when we offer roughly the same product, service, experience, or message to lots of different people.

Cheers!

Reinventing Waiting

Greetings from Sweden where innovation is almost everywhere. Today I’d like to share a few observations about public transportation and its role in Swedish life…

As one might imagine, public transportation is more widely used here than in the U.S. where most Americans spend an awful lot of time driving to work alone. And there are lots of very compelling reasons why Swedes rely on a remarkable assortment of buses, trams, trains, boats, and even shared bicycles. Reasons that include public transport’s central role in the design of cities and regions, its abundance, quality and reliability, and the high cost of driving an automobile. Still, this is a somewhat more reserved society and jokes abound about the challenges Swedes face when participating in a “shared” enterprise like commuting. Some of you have probably seen the following meme…

Swedes at the Bus

While it’s not entirely fair,  it isn’t entirely off the mark. A lot of Swedes do like to keep to themselves or at least have a bit of “alone” time. But then, a growing number of Americans seem to go through life attached their iPods and earphones and more than slightly oblivious to the world and people around them.

But back to our story…

Even great public transportation requires people to wait sometimes…a reality that has sparked some exciting new ideas. In the town of Hallinden, local officials have installed games like “Tic-Tac-Toe” and mirrors at bus stops to keep people amused and even encourage them to interact until their bus arrives. It’s a simple and clever way to deal with one of the greatest challenges of adulthood: DWELL TIME. A challenge that adults around the globe struggle with in a wide variety of settings that include standing in line at the grocery store, waiting to see a doctor, buying tickets for a concert, and being put on hold by the phone company…not to mention waiting for your least-punctual family member to be ready to go anywhere.

Tic tac toe

And in the city of Umea an energy company has installed phototherapy lights powered by renewable energy at bus stops to counteract the darkness in winter that has often been cited as a leading cause of depression.

Two creative ways to reinvent the challenge of waiting that could spark your thinking about how to make your company or organization’s dwell time more meaningful.

We win in business and in life when we don’t keep people waiting. Or, when we make waiting a time to learn, play, and become more energized.

Cheers!