What Is Lagom, and How Can It Create a More Balanced Approach to Work and Life?

When the Global Innovation Index 2017 was released, Switzerland and Sweden led the pack — as they have in previous years.

What makes this part of the world such a beacon of creative thought?

As someone who was fortunate enough to live and work in Sweden, I’ve come to believe the answer might be hiding in a single word: “lagom.”

Like many other non-English concepts, lagom defies quick or simple translation. It’s more of a cultural belief than mere letters strung together to signify objects or actions.

But what is it, and how can we use it at work and in life?

Finding lagom takes some practice, especially for those who were not brought up in Nordic countries where lagom is as natural as fjords and icy winters. And yet, it might be the key for businesspeople who are mired in a losing, imbalanced approach of creating products and then searching in vain for users — not to mention, those who simply want to find better work-life balance.

The Barrier of Black-and-White Thinking

A barrier to embracing a lagom mindset is the prevalence of binary thinking. Left or right. Yes or no. Certainly, there are times in life when such starkness makes sense; no one would argue, for example, that at a train crossing, you would sit partway on the tracks instead of either stopping or going.

But in the business world, effective solutions and answers are rarely black-and-white. Unfortunately, many struggle to see shades of gray when it comes to product development or product-market fit. 

That sheds some light on why throwing convention out the window sometimes leads to success.

“Why can’t I connect travelers with local hosts for a whole new travel experience?”

“Why can’t I combine riders with independent drivers via an app for better taxi experiences?”

“Why can’t I create a taco shell made with Doritos?”

Lagom at Work

Despite some trends toward blended products — lagom in a product context — it isn’t easy to see how to incorporate this concept of varied perspectives into your business. I struggled to see it myself, in fact, until I attended an international hackathon in Ireland.

Our team was comprised of eight engineers and two marketers, including myself. The challenge: Come up with a new kind of conference identification badge that people would love.

After brainstorming, we dismissed the notion of a traditional paper name tag encased in plastic, instead opting for an electronic one with image and video capabilities. 

Those who have read Arthur C. Clarke’s 3001: The Final Odyssey might be vaguely reminded of the nanochip inserted into everyone at birth to allow for more seamless introductions. Our suggestion, I’m proud to say, was less invasive — but just as compelling.

We hoped that the badge would spur serendipitous moments for conference-goers via an embedded tracking mechanism. Our goal was to make it the centerpiece of a novel, productive conference experience. On that, everyone agreed — but soon, the classic engineer-marketer battle ensued. 

Sometimes, engineers tend to be product-centric and marketers, well, market-centric. In our scenario, the former focused on the ability to solve our problem using the product, while the latter concentrated on the user experience and costs.

It wasn’t until we reached a blended, balanced approach — lagom — that we managed to create the final product that both sides had hoped for.

A great product only sells if it satisfies a market that’s willing to pay for the solution. Any product lacking balance is destined for a bumpy and potentially fatal debut. 

Product-Market Fit Through Balance

Nathan Furr and Paul Ahlstrom, co-authors of Nail It then Scale It, hit the proverbial nail on the head when they rhetorically asked:

With this question, Furr and Ahlstrom referred to a phenomenon that I’ve seen in over two decades of working with entrepreneurs and corporations: Achieving early product-market fit exponentially increases a startup’s chances for success. Getting there, however, requires finding lagom. 

Let’s face it: You’ll get feedback on any solution … eventually. But entrepreneurs are often blinded by a passion for a specific solution. Instead of listening to unadulterated feedback, they might peddle products in search of an audience. Watch one episode of “Shark Tank,” and you’ll immediately see why that’s a disastrous approach.

A key milestone for me, which was essentially my “aha!” moment, was the realization that striving for product-market balance required exceptional listening ability. The only way to see a situation, or a product, from more than one viewpoint is to listen and accept others’ ideas — then, challenge and question everything they’ve said with curiosity and sincerity.

Balance.

The only way to do that — the only way to balance your company vision with the needs of your market — is through repeated, meaningful customer conversations. 

Always Focus on the Customer

Customers naturally focus on their needs. As an entrepreneur, I realized that instead of guessing at those needs, I could learn what they are through conversations with my audience. Only by actively seeking market insights could I craft my business strategy, make better product decisions, and promote customer loyalty.

This epiphany has become the basis of everything I do and teach. By shifting from the “what” to the “why,” I’ve become aware of just how much of our decision-making depends on the internalization of others’ ideas.

Most of us would like to believe that we make decisions consciously and individually. But back in the early 2000s, Harvard professors determined that 95% of purchase decisions are made subconsciously, posing quite the challenge to marketers.

That’s why better business decision-making requires us to unearth our customers’ innermost thoughts and feelings. Yes, it takes practice just like any skill. Those of us who didn’t grow up in Nordic countries may find the pursuit of lagom — by way of talking to customers, and perhaps even strangers — challenging at first.

But doing so springs us from the trap of self-centeredness and facilitates raw, human-to-human connection. That’s where lagom — and true balance — really begins.

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