Understanding what led to France’s economic success (and what may be contributing to its troubles) can help you adopt a mindset to navigate the uncertain times ahead. In fact, the French can sum up their success in three terms: “la finalité”, “l’esprit critique”, “le système D”.
Before discussing solutions to a problem, it is common to hear the French question la finalité of an initiative. Roughly translated as the final desired outcome or intended purpose, la finalité (which asks “what for?” or “to what end?”) serves a natural starting point. The French believe that if the ultimate purpose is clear, then the path to achieving it is easier to define – and also adapt to as changes inevitably arise. This forward-thinking approach focusses on the opportunity at hand and a shared vision of what every person on the team should work towards. Once la finalité is clear, it opens up the room for creative solutions to reach it.
Critical thought is developed in French high schools. Rather than build a case around a single, strong conviction, the French are taught that intelligence begins with doubt, in the form of a question – the hypothèse. A well-trained mind is then able to expand upon both reasons for (the thèse) and reasons against (the anti-thèse) before drawing to a strong conclusion (the synthèse). While an English “debate” usually involves two sides trying to win points by presenting arguments for the pros or the cons (the winner being the side with the most points), a French débat is a brainstorming session around a table where all parties explore all facets of a situation. The debate has a winner when a consensus is formed around the best idea that emerges from the exchange.
Le système D
With a D that stands for débrouille (resourcefulness), applying le système D means to be resourceful and find a way out of a complex situation (or to get through weighty bureaucracy). This mindset is rooted in the belief that if one way doesn’t work another one can be found, even if it may mean bending the rules. Instead of feeling powerless in the face of an obstacle, the French quickly look for alternatives and creative solutions thanks to le système D.
By working towards a la finalité, using l’esprit critique to determine the best path to take and then le système D to overcome challenges along the way, the French have developed a unique management style that helps them embrace uncertainty with confidence. With this potential for greatness, especially in times of change, the French should be leading global business to success. Yet, something is amiss.
France’s survival environment: have the French lost their touch?
In the last century, French working culture was characterised by paternalisme. The CEO was a strong yet benevolent “father” who guaranteed his workers a lifelong career and material comfort in exchange for their loyalty and labour. When one party seemed to ask for too much, the other would protest until a compromise was made to restore the balance between rights and responsibilities.
Globalisation in this new millennium has shaken the foundation of well-being with its focus on shareholders. Gone is the benevolent father-figure, replaced by anonymous hedge funds and venture capitalists. The trust that fed the environment of growth has been eroded with every financial scandal and broken promise.
Today, le système D is less about optimistic resourcefulness and more about working the system to serve individual interests. L’esprit critique is often experienced as “analysis paralysis” when the discussion doesn’t move beyond pros and cons. In fact, it can appear to be simply critical and overly negative. Finally, the focus on building share value has replaced la finalité or strong sense of purpose that had inspired the French to innovate fast trains, haute cuisine and medical breakthroughs.
And yet, the French have not lost their touch: their educational system still develops the mindset that can, in the right environment, breed the creative thinking and search for meaningful change that is needed today.
While some French are still pining for a corporate “daddy”, a new generation of innovators is busy at work in technological incubators and research labs, online networks and creative collaborations creating new pockets of excellence throughout the country.
So what can we learn from the French?
Regardless of where you are in the world today, business is a never-ending story of change. Make it your opportunity, by taking inspiration from the French at their best.
Create a vision for meaningful change – not just about the destination but about what will happen when you reach it. Let go of your convictions and need to be “right”. The truth doesn’t exist in black and white.
Solutions are offered up in a rainbow if you are ready to explore new ideas. When roadblocks appear in your path and you feel like you’re losing control, don’t panic. Instead of using your energy to complain, take stock of where you are and explore what other ways you might be able to get around it. You might very well find yourself on more exciting journey.
And if at any time you find that you’re really stuck, turn to a French colleague and ask them, “Que feriez-vous à ma place?” – “What would you do if you were in this situation?”. Sit back, observe and enjoy watching them expand your possibilities with creativity, hope and drive.
About the authors
Professor Carolina Serrano Archimi (right) is MBA director at AIX-Marseille Graduate School of Management-IAE: Carolina.firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathalie Kleinschmit is founder of Global’Ease Inc, Canada, and an MBA graduate of the school. She is also a visiting lecturer.