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Tintin and The Business Art

Tintin set foot on the moon the year I was born although I didn’t realise it until 8 years later when I read the Hergé’s story ”Destination Moon” in the children’s section of our local Sunday newspaper. This changed my view on life forever. Sunday after Sunday, I followed my new hero and became absorbed in his universe. I soon started to buy his albums for the money I made on my newspaper route.

I was with Tintin on the Moon long before Neil Armstrong got there, I climbed the mountains of Tibet and followed Tintin all the way to Peru and the Temple of The Sun; we were in China together and sailed to the Arctic to bring back a piece of a shooting star. Before I was twelve I had learnt that adventure would wait for me around the next street corner, that I didn’t have to invent it but I just had to grab it when I was offered a little snip of excitement. I learned that there were greedy bankers and bandits everywhere but also courage and friendships and that even good people were flawed, which didn’t really matter in the end. But most of all, I learned that the world and the future are exciting and nothing to be afraid of.

At a point, I was forced into the real world where I became a reporter (like Tintin) and eventually a consulting futurist helping business leaders to imagine a new a better future. I went to university and learned such things as Porter’s Five Forces, SWOT-analyses, blue ocean strategies and Professor Christensen’s theory about disruption. I have read tons of management books and written a few myself, but when I think of my forty years in business and if you ask the hundreds of clients I have advised and coached my most valuable contributions don’t come from academic business models or management theories they come from my deep understanding of the adventurous universe the Belgian cartoonist Hergé created for Tintin and his friends and adversaries.

Most business leaders have a century old industrial approach to their organisation; they see it as a piece of machinery or in recent years, a piece of computer software that can soon think for itself. They run it with fixed rules that are supposed to deliver predictable results. They set objectives and devise strategies where people are treated as mere resources like wheels in a clockwork machine. Yet, the clockwork never runs as planned. Real world businesses go from one crisis to the next; they never follow those optimistic curves drawn by executives on whiteboards. The curves go up and down and nothing goes as planned despite scientific management. Few leaders are equipped to handle this unreasonable chaotic business reality; they don’t appreciate a good crisis and they don’t treasure their failures.

When you come from a Tintin universe you do. On an expedition with Tintin, Haddock and Snowy through the desert you know that nothing goes as planned, you have to improvise, you have to show courage, ask for help and trust other people, discard old plans and make new plans, make new enemies and new friends. This is the definition of adventure.

I’m not rejecting the value of skills you acquire at business schools and apply in boardrooms. I’m just pinpointing the limitations. Despite some of the best management thinkers in the world at the helm we see, every year, gigantic corporations crumble. They try and fix the machinery or the programmes but they miss a dimension in their world perception; they believe that running a successful company is all about money, technology and order. I have worked for banks and insurance companies all my life and right now they all say: “we need to digitise” or “we need to invest in new technology” believing it will mend their broken lines. It won’t. Technology and money are only half of the equation. The other half is wonderful people with seemingly chaotic behaviour, which is poorly described in management literature but richly in art. Actually, it’s the lifeblood of art.

Recently, I was invited to participate in a new network of business consultants and coaches who are aiming at helping companies to grow and perform new and ambitious moonshots in an unpredictable future. That’s gefundenes fressen for an old tintinologist like me and my new colleagues in did not disappoint. They don’t come from business schools they come from the art world. They direct plays – produce films – they are choreographers – scripts writers and artists – they come from a world of drama, chaos and unpredictability where they see businesses as narratives; they can help leaders change the corporate storyline that will take their businesses in a new direction.

My immortal hero Tintin is almost a century old. He first appeared in 1929 in the Belgian newspaper “Le Vingtième Siècle”. At that time the 20th century was new and still exciting. The Great War was over and Europe had to re-invent itself. Tintin took on this challenge with adventurism. He was always in sync with the world and the first to move into the unknown.

We need this approach today. Often, when I’m in dialogue with a business leader who doesn’t know what to do I ask him the question:

“What would Tintin have done in your situation?”

The answer is never “He’d wait and see” – it’s normally “Tintin would act”“He would think of something” “He would be willing to take the risk”

And when I ask: “Would Tintin succeed?”

The answer is always “Yes”

and when I continue: “Will you succeed?

I always get another “Yes”

Tintin has the ability to pull people out of their grey boxes full of trivial problems and mediocre solutions into a bright new universe where everything is possible and luck will be on your side.

He offers a new dimension to understand and define business. And we need that desperately. Capitalism is in crisis; Rastapopoulos and Colonel Müller are getting on with their plans. We are facing a new future – not very different to that Tintin was facing in 1929 – where traditional management thinking is insufficient to start a new narrative for business in the 21st century. We need our Belgian hero to do that.

By Nils Elmark

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