Exploring the Nordic Track to Ideation and Productivity with PROI Worldwide

When was the last time you intentionally did something to get outside your comfort zone?

If your answer is “I don’t know” or “I can’t remember,” you’re not alone. There’s a logical reason many of us don’t wander outside this imaginary space we create for ourselves…it’s uncomfortable! Leaving behind familiarity and routine in exchange for the unknown can be scary and stressful. But you know what else it can open you up for? Growth.

That’s why I decided to travel 5,000+ miles from San Francisco to Norway last year to participate in a PROI Worldwide exchange program, sponsored by Jackson Spalding.

PROI is a partnership of 75+ top independent PR and marketing agencies spanning five continents, 50 countries and more than 100 cities. The exchanges provide an opportunity to share ideas and knowledge, learn more about the international community that affects our business and clients, and strengthen relationships with partner agencies – all of which provide a vehicle for growth.

I chose Norway for my exchange for two reasons:

  1. I wanted to learn from our talented Oslo-based PROI partner Släger, a boutique public relations agency known for their visual story-telling skills (check out this video campaign they created for SOS Children’s Villages, which went viral across the international community and helped save 26,000 children from freezing).
  2. I have Norwegian blood. My great-grandparents immigrated from Norway to Minnesota in the early 1900’s. A few years ago, I discovered we still had distant family near Oslo and met them very briefly while traveling through Norway with my mom, sister and aunt. Ever since, I’d been pining to get back and learn more about my roots.

When I stepped through customs at the Oslo airport after weeks of planning and anticipation, I expected to feel a pang of anxiousness. Three weeks in an unknown place, staying with distant family – strangers, practically – inserting myself into a workplace where English was a second language. What wasn’t there to be anxious about? But as my eyes searched the throngs of people in arrivals for my host, I felt unusually calm. Like I was in the exact place, at the exact moment in time where I was supposed to be. And that feeling stayed with me the entire trip.

Every morning for two weeks, I rode the train about 30 minutes from Eidsvoll, a small municipality just northeast of Oslo where I was staying with family, to Oslo’s city center. I spent my days with Släger, learning about their client work and their creative process (more to come on that in a second), and my evenings and weekends with family. This allowed me to truly immerse myself in Norwegian life and absorb the local culture.

After my exchange was over, I tacked a third week onto my trip to explore artic Norway. My travels started in Bodø, home of Saltstraumen, the world’s strongest  tidal current/whirlpool, then continued out to the Lofoten Islands, a place so uniquely beautiful it brings a tear to the eye, then on to Tromsø, “the Paris of the North,” and finally all the way up to the Northern-most settlement in the world in Svalbard, an archipelago about 650 miles from the North Pole where there are more polar bears than humans. The entire experience was magical.

Reflecting back, here are some of my favorite moments, key learnings and fun tidbits of knowledge from my Nordic adventure:

  1. Creative productivity must be fostered
    I loved how intentional the Släger team was about fostering creativity both inside and outside the walls of the workplace. Three things that really stuck out from my conversations with partner and creative mastermind Henning Sverdrup:

    • Everyone ideates differently.
      At Släger, they are all very different at ideation as a group, and they recognize that. So, they spend a lot of time brainstorming individually before sharing their ideas as a group. It was a good reminder that not all minds thrive in a group brainstorm environment.
    • You never know where an idea will come from.
      You could be doing something completely unrelated to your work, like reading a book to your children at night, when something you see or hear can spark a really good idea. That’s why your brain should always be “on.” Exercising your brain and keeping it on its toes is also key. Exposing yourself to new things – people, places, experiences, art forms – and training yourself to make observations can go a long way in contributing to creative productivity.
    • Volume is critical.
      “The Scream,” painted by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, is one of the most important and iconic pieces of modern art. But can you name any of his other works? Munch created thousands of paintings and drawings, but he is only known for one. The takeaway: the more ideas you come up with, the more likely you are to have a winner. That’s why the Släger team regularly brainstorms ideas even when they don’t have a specific client or project that requires it.
  2. “Hipp hipp  hurra!” Syttende Mai is a celebration like no other
    When I was planning for my trip, the team at Släger strongly encouraged me to schedule my exchange so I could be in Norway for the 17th of May, or as the locals call it, Syttende Mai. It’s the national holiday commemorating the signing of Norway’s constitution in 1814, and it’s one heck of a celebration. The day is full of national pride, children’s parades, family gatherings, hot dogs (served with Lefse instead of buns, of course), ice cream, speeches and musical performances.The most unique part of the celebration is that everyone wears a “bunad,” which is the traditional Norwegian costume. There are hundreds of different bunad styles from all over Norway. The various styles indicate the part of the country your family is from. These garments are worn for special occasions in Norway (weddings, confirmations, etc.) and many are passed down through families for generations. It was a very surreal experience to not only have the opportunity to wear a bunad myself but be surrounded everywhere – literally everywhere you look – by people wearing these traditional costumes. It was like stepping back in time or being on a movie set. Such a special day and without a doubt, one of my favorites from the whole trip. Fun Fact: Norway modeled their constitution after the United States with many similar amendments. However, the writers built in one very significant difference: that the constitution could and should be changed as society changes.
  3. A super-efficient work environment
    One of the most immediate observations I made was the efficiency in the work place. Everyone arrived to work early, was heads down most of the day, ate a quick lunch (Norwegians get 30-minutes for lunch compared to an hour in the U.S.), and then left at a very reasonable hour, usually around 4 PM. Leaving work doesn’t always mean you are done for the day – it’s not unusual for people to log back in after-hours to finish some things up – but in general, the more efficient you are during the workday, the more time you can spend with the people and things you love outside of work while there is still daylight. In Norway, work-life balance is very important.
  4. There’s no place like hytte
    Going to the hytte, or cabin, is basically the national pastime of Norway. It seemed like almost everyone I met had a cabin in the mountains, woods or in some remote, picturesque area. No matter the time of year, when Friday afternoon hits, most people are in the car heading to the hytte for a quality weekend with family and nature. One thing I really appreciate about Norwegians is that they don’t let weather hinder their life. I’ve heard it said that Norwegians don’t think there is such a thing as bad weather, just bad clothes. Rain, snow, wind or shine, they prepare with the proper clothing (never underestimate the importance of a base wool layer) and go about enjoying the outdoors. And whether they’re hiking or skiing, there’s one thing they will not leave the hytte without: Kvikk Lunsj (Norwegian for “quick lunch”). It’s basically a Kit Kat bar, but it holds a very special place in the heart of Norwegian people. This chocolate bar is synonymous with spending time outdoors; its slogan is even “tursjokladen,” or “hiking chocolate.” Chocolate and hiking? Sounds like a perfect match to me!
  5. The gapahuk is so much more than a hut.
    The sun didn’t set until 10 PM during my exchange. After taking the train home to Eidsvoll after work each day, there was plenty of time to enjoy the beautiful spring weather. On some evenings, after a home-cooked dinner together, my family and I would hike into the woods for an hour or so. I cherished these moments; the sun low in the sky, light beaming through the brilliant Norwegian wilderness. It was during these evening hikes that I was first introduced to the Norwegian concept of the gapahuk. At its most basic level, the gapahuk is an emergency weather shelter, free for anyone to use anytime. But really, it’s so much more. They’re found all over Norway and vary in size. Some are no frills – just three wooden walls with a roof. Others have fire pits or stoves, tables and chairs, guest books, maps and pictures on the walls, and tools for maintaining the site and nearby trails. In some communities, they serve as a gathering place – I learned of one gapahuk where neighbors gather daily, early in the morning before work, to enjoy a cup of coffee together. What’s incredible is the fact that these places are maintained by the locals. Everyone does their part to respect the area for all to enjoy. I was struck by the sense of community, the pride for the natural environment and the overarching belief that nature belongs to and should be accessible to everyone.

Of all the things I experienced during my exchange and travels, the number one thing I learned was how important it is to intentionally get outside your comfort zone. It’s something most of us don’t do enough, but when we do we learn, we adapt, and we grow – personally and professionally.