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Business success and the value of doubt and of listening as practiced by Farinetti (of Eataly fame)

In times of uncertainty, crisis and great change, there are those who go in search of new “models” in the hope that these will help them to keep their businesses afloat, and there are those who turn to management textbooks and other “how-to” books that describe the “keys to success” and tell stories of other successful business people to emulate (something that is all to common in the more Anglo Saxon incarnation of the culture of enterprise). But it is in these times of crisis, fraught with both danger and opportunity, that there are also those who focus on the idea that the very soul of the true entrepreneur is one of eccentricity and non-conformism, one might even say heretical (a highly stimulating attitude in the Italian culture of enterprise), such that, instead of seeking refuge in the “safe” harbour of models, one prefers to look more towards the “anti-model” to spur others into action. This is what Oscar Farinetti has done on the back of his success with Eataly, ready to challenge old habits and traditional business practice (see, for example, the 27 October edition of CorrierEconomia), and his is a story that deserves to be heard.

“It’s better to have doubts that certainties,” Farinetti says. What is needed, he says, is a blend of agility, speed and determination in achieving objectives, but only after taking the time to understand what it truly is that is changing and how. “Determination in achieving objectives is essential, but not enough on its own. It must be accompanied by the ability to listen to others and by a willingness to change one’s mind.” In other words, more doubt and less preconceived certainty. A predisposition to challenge the norm, to have an open mind, to know how to pay attention to and take advantage of the ideas of others, to be carefree, and to look at things with a critical eye (as we have discussed on other blogs about the culture of enterprise), as well as a commitment to building leadership based on merit, rather than on the formalities of authority, on the wisdom of decisions and accountability for such decisions.

And there is something else to ponder as well: that of taking advantage of know-how, naturally enough, and of knowing how to tell the story of quality production, focusing on the needs of consumers and on their personalities. “There is an enormous contrast between what we have and the total inability to take advantage of those strengths. We lack the propensity towards marketing.”

To do business, we must identify our priorities and know how to manage them, but we must also be able to “manage imperfection”, because it is out of imperfection that we get something that is truly new, not standardised, mass-market products (and in high-volume industry, Italy is trailing the rest, but in high-value, niche markets we often cannot be beat). As Farinetti explains, Italy is the nation with the highest degree of biodiversity, particularly in terms of food and agriculture, and this is a key to success in the international marketplace. “Biodiversity has given rise to a vast network of small and medium enterprises that, if they were to unite their efforts and their distribution, could find great success in the United States, where they are starved for genuine Italian cuisine. In other words, “think locally and act locally” and establish a narrative that is not so much about the product as it is about the nation as a whole because “the product is a blend of both technology and history”.

That may sound like quite a challenge, but it is possible and is much more appropriate in a nation as complex as Italy than all those Anglo Saxon models are. Farinetti would also warn us to never give up, but not in the form of stubborn determination: “Focus energy on what is difficult, but don’t waste time on the impossible.”