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Ilkka Niemelä: When trying to fix something, it’s important to start by understanding the problem

‘If we have the right organisational culture and we see each other as worthwhile and interesting, then small actions can set great things in motion,’ says Ilkka Niemelä in the first ‘Walk in my shoes’ interview.
When Dipoli was being renovated in 2017, Ilkka Niemelä happened to be present during the installation of the artwork and ended up supporting a painting from one corner. Photo by Severi Kasurinen.
When Dipoli was being renovated in 2017, Ilkka Niemelä happened to be present during the installation of the artwork and ended up supporting a painting from one corner. Photos by Severi Kasurinen.

In the ‘Walk in my shoes’ series, Aaltonians talk about their experiences and perspectives. Inspired by the saying that you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes to understand them, the series aims to share some of the experiences, thoughts, perspectives and challenges faced by another Aaltonian. Our first interview is with Aalto’s president, Ilkka Niemelä.

In your free time, you like to work with your hands. Why is that important to you?

A president’s work is quite abstract, and its results are often seen years later. It's nice to be able to do something where your handiwork is immediately visible.

Secondly, I'm a researcher - after all, I’m also a professor. To me, doing something or fixing something are about problem-solving.

Responsibility and moderation in life are also important values for me. When something breaks, my first thought is not to buy a new item to replace the old one. Instead, I consider what small repairs could make it usable again. I appreciate old things.

I repair almost everything, and I'm quite brave about it. Once, the door to one of the Dipoli rooms was pretty tight, and I noticed that there was a groove under the tongue in the lock that hadn't been sanded. There were metal edges. If I'd had a file with me, I would have fixed it myself. Instead, I suggested that someone from the maintenance services should come and grind out the burr so we wouldn't have to replace the lock. 

In 2017, Dipoli was being renovated, and I happened to be there when one of the artworks was being installed late. Soon enough, I was holding up the artwork by one corner.

Likewise, a president’s work involves dealing with situations where something needs to be fixed. My approach is to think about how to deal with the matter so that everyone can move forward. When trying to fix something, it's important to start by trying to understand the problem. It’s often the case that what we see on the surface isn’t the real problem but it comes from some other root cause.

What is your emotional vision of Aalto?

We are a community with a growth mindset. I think that, as individuals and as a community, we strive to be a little bit better tomorrow than we are today. We're moving forward, tackling issues responsibly but boldly, while appreciating what our colleagues are doing. We’re open-minded, we engage in collaboration, and we learn together.

What do you think is the most effective way to create cross-disciplinary cooperation?

It’s really important to me personally that we value each other. I believe in that very strongly. The way you treat other people determines the culture of an organisation. We accomplish a lot more when we have respectful interactions.

In the roles I’ve had throughout my career, I’ve learned how much of an impact respectful interaction can have for things like managing common issues or solving problems.  It can help people find a common way out of an impasse.

It’s important to consider whether we have the right incentives for collaboration in the organisation and to make sure that disciplinary boundaries aren’t an obstacle. But ultimately, collaboration isn’t about the organisation, boundaries or rules but about will and interest. It’s how we meet, how we relate to each other, and how much we interact.

It’s also a question of organisational culture: what kind of culture and community we build and how we value and listen to each other. Culture eats incentives and other factors for breakfast. If the culture isn’t right, no matter what structures and incentives are in place, collaboration will not happen. On the other hand, if we have the right organisational culture and we see each other as worthwhile and interesting, then small actions can set great things in motion.

Ilkka Niemelä: It’s really important to me personally that we value each other. Photo: Severi Kasurinen.

It’s really important to me personally that we value each other.

Ilkka Niemelä

What inspires you about meeting people?

I try to learn from every encounter. It's typical of me to try to understand and look ahead. I really enjoy meeting different people and learning about their work, their thinking, their values, their humanity, and their attitude to life.

People's personalities are fascinating.

Can you share a story about your work?

The role of the president involves making decisions about professorships. When tenure is granted, it’s enormously rewarding to marvel at the fact that the person has done so much more than anyone could have imagined at the time the position was opened and they began the work. Their field might have taken a big step forward, and the person grown into a researcher of international standing. We expect to recruit someone who will take responsibility for an area and then we actually get a trailblazer!

Our community is full of potential that’s impossible to anticipate. Everyone thinks organisations do great things, but it’s ultimately the people who play a decisive role. That's where the huge surprises come from.

Given the chance, people can grow in their role, and the end result can be much more than we ever dreamed.

In his lecture, Esa Saarinen quoted hockey coach Jukka Jalonen saying ‘play the way the game demands it’ - what does that kind of game look like at Aalto?

I have the impression that coach Jukka Jalonen expects that your basic game is in good shape. Then you can make decisions according to a specific game situation.

That means that there has to be excellent research and teaching competence at the university. Only then can we tackle whatever challenges a situation or game presents. That could mean taking advantage of a technological breakthrough or new knowledge or helping deal with a pandemic or some other disaster. But if we don't have our basic game in place, we won’t have the competencies to respond the way a situation requires.

Ilkka Niemelä: If we have the right organisational culture and we see each other as worthwhile and interesting, then small actions can set great things in motion. Photo: Severi Kasurinen.

Ultimately, collaboration isn’t about the organisation, boundaries or rules but about will and interest.

Ilkka Niemelä

What would you like to change at Aalto?

I’d like to see more appreciation towards others. I would like us to give feedback in a constructive and respectful way. This applies to the whole community. We are all an important part of it.

Critical discussion is an essential part of the university, as it should be. But it can be done in a way that is respectful of the other side. That means leaving out inappropriate parts and not making it personal. I don't think those belong in this community at all. That’s an area where we could still improve.

And what would you like to strengthen?

I like the fact that people are passionate about what they do. They want to go further and do even better. We have to create space for that, and often that means taking risks.

The next level is to do things passionately together, with the right partners. Through encounters and curiosity, we can discover what our colleagues are doing and build collaborations with respectful interactions.

What would you like to happen at Aalto when someone makes a mistake or fails?

I think failure is part of what we do, and there should be nothing strange about it. If we always succeed, we’re not being brave enough. The bottom line is what we can learn for the next attempt.

What’s it like to walk in Ilkka Niemelä's shoes?

I meet a lot of people inside Aalto and get to know new things. I have the chance to meet people who’ve done great things. I get to learn from them, and that's wonderful. I’m a curious person, and it's very inspiring and rewarding.

In my job, I also meet a lot of external stakeholders and get to tell them about all the great things that are happening at Aalto and the important work we do, and to justify why it deserves the resources it needs.

On the other hand, it’s good to counterbalance this by saying that sometimes I have very difficult tasks. The role of president involves being responsible for many different things. These can be financial, human resources or ethical issues. Sometimes there are really difficult issues, and it can feel like there’s no good option at all. But even in those situations, the president has to make the decision.

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Walk in my shoes

Inspired by the saying that you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes to understand them, the ‘Walk in my shoes’ series aims to share some of the experiences, thoughts, perspectives and challenges faced by another Aaltonian.

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Walk in my shoes, illustration by Anna Muchenikova.
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