This week, Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Ikea, died at the age of 91. Ikea is a unique company, happy to build its fortunes by taking the road less traveled. No small part of that comes from Mr. Kamprad’s personal mantra: “Regard every problem as a possibility.”1 This mentality became a driving force behind Ikea’s business model, allowing it to evolve and differentiate itself against every other furniture company in the world.
This mentality is one that meshes well with various concepts in Design Thinking and the Agile methodology. Once such concept is the idea of a Minimal Viable Product, or MVP. The idea of an MVP is that we can release a product with enough features to satisfy the products purpose, without having to package every single feature we can conceive as part of the initial launch. The MVP is great because it allows us to capture information and feedback from real users that are experiencing the product, and that feedback can be incorporated into future releases, allowing the product to grow and change over time.
Another mantra of Design Thinking is something along the lines of “Fail fast to succeed faster.” It accepts that we probably won’t get it exactly right the first time, but it’s important to learn and figure out what does and doesn’t work, so those insights can be rolled into the product, making it better over time. As we will learn here, Ikea wasn’t always what it is today, but they were able to get products out there, learn from customers, and build an incredible brand over time.
For Ingvar Kamprad, the “MVP” that allowed him to found Ikea in 1943 was a mail-order business selling pens and nylon stockings. By 1948, Ikea started to also sell furniture as part of its mail order business. So how did Ikea get from there to where it is now? By regarding every problem as a possibility. In 1953, Ikea was selling and shipping furniture the “normal” way, fully assembled, making it quite difficult and expensive to ship. That year, designer Gillis Lundgren joined Ikea as catalog manager, and would go on to revolutionize a portion of Ikea’s business model. To photograph a table for the upcoming catalog, Gillis Lundgren had to transport the table to a local studio, but had problems trying to fit the table into his relatively small car.2
What started as a problem turned into an incredible opportunity for Ikea: package the furniture into flat-pack parcels, allowing for simple warehousing and shipping. And that is not the only part of Ikea’s unique take on selling furniture that turned problem into opportunity. The idea for customers picking up their own furniture from the store arose when frustrated customers, feeling like there were not enough employees to help them, began going into the warehouse themselves and getting their own furniture. Seeing this as yet another way to allow customer initiative to keep cost low, Ikea quickly made this a large part of their business model.
Every living thing on this planet has problems. If we think of business as living things, by extension, they also all have problems. But if we take Ingvar Kamprad’s mantra to heart, then all living things also have opportunities. What differentiated Ikea was not that they had problems, but by how they responded to them. Gillis Lundgren could have solved the issue of getting the table in his car without using that moment to change the way Ikea did business. Maybe he could’ve used a company truck to transport the table instead. And the store manager that noticed the customers running into the warehouse to get their furniture could’ve just hired more employees. The difference is they weren’t just solving a problem, they were uncovering opportunities. It allowed them to go from small business in Sweden to global corporation with nearly $40 billion in revenue.
Hopefully the example Ikea’s story has provided inspires us to not see problems, but rather opportunities. It’s nothing more than a shift in mindset, but it is incredibly powerful. Solving problems encourages reactionary changes, and band-aid fixes. Uncovering opportunities encourages exploration, empathy, and applying insights in new ways. So, in honor of Ingvar Kamprad, remember to regard every problem as an opportunity.
1Liedtka, Jeanne, and Tim Ogilvie. Designing for growth: a design thinking tool kit for managers. Columbia Business School Publishing, 2011.
2Brownlee, John. “The Man Behind Ikea’s World-Conquering Flat-Pack Design.” Co.Design, Co.Design, 28 Apr. 2017, https://www.fastcodesign.com/3057837/the-man-behind-ikeas-world-conquering-flat-pack-design