Product Culture Jon Moore

Lessons from IKEA

By SVPG Partner Jon Moore

As Partners in SVPG, we spend much of our time working with individual companies, helping them understand what it means to be a tech-powered product company, focused on strong value creation and how to transition to an Empowered model.

Accepting the real reasons for product failure is often a tough message for teams to hear, because it can closely reflect current company culture. Indeed, culture is a key topic, because the move from Delivery or Feature teams to Empowered teams affects and impacts much more than the traditional product organization.

There is always pushback. In legacy businesses (companies who are not technology natives), it is not uncommon to hear “this can’t work here,” “this is too alien,” “this is a US model, it won’t work in [insert ‘x’ country],” “this is a software model” or even “this can only work in a pure technology company.” 

The argument isn’t that the company doesn’t fundamentally believe in the benefits such a transformation can achieve. The argument is “even if we believe in it, it won’t work here.” One of the key means of overcoming this, often entrenched, argument is to explain that the core principles at the heart of strong companies have long been espoused by the best entrepreneurs, all over the world. They are most certainly not new. Neither are they specific to technology.

Consider the following quotes:

  • “[Find] people who dare to take responsibility. The fewer such responsibility-takers a company has, the more bureaucratic it is”
  • “Development is not always the same thing as progress”
  • “By always asking ‘why are we doing this or that?’ we find new paths”
  • “What is good for our customers is also, in the long run, good for us”
  • “Exaggerated planning is the most common cause of corporate death”
  • “Time is your most precious resource”

It is easy to imagine these principles coming directly from Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, but instead they were written almost 50 years ago, when much of the technology we rely on today was in its infancy.

In 1943, one of Sweden’s most famous sons, Ingvar Kamprad, founded IKEA under the mission statement “to create a better everyday life for the many people, by offering a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.

Some 33 years later, after rapid and global success, Ingvar found time to distill his beliefs into an impressive reflection of entrepreneurial culture, in his short essay Testament of a Furniture Dealer

The document is remarkable for a number of reasons, not least because it explicitly reminds us that many of the major themes we coach at SVPG today have long been at the heart of the most impressive organizations. 

“Development is not always the same thing as progress,” Ingvar writes, concisely highlighting what we mean when we tell teams today to “focus on outcomes over output.” 

When he says “expensive solutions to any kind of problems are usually the work of mediocrity,” he fires a warning shot, criticizing mediocre teams who rush mediocre solutions to market. 

Today, we understand that one of the key principles that underpins strong product teams is the knowledge that even our best ideas can and will fail. Ingvar is also clear on this point, stating “only sleeping one makes no mistakes.” Indeed, he goes further to remind us that “the fear of making mistakes is the root of bureaucracy and the enemy of development.”

His declaration that “waste of resources is one of the greatest diseases of mankind” has long been at the heart of Lean Startup principles, and his desire for people to take more direct responsibility has a strong parallel today when we call for individuals to act like owners, not just employees (a message Jeff Bezos has consistently communicated).

Beyond these individual characteristics, Ingvar then turns his attention to leadership and the need for active leaders to make the tough choices: “we can never do everything … all at the same time”. 

He also leaves us in no doubt of his strong allergic reaction to an over-emphasis on process when he says “exaggerated planning is the most common cause of corporate death,” reminding us that innovation rarely comes from a strategic workshop. 

The strong parallels between these beliefs, as described some 45 years ago, and the culture that underpins successful organizations today are striking.  The best leaders we know strive to live by these same principles. 

Ingvar’s Testament of a Furniture Dealer serves to remind us that the core principles of entrepreneurial culture have long stood the test of time.