Ikea shows why curiosity is vital for companies to survive

Managers should give answers instead of asking questions. And nosy employees wreak havoc in the company. These widespread assumptions are a fallacy.

Without curiosity, companies are doomed.

Onemorepicture / Thorsten Wagner / Imago

Ikea has a large fan base – apart from angry customers who give up after hours of tinkering with the notorious assembly instructions for a piece of furniture. So-called Ikea hackers, who design their own creations using the furniture store’s conventional products, are particularly impressed by the brand. A Billy shelf becomes a toy cabinet with a robot look, the chest of drawers is converted into a stylish office desk, and a bicycle is made from two Ikea chairs.

The website of the Malaysian Jules Yap, who has specialized in the individual redesign of Ikea furniture since 2006, shows that there are hardly any limits to the wealth of ideas. On Ikeahackers.net, hobbyists from all over the world show what can be done with Ikea products.

Lawyers against Ikea hackers

But this was a thorn in the side of the Swedish furniture store: The management saw the company’s trademark rights being violated, spoke of damage to its reputation and feared possible liability claims as a result of improper handling of the products. In 2014, Yap received a cease and desist letter from Ikea’s lawyers: she should hand over her Ikeahackers.net domain name to Ikea or convert her blog to a non-commercial site – which would have meant the end of the website. But the lawyers underestimated the power of the Internet and the small, albeit strong, fan base of Ikea hackers. The outcry was great, and many media took up the story. Ikea had to back down. Yap was allowed to continue operating their website.

“A missed opportunity,” says Spencer Harrison, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the French training center Insead. With the threatened legal action, Ikea annoyed a loyal community instead of tying them closer to themselves by entering into a cooperation. But Ikea learned from it, as Harrison explains. The management of the furniture store asked itself the question for the first time: “Do we actually know what our customers do with our products?”

Spencer Harrison, a professor at Insead, has been researching curiosity for years.

Spencer Harrison, a professor at Insead, has been researching curiosity for years.

The home becomes a small zoo and gym

The company generated the first Curiosity Report to help better understand its customers’ designer preferences and living habits. Every year since 2016, Ikea has published a “Live at Home Report” based on surveys of thousands of households. In its last report, the furniture store deals with the consequences of the pandemic, for example: “What happens if the home also becomes a sports studio, school, small zoo and entertainment center?” is the question.

“Curiosity became part of the Ikea culture,” says Harrison. This has also changed the way the company looks at its customers. In 2008, the furniture store proudly announced “We hacked ourselves” and has since been inspired by the Ikea hack scene in its creations.

Curiosity is the cornerstone of all creativity

According to Harrison, curiosity is vital for companies: “It is what drives us to search for patterns, for information and new knowledge.” It makes it possible to recognize and react to changes in the competitive situation or in customer behavior. Curiosity is the cornerstone of all creativity. In the Insead researcher’s judgment, without curiosity, companies are doomed to die due to constant change.

And yet companies and executives struggle to create an environment that stimulates employee curiosity: They fear that such a culture encourages risk and leads to inefficiency – or in other words, costly chaos. According to elevation by Francesca Gino, Professor at Harvard Business School, among 3,000 employees in a wide variety of industries, just one in four respondents stated that they regularly felt curiosity about their work. In contrast, 70 percent felt prevented from asking additional questions at work.

What happens when the status quo is challenged?

“Managers believe that companies are more difficult to run when employees can pursue their own interests,” it says Conclusion of Professor Gino. The reasons for the widespread skepticism are understandable: the urge to research and creative ideas often call the status quo into question, and useful information does not always result from this.

At the same time, it requires courage and self-confidence to question one’s own point of view and to be convinced by other views. “For many supervisors, curiosity is also frightening because the consequences are unpredictable,” says Raoul Nacke, CEO of Eric Salmon & Partners, who advises top executives on building and developing leadership teams. “They rely on linearity, predictability and rigid strategies, as they have often learned at elite universities.”

Curiosity is thus suppressed – a worrying circumstance, especially since this is the basis for the renewal of companies and modern, successful employee management, as Nacke explains. Curiosity has a lot to do with willingness to change and transformation intelligence, and these need to be encouraged in companies.

It is a misconception that curiosity is only relevant for knowledge-intensive activities. According to Insead professor Harrison, experiments show that employees in factories where curiosity is encouraged also achieve significantly higher productivity. “Employees then ask themselves: ‘How would it be if we did this work step or this activity differently?’ Even such small experiments increase productivity,” says Harrison, based on his research work.

“When we are curious, we look at situations in a more creative way. We are looking for alternatives,” explains Gino. “We’re also more willing to empathize with others and discuss other ideas, rather than just taking our own perspective.” The researchers say that curiosity can also be learned. Even small changes in the organizational structure and in their leadership style could encourage curiosity and make their company more successful. The following measures could help:

Hire curious employees: Gino highlights the example of the technology group Google, which has declared curiosity to be a corporate philosophy. “We run our company with answers, not questions,” said former CEO and board member Eric Schmidt. For example, the company also lures curious candidates with riddles that they should solve before they can even submit their application. And the job interview obviously also includes questions like: “Have you ever been unable to stop trying to get to the bottom of something that was completely new to you?” – «What keeps your stamina up?»

The design and consulting company Ideo, based in Palo Alto, California, demands not only in-depth specialist knowledge from its employees, but above all the ability to work interdisciplinary – a quality that requires empathy and curiosity, as Gino explains. Empathy encourages employees to listen carefully and see problems or decisions from another person’s perspective. The Ideo company is also known for its creative product design and has produced, among other things, the industrially manufactured computer mouse from Apple and the first insulin pen from the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly.

Encourage experimentation in the company: Companies like Google, 3M or Hewlett Packard give their employees the opportunity to pursue projects outside of their jobs. This is intended to arouse their curiosity and creativity. Well-known products that emerged from this are the e-mail service Gmail or Post-it notes.

There are numerous inventions that can be traced back to the ingenuity of employees. But companies that give their employees the freedom they need to do this are the exception rather than the rule. Even the flagship corporations mentioned are usually subject to short-term targets that challenge them and stifle creativity. Even casual meeting zones in a company can contribute to employees from various departments running into each other more often, exchanging ideas and coming up with creative ideas.

Taking the beginner’s perspective with childlike curiosity: Children between the ages of three and five ask an average of 300 questions a day. But this changes with age. “We are becoming self-conscious, want to appear more self-confident and demonstrate knowledge. We fear being seen as incompetent, indecisive or stupid,” says Gino. Many bosses think they are expected to talk and provide answers instead of asking questions. The researcher at Harvard Business School explains that such fears are unfounded. By asking questions, we fostered closer contacts and got more creative results.

Childish curiosity played a decisive role in the creation of the Polaroid instant camera. The idea came about when founder Edwin Land’s young daughter asked a simple question: “Why do we have to wait for photos?” The design and consulting company Ideo also tries again and again to take the perspective of the beginner – for example by deliberately bringing men into the team when it comes to testing new make-up products.

question assumptions: «If we get stuck at Ideo, we ask ourselves two questions», explained the Chairman of the Board and Co-CEO Tim Brown: «‹Why›? and ‘What if . . . ?›». Asking why helps to better understand the beliefs or rules behind previous decisions and to challenge assumptions. The second question serves to identify and eliminate possible hurdles. “Ask your team to refute your ideas and let them know you really care about their views,” Brown urges executives.

Similarly, Toyota’s 5-Why method asks employees to explore problems by asking why questions. It is a brainstorming technique developed by the founder Sakichi Toyoda was developed. The assumption behind this is that multiple why questions are needed to determine the root cause of a defect or problem. It is followed up until the process step causing the error is clearly identified.

Lead by example and leave your comfort zone: When leaders admit they don’t know the answer to a question, they don’t just come across as human. They also encourage those around them to look for answers. Possible questions for the team are: “How could we . . . ?» “How would that change if . . . ?» «What is your experience with . . . ?» These are invitations to the group to participate, to make room for the surprising and to discover the unexpected, as Ideo boss Brown explains. In order to explore with curiosity, one must at the same time be willing to venture out of one’s comfort zone. “When one of our teams was working to redesign Los Angeles County’s voting system, they took Spanish salsa dance classes to understand what it felt like to operate in a language you don’t speak.”

Leaving the comfort zone would also have helped Ikea early on without upsetting a fan base devoted to it. The right questions would have been: “Why are Ikea hackers so popular?”, “How do our customers use our products?”, “What could we do to bind this community closer to us?”. Questions that Ikea at least began to ask itself afterwards and that were central to the further development of the furniture store.

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