You buy a kitchen table from Ikea and haul it home. You spread the contents of the box on the floor. You glance at the instructions and start screwing pieces together. You stop reading the instructions altogether and quickly attach table legs to tabletop. You are done. You gaze tenderly at your work. You sit down and notice the angles are a little off. The table shakes just a bit. It doesn’t matter. You love your table. You assembled it yourself.

A table expert drops by. He assesses your handiwork as just so-so. You silently fume and then vigorously defend your work against his insults. He leaves thinking you are nuts for so adoring your wobbly table.

This is the Ikea Effect: The tendency to over-value that which we ourselves create.  Even if objective standards say otherwise, we prefer our own creation over someone else’s. And as you can imagine, the Ikea effect in organizations leads to all kinds of impacts, some useful, others not.

Let Them Bake Cake

Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School coined the term after researching peoples’ attachment to things they construct themselves. In his research he described the introduction of instant cake mix in the 1950’s. For years housewives resisted adopting the time saver because it was just too effort-free. So the clever marketers changed the mixture to require the addition of a beaten egg. All of a sudden the product took off like, well, hot cakes.

The Ikea Effect helps explain why managers resist letting go of low-performing employees they, themselves, hired and trained. It explains why project teams are too slow to pull the plug on their own failing projects. And it explains why obsolete products still collect dust on supermarket shelves. It’s hard enough telling someone they have an ugly baby. Its even harder recognizing it as your own.

But the Ikea Effect also explains why standardizing work across organizations is so difficult.  People seem to say, “If it wasn’t invented here, it may be nice, but our way is better.” And transferring best practices? Even when those best practices are far superior, if people didn’t feel like they had a hand in crafting them, they will find some way to elevate the stature of their own work compared to the suggested improvement.

This is the central paradox inherent in the Ikea Effect: While we want people to feel pride of ownership that comes from engaging fully in their work, we don’t want them to identify so closely that they can’t see a better way to go — a delicate leadership balancing act indeed.

A Potential Upside

Yet sometimes the Ikea effect can be advantageous, as my recent project with a global senior leadership team illustrates.  The new CEO believed his fiercely independent direct reports should work more closely together. He reasoned they could gain efficiencies by standardizing even a few practices across business units.  In several meetings he shared his vision clearly and logically.  His competitive minions nodded their heads but kept doing as they had always done.

Finally he shifted his approach.  His breakthrough was realizing that he didn’t need them to buy his plan; he needed them to create a new team model. He did this by reinforcing all the sovereignty they already enjoyed, and asking them to explore as a group what might be a compelling reason for them to be a team in the first place. After some great debates, they landed on a team purpose. They saw themselves as a global portfolio team looking at the organization as a series of investments, which was precisely what he wanted.

An outsider might think this was an exercise in rhetoric, but to these high flyers who crafted their own purpose and agenda, it was everything.  A year into their self-crafted purpose, they still take lots of pride in their team, and good luck to anyone who tries to criticize it!

Is there a cure for the Ikea Effect? Not likely. But each time I mention it people chuckle knowingly. Maybe they realize that what they have assembled themselves might be great, but they should still be open enough to get help tightening any loose screws.

On a final note, even we at Organization Insight suffer from the Ikea Effect. Any time David or I send a draft blog post to each other for feedback or editing help, we struggle when our partner suggests we remove what we call our ‘precious dearies.’ These are phrases or even whole paragraphs we love because we wrote them, but which any reasonable person would see as clunky or off-point. The only exception I can think of? This particular blog post, which is, of course, perfect.

© Robert Ponzoni -ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2008