5 Reasons to Design Your Incentives Like IKEA Furniture

Apr 10, 2020

Are you familiar with IKEA, the Swedish retailer who sells everything from meatballs to full kitchens? Nearly all of their furniture is “build-it-yourself.” I know, it sounds like it might be a nightmare, but you would be wrong (mostly.) Their main selling point is that they allow even the most unskilled human to build good-looking, fairly durable, things. Most pieces of furniture can be assembled in one to four hours.

Using their methods for building your incentive plans can help to make your life a lot easier.

1) Make things feel familiar.

IKEA uses the same basic diagram system, basic black lines on a white page, for everything you build. This consistency means if you’ve built one thing from IKEA, you can build anything from IKEA. Keeping things simple doesn’t mean they have to be basic it means they have to be easy to understand.

2) Pay attention to the details.

The fit and finish of the products in nearly always perfect. Every hole is predrilled to the exact depth and diameter. Every screw, knob and piece of trim fit like a jigsaw puzzle. You never have to force things. Your incentive plan should be designed to ensure even the unexpected isn’t a surprise.

3) Provide the right tools.

Any person who has built an IKEA product has extra parts in their house. This is intentional. More importantly, the Allen wrench for each product is custom fit to ensure it rotates smoothly, minimizing scraped knuckles. Every other tool required is something nearly every adult has in their toolbox. When you build an incentive plan, take the time to customize the tools for planning, modeling and tracking progress.

4) Design with the future in mind, but remember you aren’t creating an heirloom.

IKEA makes sure customers feel good after they finish. This inspires doing it again. Their designers also understand you’ll be back. Colors repeat across many products. New things always seem to work with something you already have. The next purchase and transition seem planned because they are.

5) Make sure the effort pays off.

All of the familiarity, ease, and well-thought-out designs would be pointless if the final product was of poor quality. Nearly everything I have purchased from IKEA looked good the day I put it together and looks good today. The beds are comfortable and the kitchen cabinets work great. Make sure your incentive plan delivers on its promise. You’ll be amazed at the success of the plan that follows!

Yes, there are flaws. The most basic products use the same tools and instructions as the most complex. Putting a shelf together can feel far more difficult than a flat surface should be. But this is offset by the fact that building a dresser requires exactly the same understanding and skills. Your incentive plans can benefit from being far more translatable.

Big projects have a lot of pieces and several pages of instructions. If you don’t understand the benefit of doing a good job, it may seem too daunting to do the job at all. If you are only planning to use something for a short while, it can be easier to buy something ready-made. If your incentive plan is going to be an interim solution, it may be more expedient to copy something borrowed from a friend.

Lastly, building IKEA furniture is unfulfilling for truly skilled craftspeople. They don’t need or want the help and may find the process to be beneath them. Every company has a few super-performers who can find a better way. Sometimes it makes sense to do something special for them, just to keep their head in the game.


Dan Walter is a managing consultant at FutureSense, where he specializes in the areas of executive, equity, and incentive compensation and general pay for performance. He is the coauthor of Everything You Do in Compensation Is Communication and The Decision Makers’ Guide to Equity Compensation.

Written by: Dan Walter

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