Building better work
Most us will have experience of self-assembling something. You can buy ‘flat pack’ kits to build almost anything, ranging from houses and cars to bookshelves and desks. For some it can be a joy, for others (myself included) it can sometimes be a bit of a struggle.
But what can our experiences of self-assembly teach us about work? It turns out that the role we play in constructing something, changes our relationship with it.
Ultimately, we value what we build.
The IKEA effect
Researchers, Michael Norton, Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely were curious about whether building an item influenced peoples’ perceptions of its value.
In their initial study  they randomly assigned participants to “builders” or “inspectors”. Builders were asked to assemble a plain black cardboard box from IKEA (the Kassett Storage box for those interested) using standard instructions. Inspectors were given a ready-made box and had the opportunity to examine it.
At the end of the study, participants would have been holding identical boxes. The only difference being that for half the group, they would have played a part in putting the box together.
Before the study finished participants were asked to place a bid on the box. They were also asked to rate how much they liked the box.
Builders bid significantly more than inspectors and their ratings of how much they liked the box were higher too. The researchers coined the term the “Ikea effect” to refer to the phenomenon of people placing additional value on items that they have played a part in constructing compared with ready-built goods and services.
Although this study was relatively modest in size, the IKEA effect has been found to be present in a number of subsequent and preceding studies involving items such as origami, lego, custom designed clothing and even lottery tickets .
The psychological factors at play
Intuitively, the IKEA effect makes sense. We may all have experienced an attachment to, or affection for, a self-assembled item of furniture. In my case this is often even more surprising because they tend to be poorly constructed.
Economists have known for some time that the more effort people put into the pursuit of something, the more they tend to value it. So a partial explanation of the IKEA effect might simply be that the effort invested transfers, or rubs off, in terms of an apparent greater attachment.
Another explanation relates to control and effectiveness. By building something people are able to control and shape elements of their environment and in doing so are also able to demonstrate competence to themselves and others in terms of what they have built.
Building better work – ideas to harness the IKEA effect at work
The IKEA effect demonstrates that people value what they build. We can harness this principle in the workplace.
Here are three ideas of how we might be able to encourage and enable the IKEA effect.
1. Allow people to shape elements of their work - don’t ‘ready-assemble’ jobs.
In terms of job design, team leaders are often asked to develop elaborate job descriptions which provide no space or opportunity for people to shape their roles. Effectively we are doing the equivalent of presenting people with “ready-assembled” jobs. Whilst we are doing this with the best of intentions (to make life easier, clearer and better defined for our colleagues) we might be inadvertently impacting on how much people come to value the work they are doing.
An alternative would be to create opportunities for individuals and teams to determine for themselves the way to undertake their jobs, giving them some freedom and control over how their work is done. Rather than tell someone to do work in a certain way, reframe the focus around the outcome that is needed and let them decide the best way to achieve this.
2. Co-create key goals and strategy.
We should apply the idea of self-assembly as much to our goals and strategies as we do to our physical tasks. The IKEA effect would suggest that people will value the strategies, visions, missions and goals which they have played a part in building more than those which have been presented to them “ready-made.” Yet these decisions tend to be made by small executive groups, often in isolation from the wider workforce.
Rather than simply present the next strategic direction or key initiative as something that has been pre-determined, find ways to harness peoples’ inputs, thoughts and ideas as part of the process.
3. Be careful what you remove.
We should be curious and potentially cautious about assuming that removing tasks and making aspects of our work easier will make it more enjoyable. On the face of it, streamlining or stopping certain activities will make our working life more manageable and less stressful. Yet removing opportunities to build aspects of our work might have a potentially negative influence on our overall levels of satisfaction.
Whilst potentially counterintuitive, researchers have indeed found that in some circumstances reducing certain job demands can actually also reduce people’s overall engagement and enjoyment . And this phenomenon has been observed by food manufacturers too .
People value what they build
People value what they build. And this applies as much to our work as it does to our flat-pack book shelves and tables.
It is tempting in our rush for efficiency and effectiveness to create pre-assembled solutions and present ready-made decisions for the people we work with. Yet this pursuit, whilst well intentioned, might have a negative impact on the value and worth that people place on the work they do.
If we are curious and committed to building better work then we need to create opportunities for people to put their physical and emotional fingerprints on the work they do.
2 For studies on origami and lego see Norton, M. I., Mochon, D., & Ariely, D. (2012). The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love. Journal of consumer psychology, 22(3), 453-460.
3 Petrou, P., Demerouti, E., Peeters, M. C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Hetland, J. (2012). Crafting a job on a daily basis: Contextual correlates and the link to work engagement. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33(8), 1120-1141.
4 When instant cake mixes were first introduced into the US, households were initially slow to use them. Through further exploration the cake manufacturers found that the mixes were felt to make cooking too easy which ultimately made the effort and resulting cake undervalued. The answer was to amend the recipe requiring an egg to be added. Whilst there are potentially a large number of reasons why this amendment led to greater subsequent adoption, adding labour (the egg) appeared to be a vital ingredient. It felt more like baking. See: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20171027-the-magic-cakes-that-come-from-a-packet