Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA died this week. It wasn’t his $60 billion fortune that fascinated me nor a love of flat-pack furniture. It was his trip to New York’s Guggenheim museum.
Kamprad founded IKEA in Sweden, aged just 17. He sold replicas of his uncle Ernst's kitchen table. It was 1943.
After two decades Kamprad had three IKEA stores. It was a comfortable business but nothing in comparison to the global monolith of today.
It was a trip to New York which changed the direction of retail and Kamprad’s fortunes forever.
In the early 1960s Kamprad flew to New York. During his stay he visited the Guggenheim Museum. There he was struck by a very particular quality about it: the careful shepherding of visitors around the gallery space. The direction of travel was pre-arranged.
Kamprad noted that the museum designers made you go up to the top of the building, then walk down past everything on display, and then walk you out through the shop, past the cash register, and out into the street.
Today we don’t give this IKEA concept a second thought. We understand that a trip to this chain of out-of-town furniture retailers will mean a stop for meatballs with lingonberry jam and cream sauce followed by a slow procession past everything the shop has to offer. At the time, in the early 1960s, this concept was revolutionary.
We spend more time in the store (dwell time to use digital parlance). As we do so the inspirational room mock-ups trigger other ideas for our own homes. Spontaneous purchases are increased in what used to be a considered-decision market.
Before we can pay, exit and find our car in the airport-sized car park we first have to meander through ‘the marketplace’. An aladdin's cave of candles, cutlery and picture frames. A further opportunity to stock up on things we didn’t know we ‘needed’.
Today the traffic flow system of nearly every one of the 400 IKEA stores in the world is essentially the same: You do not have a choice where you go. And spontaneous purchasing is as vigorous as ever.
Being open to new business ideas and triggers
Great story you may say. But what’s that got to do with me? I don’t sell flat pack furniture or operate a museum.
The Kamprad Guggenheim anecdote underscores the importance of being open to new ideas. Spotting them when they arise. Welcoming them. Bringing inspiration from experiences in one category into another completely unrelated field of work.
Kamprad was on his Holibobs visiting an art gallery in New York. About as far from selling flat-pack furniture in Scandinavia as was possible in the 1960s.
The insight did not come from an exhaustive study of how other home furnishing retailers sell home furnishings. It came from a key individual being open to idea triggers from his environment.
Welcoming serendipity into your problem solving
How can you, too, be open to idea triggers from what’s around you? How can you bring an interest in what happens around you, and your ability to capitalise on, it feed into your problem solving skills?James Austin distinguishes four levels of serendipity or chance in his book: ‘Chase, Chance, and Creativity: The Lucky Art of Novelty’. Each of the four can be achieved personally - but working within teams provides more opportunity. Here quantity breeds quality.
1. Blind chance or accident
Sheer luck. You’re in the right place at the right time. Nothing to do with skill or experience. But you do have the wherewithal to both see and seize the chance.
2. Wide-ranging exploration
Generate more opportunities for useful chance by being curious and energetic across a wide-range of subject matter. Stay busy. Keep enquiring. But, also keep a balance on focus. Don’t spread your interests so thinly that your understanding of them can only be limited, at best.
3. The prepared mind
‘In observation, chance favours the prepared mind’ so said Louis Pasteur, the French biologist made famous for his discoveries of the principles of vaccination. Specific, highly developed interests and background makes you more likely to notice chance events relevant to that background.
4. Individualized action
This level combines the prepared mind level with a heightened sense of wide-ranging exploration. Here you don’t only have a prepared mind ready to respond to relevant opportunities that emerge, but you also have a lifestyle that makes relevant opportunities more likely to happen.There is an overlap when ascending these four levels with the four stages of competence learning process. I’ve written before about this journey from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence.
I do not know the circumstances by which Kamprad found himself at the Guggenheim museum on that New York visit. But transatlantic air travel was not as commonplace in the 1960s as it is today. Perhaps even it was the scarcity of such trips which provided Kamprad with a heightened sense of appreciation for everything he saw on that visit to the US city?
We do know that he was planning his first IKEA store in the capital city of his Swedish homeland. Perhaps he was consumed with how this venture would be different from the other three? How the flow of foot fall could be maximised? Perhaps he was concerned that this branch of IKEA would be the first to be built on the outskirts of a city? Perhaps we was looking for something that pulled customers into the store? Perhaps he was searching to make his IKEA a destination experience rather than somewhere to buy Billy bookshelves.
Regardless of the uncertainty as to the reasons they demonstrate Kamprad’s ability to connect and be receptive to new ideas and triggers.
Even the most commonplace environment can be fertile ground for idea stimulation - if you are open and receptive to welcoming serendipity into your problem solving.