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Lessons from Ikea about IT project management

Furniture assembly and technology bear more than passing similarity

Ikea instructions typically lack words, relying on pictures instead. Is this you with an Ikea kit? Barbara Hranilovich/ Ikea instructions typically lack words, relying on pictures instead. Is this you with an Ikea kit?

The scene is familiar to many of us. You go to the Swedish furniture store and buy a desk.


• You open the direction and attempt to “read” them. Of course, Ikea instructions don’t have words, but rather line drawings illustrating what you must do.

• You lay the particle-board pieces out on the living room floor, trying to match them up with the sketches in the directions.

• You open the bag of screws, nuts, bolts, and other metal objects. Sorting them by size, you try to identify the teeny-teeny screw, the just-teeny screw, the small screw, the medium-small screw, the medium-medium screw, and so on.

• Concentrating hard, you begin, hoping you won’t have parts left over, that everything faces the right way, and that everything functions properly.

Why IT tasks are like Ikea furniture

Assembling an Ikea desk is a classic example of what scientists and engineers call a “complicated” task. Technology projects often have large segments that fall into the complicated category. So it’s useful to understand the implications of a complicated project.

First, you’ll need to identify whether what you’re up against is, in fact, complicated.

A good way to spot a complicated task is to contrast it with a simple task. In my last blog, covering winter snow storms, we reviewed a simple task—shoveling snow. A simple task takes virtually no brainpower, just elbow grease. (See, "Snowstorms’ lessons about IT project strategy")

Complicated tasks require both effort (elbow grease) and your thinking cap. They call for in-depth comprehension and understanding, as in reading and interpreting those line-drawn directions.

Further, complicated tasks have many steps, often dependent upon one another. For example, you can’t put the hutch on the desk until the base is assembled. A certain bolt can’t be put in, until a nut is embedded on the other side, and so forth.

When it comes to planning, people often get the timeline way off for complicated tasks. With the Ikea furniture, you may look at the directions, weigh the number of steps and estimate how long it will take.

Saturday at 4 P.M., you conclude, this puppy is done!

Think of all the times, after a declaration like this, it’s Sunday at 8 P.M., and you are just making the last turn of the Allen wrench.

This is because mistakes are common in complicated tasks.

You might have mis-identified a screw when you first laid out the pieces.

Or, the line-drawing of the cartoon man and his actions were not quite clear enough for you to grasp what you’re meant to do.

To summarize, complicated tasks:

• Require in-depth understanding in addition to effort.

• Have many interdependent steps, which are set forth and known.

• Have unpredictable timing because mistakes are common.

Considering complicated tasks

There is good news about complicated tasks. With enough diligence, there is nearly a 100% chance you will succeed.

True, there is more uncertainty than with simple tasks—principally about where and how you will make a mistake.

But few people have actually failed to assemble an Ikea desk and thrown it out a window. More commonly, you call a friend over, who points out your mistake (and offers a shoulder to cry on).

Now, a word of caution about technical folks and programmers:

They tend to point out all the detail and intricacies of a complicated project to managers. It can make you as a manager far more fearful than is warranted.

Remember, complicated projects will almost certainly get done, perhaps with some errors with regard to timeline.

This is because all or virtually all of the steps are known. There is little hidden and therefore little risk when what you face is complication.

Anna Murray

Anna Murray of emedia llc brings a real-world view to life in the trenches of technology. Often with a dash of humor, Murray’s suggestions can help tech work better inside your organization. She is the author of The Complete Software Project Manager: Mastering Technology From Planning To Launch And Beyond.

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