Steelcase celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and president and CEO Jim Hackett has been with the company for almost a third of that time, 31 years. In that span Steelcase has transformed itself from traditional manufacturer to industry innovator, known as much for the insights behind its furniture as for the products themselves. Hackett believes the company’s future success depends on continuing to develop insights about people at work, and then helping companies make the most of those insights, or as he puts it, “helping organizations achieve a higher level of performance by creating places that unlock the promise of their people.”

Few companies reach the century mark today. Why do you think Steelcase has been able to survive when so many have come and gone?

I think there’s more to it than just survival. To be relevant for 10 decades, you have to thrive and stay ahead of the market. So why did so few thrive while so many faded away? I believe it’s because companies don’t last, ideas do. Ideas that help make the world a better place.

A century ago we registered our first patent, for a fireproof wastebasket. A simple idea, right? Back then offices were all wood and paper, they were crowded and everyone smoked. Fire was always just one piece of paper away. If our idea had been just about wastepaper, we could have simply produced a quicker and cheaper product. But it was a key insight into human behavior at work. Once that insight was clear, it was a step into the future and a prototype for many more innovations.

For 100 years Steelcase has been bringing human insight to business by studying how people work. Those insights have helped organizations around the world achieve a higher level of performance by creating places that unlock the promise of their people. I believe this is what has made Steelcase a great company and it will be the foundation of success in the future.

How does an organization this size keep that edge?

By keeping a core sense of curiosity. I’m probably as curious as you can get and I’m one of thousands of people here like this. Lots of ideas come from inside the company and I attach myself to many of them. There’s a dedicated team right now working on the future that I’m part of, and this team has done some breakthrough work already. We just completed a tour of the best minds on various topics that are stimulating our thinking. That’s why our involvement with organizations like the at Stanford, MIT Media Lab and the IIT Institute of Design in Chicago are such important and thought-provoking relationships. We mine and synthesize all of it, blend it with our ideas, and then take parts we want to amplify in our strategy.

What innovations are you most proud of during your tenure?

I never wanted to be known as a CEO, but instead for an idea that I was related to. I’m proud of embedding in the company the idea of using design as a problem-solving technique. Design is a visual engine, and some of our competitors have great-looking products. We pursue design in a deeper way. Coming out of our IDEO affiliation, we use design as a technique to solve complex problems in pursuit of unlocking human promise. We think we can find things that will make people happier. This is the one I’m most proud of because it’s actually the leverage that’s propelled the company, and why we’re consistently outperforming other companies in many areas. It took 10 years of my 18 years as CEO to get here. It’s fulfilling in part because of how difficult it was to transform the company, but now I don’t have to go into meetings and point that out anymore. There are people running with it and realizing its potential.

In the midst of all that, I authored what I call the Critical Thinking Process. It’s the pursuit of a balance between thinking and doing. Design thinking helps you balance the depth at which you think about a problem and the execution of a solution. It has transformed our company and so many others. We now have a process that embraces that and celebrates it. I’m proud of its effect on how we get things done around here.

In that model, is the timeline important?

A lot of people worry that corporations take too long to do anything. I don’t believe that’s a fair characterization. A lot of start-up companies are ostensibly fast, and then they fail. I believe the Critical Thinking Process shows that thinking is not wasting time. In a way, it’s where the measure of greatness can come from.

At Steelcase, I’ve taught Critical Thinking to about 1,000 people. I always ask the question, why do you think doing gets more preference than thinking? The answer is that doing is visible and thinking isn’t. So we said, how do we make thinking visible? So that’s what project rooms are about, and vertical walls filled with information. They display the essence of the issues and ideas. That’s also what prototyping is about: it exemplifies your thinking, not as the final product, but as a non-precious statement of the thinking of that room. You can celebrate around that, you can push that. So the linkage of design thinking and critical thinking is a proud moment for me.

What do think the company founders would say about Steelcase today?

I think they would be surprised at how broad and deep it has become. They probably wouldn’t have imagined we would be doing business in countries like China and India. They also would be surprised about the technology in our products. In their day it was either machine or furniture, the two didn’t merge. The fact that technology has become such a part of our products would surprise them. But the arc of our history, the company’s reputation for integrity and doing things the right way, being empathetic to its people — they would love that. In their day, labor and management were in constant strife and they wanted a new kind of company, with a sense of unity, an egalitarian view of the way labor and management could work together. The founders would love to see how employees feel a sense of ownership and investment in the values of the company.

What will Steelcase look like in 20 years?

I try to paint the picture in a continuum of now, near and far. We need to pay homage to now because it’s the product of a lot of advance work. media:scape® is still ahead of the market and it’s been out there awhile. “Near term” is important because you’re trying to identify holes and gaps, and you’re taking action to do that. If there weren’t a near and there was only far, you’d be accused of being a dreamer. People don’t see it as practical.

The role of the CEO is to think about all three dimensions, and I schedule my time so that all three get their attention. In the far dimension, I’m certain that the opportunity for Steelcase will be good as any time during our first 100 years. Technology is altering work so dramatically that there’s a need for reinterpreting how we use it. That’s a huge opportunity. Work needs to be rethought, modernized and changed. People could be working in all kinds of places. This is right in our wheelhouse. We understand patterns of behavior in workplaces, we’re very good at that, and we can translate that across different industries, say from healthcare to education, and across different parts of the world. In fact, we may help carry that knowledge from one location to another. In that knowledge, there are products, applications, and services. In the past, we may have given up on some of opportunities by thinking that it wasn’t our business. We won’t make that mistake again. There will be some things that we’ll be sure to capture, things that our customers would want us to do.

Finish this sentence: one day, Steelcase will…

One day Steelcase will be offering different products and different solutions than we do today, and we’ll probably be in even more parts of the world than we are today. As the culture and processes of work continue to rapidly shift, we’ll stay ahead by being focused on innovation, being part of and leading change based on the insights and ideas we gain from studying people at work. So, in some ways, one day Steelcase will be a different company. But, at its heart, I believe it will always be the same company – a company that’s centered on the idea of unlocking the promise of people at work. That’s our core, and that’s how Steelcase will achieve another century of success.

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