10 Things: Innovation at Steelcase

Before I get into Steelcase, allow me to announce this piece as the inaugural “10 Things” post on schneiderism. My plan is to use 10 Things as a way to recap some of the more interesting experiences and information I come across. I have added 10 Things as a category in the category menu and am planning on writing several posts of this nature in the coming week or so to get the category going.

Last week I had the opportunity to spend an intense day meeting and interacting with some of the more fascinating aspects of at their HQ in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Most will hear the name of this company and think first, and perhaps only, of office furniture and cubicles. They do design and manufacture a lot of both, but that is not why I made this visit. Steelcase has developed tremendous assets with regards to workplace and human factors research, as well as what would appear to be an organization-wide relentless focus on innovation and understanding the complexities and preferences of human interaction. The building in the image above is their WorkSpace Futures Research headquarters, and is essentially the nexus of design and innovation for this nearly $4 billion global enterprise. Yes, that building is a pyramid and yes, it does appear to have fallen out of the sky.

The following are 10 Things from my visit:

1.  User experience, user-centered design, user-focused process was everywhere. It has become the company. Everybody speaks in these terms and they are passionate about understanding people, their needs, and designing solutions and systems from this perspective back to technology and materials. This was an incredibly consistent theme.

2.  Design thinking is the practice and methodology. A few years ago Steelcase very smartly acquired a controlling interest in , which remains a stand-alone business. Most people hear this and are very, very surprised. That is because IDEO is much more than a portfolio piece for Steelcase, the value being the relationship between the two companies, a relationship between a David and a Goliath. It has become an invaluable strategic partnership.

3.  IDEO/Steelcase has done an expert job positively influencing, infecting really, how Steelcase approaches its business, and that is a truly amazing outcome.

4.  is an intense area of focus, and they actively experiment with technology on themselves in an effort to shrink distance and remove the obstacles presented by working remotely. Steelcase CEO is all over this, so much so that he and IDEO’s have a direct telepresence connection between their offices. Jim is in Grand Rapids and David is in Palo Alto. This link is referred to as “the wormhole” and is a connection that is much more than symbolic. They benefit greatly from the opportunity to virtually sit across the table from each other to ideate and challenge ideas. I was fortunate to visit Jim Hackett’s office and actually see how this works. Very cool.

5. Innovation at Steelcase begins at the top. Literally. In many ways it appeared to me that as well as CEO, Jim Hackett also functions as a Chief Innovation Officer. Many initiatives and innovations began with Jim asking some questions or believing that something could be better. In fact, he changed the management paradigm at Steelcase physically and functionally by moving executives out of their arcane and isolated top floor 1950’s executive suite and into a functioning, experimental workspace laboratory that allows even Steelcase executive leadership to be their own lab subjects.

6. “Furniture is a given, and is not what we really need to be talking about.” Furniture is a commodity, Steelcase is not in the commodity business. I heard this a couple of times during my visit, and I believe it was attributed to CEO Hackett. This is somewhat revolutionary in terms of how this organization is thinking about itself. The opportunity is in innovating at a level that their products as physical elements almost fall away with the focus instead being on the thinking behind the products.

7. It’s not about technology, it’s about human factors and the seamless integration of technology into the communication and collaboration needs of teams and the individual. There is much effort being put to understanding the tensions between presentation and collaboration, or presentation vs. collaboration. More collaboration, less presentation.

8. The goal is the strategic application of space. Steelcase is moving way beyond a product mindset and into areas of research that positions them to help organizations map their physical and virtual workplaces to their unique business model. This was a favorite quote, “Stop talking about space, though, and instead look at the table of contents of the latest Harvard Business Review. That is what Steelcase is concerned with, with understanding, and with integrating into our needs response.” Architects and interior designers should take note of this, immediately.

9. “The change in the mindset is that our work is not about saving our client’s money, it is about helping them make money.” It is also about business model alignment and business model innovation. It is about identifying the critical success factors for an organization, at a complexity of levels, and integrating this into the needs response.

10. More than a few people that I met spoke to me about (ubicomp), and about “the cloud.” Steelcase knows that these ideas will change the way we work and interact. They choose to be the vanguard by investing serious resources in researching and investigating exactly how this might happen. The Workplace Futures team is constantly projecting out years into the future and hypothesizing about what our interactions might be like, about what new technologies may be of use. Let me remind you that this is happening at a $4 billion global office furniture company. Tom Brown, CEO of IDEO, and Steelcase CEO Jim Hackett conceived of an idea 18 months ago that would provide comprehensive media and communications seamlessly integrated with telepresence, information capture, and idea sharing. They rapid prototyped and iteratively and incrementally improved the concept. Media:Scape launches in the spring of 2009.

There was so much more that I experienced and that is worthy of writing entire posts on. I’ll get to all of it, especially my time in the Learn Lab and with Details president Bud Klipa, but for now these are my 10 Things from my time with Steelcase. I came away very impressed and inspired.

One Response to “10 Things: Innovation at Steelcase”

  1. Workspring & The Workplace of The Future | schneiderism Says:

    [...] to the heart of the collaborative meeting and events space. I had heard about Workspring during my visit to Steelcase headquarters last September, and was looking forward to checking it out after it launched in November. As a [...]

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