Sustaining the Dream

Steelcase's CEO on design as a business strategy

James P. Hackett, president and CEO of Steelcase Inc. (SCS), is an expert on design and innovation. He discussed implementing design strategy with BusinessWeek reporter Maha Atal.

What should be the role of design in the C-suite?

Businesses have relied for years on using business consultants to help them with problem solving. However, design thinking teaches businesses to become better themselves at problem solving.

How have you implemented these ideas at Steelcase?

In our initial product-development meetings, marketing folks would present PowerPoints of product ideas, and I would say: "What's the user insight that led to this product?" They would give me this look like I asked an unfair question. I suspect their feelings were: "We were never challenged to answer that question in business school." Then they would respond a bit desperately with an answer like: "The user wants it to be cheap." I'd call this a fast-food version of design. They felt they could use the word "user" without identifying the insight. So the next phase was getting people to celebrate the ethnographic side of product development: By building evidence of use and patterns, they could comfortably establish the need.

Developing products, services, and business functions along design-strategy lines requires a new belief system. How does a company institutionalize that?

One example is an exercise I took my 50 top-level executives through during a two-day design seminar about 10 years ago. I gave them an assignment to write the BusinessWeek article that would appear 10 years in the future, if design thinking was used to advance the company. I was trying to establish that design thinking was changing the game, and it couldn't go in one ear and out the other. Not all of them have stayed with the company. In some cases, they never did get it, and I had to change the leadership of some parts of our business.

Ten years later, what has this approach done for Steelcase?

We've gotten to the place where people in the company can articulate it. In fact, "design everything" is now a stated guiding principle for every person in the organization. And where we are having the most success as a company is where it's not only a principle but is embedded [in the organization]. My biggest disappointment is that some in the company continue to remain skeptical and consider it a fad—that it will go away. Design can always bring back value where it has been sucked completely dry by commoditization.

How can design thinking help a company achieve sustainability goals?

Sustainability proves the point of design thinking in that it suggests that one consider the materials, processes, and practices that a business employs. It is essential that business is able to see the layers of value that are created and the layers of waste. Design is the tool to analyze this.

What's next for Steelcase in design strategy?

We're working with [innovation/design consultants] IDEO on the concept of using design to change whole user experiences. In other words, a true inspiring design that…moves beyond just the features of that product.

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