How a CEO’s Office can Help Foster Innovation

When I became CEO, my first priority was to accelerate decision making and innovation within our company. As a leadership team, we worked to delegate decision making more completely. We spent less time making lots of decisions and more time curating culture—building an organization that makes great decisions. On the other hand, because we were spending more time off our floor and with the rest of the organization, we also spent less time with each other, which weakened our alignment and led to more misunderstandings.

We challenged our researchers and designers to help us think about how we could solve for what we saw as a series of leadership paradoxes. We need transparency, but also privacy. We need to be accessible, but we need to be productive. We need to spend time with people at every level of the company, but we also need time with each other. We need to shift back and forth from individual work to group work, from formal to informal, and from scheduled to ad hoc.

Our verbal language around risk taking and rapid prototyping has to be reflected in our body language—the way the organization sees us working every day. And we have to consider we are all different people with different ideal ways of working.

“We start our days and end our days together, and we work in a very dense environment that fosters impromptu discussions.”

We decided to move out of the headquarters building and into an adjacent building where our Learning Center and Innovation Center are located. That puts us right at the center of risk taking. We created a new Leadership Community on the main aisle of the first floor so we see people every day as they pass through. We start our days and end our days together, and we work in a very dense environment that fosters impromptu discussions. We developed a new material that allows for glass conference rooms, but “cloaks” the information on the screen (it’s now a product) so we could be transparent and private.

Our space is filled with prototypes. My own work space is currently built from wood two-by-fours and plastic sheets to mimic glass walls. The design team iterates every week based on my feedback and their ideas. It explores how we might develop a new kind of private office as a place to focus and recharge, but without the status, privilege and cost of the legacy private offices many have left behind. Most important, the whole organization can see me working in a prototype, a powerful, tangible signal that, from the CEO on down, we innovate by learning, and we learn by failing.

Some were concerned that customers would want to see perfect products, but the opposite has been true. In fact, customers have been more willing to provide feedback on each iteration because it is so clearly a work in process. Many have asked when it will be ready for them to use in their own spaces, and that gives us more confidence as we continue to push these ideas forward.

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Jim Keane is president and CEO of Steelcase, a Grand Rapids, Michigan-based designer and manufacturer of office systems and equipment.

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