Companies in every industry are talking about resilience: how to foster it if they don’t have it and how to strengthen it if they do. But why are we hearing more about resilience today—and why does it matter? In a world of unprecedented change, evolving technology and constant disruption, companies must be resilient to survive—and thrive.

At Steelcase, where I serve as CEO, we believe awareness and relevance go hand in hand with resilience. We spend a lot of time studying work, workers and the workplace, and employ a global team of sociologists and anthropologists who conduct research about the pain points people are facing in the workplace. This awareness not only informs our next steps strategically, but it makes our customers feel heard and understood. When customers visit, as they do nearly every day, they see us applying those insights to prototypes and see us constantly iterating our space to make it work harder for people. All of these things make us more relevant, and that has allowed us to remain resilient.

In its 105-year history, Steelcase has had to flex that resilience muscle time and again. In fact, we often talk internally about how we’re actually a twenty-year-old company reinvented five times. Over and over again, we’ve had to rethink our focus. We did this during World War II when we made furniture for the war effort, and we’ve done it several times since then as we’ve pivoted to expand our product offerings or shift our focus in light of trends and user needs. Staying aware of what our customers want has always helped us remain relevant. But reinvention is no easy feat. And like many industries, those changes are coming faster than ever for us.

When I started in my role, I began to wonder if I could manage the reinvention of our company if the pace continued to accelerate. What would it take to navigate a reinvention cycle of not twenty years, but ten, seven or even five years? The idea was daunting. Was it possible to build a company culture where reinvention would happen organically?

So, I started to dig into these ideas and even took an online class about complexity at the Santa Fe Institute. That’s where I learned about a principle called complex adaptive systems. This principle describes the relationships between independent entities that may not be apparent at first, but which affect each other and are connected to the outside environment. When things begin to happen on the outside, we see an emergent characteristic. Complex adaptive systems can be positive or negative, but they all share one thing in common: they’re resilient. Let’s look at a couple examples.

Bees work together in a very dense ecosystem, and they each have a job to do. They follow simple rules and work independently, yet their interaction with one another results in the construction of a hive—a natural, emergent characteristic. Every day, bees leave the hive, go look for food and observe predators. Then they return to the hive, communicate their findings and adapt if necessary. They might, for example, relocate the hive if they sense danger. Regardless, bees keep coming back, year after year. We get to enjoy their honey while they demonstrate the interconnectedness and intricate nature of their world.

There’s also a less enjoyable example. Traffic jams are another emergent behavior that, unfortunately, tend to be quite resilient. Everyone is trying not to get stuck in traffic jams, but they seem nearly impossible to stop. People stuck on the highway are forced to interact with others when those in front of them begin to slow down and ultimately stop. Some might try to manage the emergent behavior by establishing a long following distance so they can continue to coast without needing to brake suddenly. But invariably, when gaps appear, another driver will cut in and force the stopping and starting to begin again. The interaction between individuals fuels the traffic jam, much in the same way the interaction between bees builds a hive. One is positive, one is negative, but both are resilient.

So how does this relate to our companies?

Many would argue that today’s organizations are highly engineered machines. Places like Steelcase and Microsoft and many others have processes in place so that, once quality measures and Lean are in place, for example, we can expect certain outcomes. We want our companies to be linear and predictable. We want to know that if we build structures for A and B, we’ll get C and D in return. And while those outcomes are sometimes predictable and true, what we’re learning is that kind of approach just isn’t very resilient.

I like to use the analogy of a farm and a prairie. A lot of farms started as prairies and were later turned into farms after people realized you can’t easily feed a family on a prairie. Farms are more productive and efficient. No matter what you’re growing, odds are better that a farm will get it done at a certain density and a certain cost. But prairies are much more resilient. They’re much more diverse. And the species that live on the prairie have learned over time how to survive in that particular climate with that particular amount of sunlight and water. If there’s a periodic drought or infestation, the prairie is much more likely to rebound than the farm.

Over time, we’ve gotten better at farming. We use pesticides and fertilizers and install complicated irrigation systems to grow our food. We’ve also decided rows of plants are better than other methods, so we’ve developed machines designed to plant acres of them perfectly. We don’t stray from that model on farms and essentially, we force the land to produce in ways and at levels that are unnatural. None of this would happen without human intervention.

The question is, are we going about this in the right way? We keep trying to find more ways to squeeze costs, leverage global supply chains and drive quality. But as useful and sometimes necessary as these things are, we must ask whether they’re sustainable. In an effort to make our companies more productive, are we also reducing our resilience?

If we’re interested in creating great enterprises, we should also care about how resilient the organization is—because that will determine how well it could survive a major event. There are disruptive forces everywhere: cyberattacks, startups, fundamentally new ways of working, Internet-based technologies. If we can no longer assume every day will be sunny with a predictable amount of rainfall, are over-engineered farms really such a good idea? Should we think differently about our approach?

I believe we must. At Steelcase, we began using the metaphor of a garden. Gardens are much more productive than prairies but not as productive as farms. Gardens are also more diverse than farms. But the key here is that a good gardener is involved in their garden. They’re down on their hands and knees every day. They get dirty. They notice small changes in how their vegetables are growing and may decide to move a plant blocking sunlight for another—or maybe decide to pull out a plant altogether.

Gardeners are observant. They’re far more engaged, far more adaptive and far more reactive than a farmer, because they see what’s happening up close. Gardeners may decide to plant beans and strawberries in rows but use a trellis for cucumbers or grapes. They may install cages for their tomatoes or try natural alternatives to pesticides. They prune up close and with exactness. And because their hands are in the dirt, they can sense changes much sooner than a farmer sitting up in a tractor.

Those of us running organizations have to think about getting down from the tractor and spending some time in the garden. That takes humility, and it might mean drastic changes to allow for this level of connectedness. But staying close to what’s growing—and what’s not—is so important.

About a year after I became CEO, I decided to get down from the tractor by moving our leadership center out of a quiet, fourth floor location down to the main floor crossroads of our Learning and Innovation Center. I knew I couldn’t lead effectively without having a pulse on our people, and I couldn’t prioritize innovation without being close to the action. This move has meant giving up on some of our privacy as a leadership team. It’s busy and it can get noisy. (Luckily, we make solutions for those kinds of problems.)

But the move has also given me countless opportunities to meet and interact with people I didn’t know before, because both employees and customers use our space. And guess what happens when impromptu conversations are sprinkled into my day? I listen and I become more aware. That awareness helps us take steps to remain relevant. And relevance builds resilience.

Realizing this has profoundly reshaped the way I do my job. I spend less time on the day in, day out running of the operation. We’ve got lots of principles, rules and processes in place, and we have many people who are good at managing those things. Instead, I spend time listening and being close to the new. I invest my energy on what’s emerging—those things for which we have no principles, no rules, no processes.

This is a challenge for us as leaders. If we’re not close to the new, we won’t feel those subtle shifts in our industry or company culture. Instead, when we are aware, when we’re behaving as gardeners in our organizations, we’ll know when to take a chance on something, when to give it more resources, when to nurture it or encourage it to grow. And those ideas might be the very beginning of your next reinvention.


Jim Keane is president and CEO of Steelcase Inc.