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Author Interview: Andrea Kates

As corporate belts tighten and creativity feels the squeeze, perhaps the toughest question for companies to answer is 'what's next?'

There are thousands of business books out there. But very few attempt to apply scientific structures to the way we organise out corporate thinking. Andrea Kates's model - the 'business genome' approach - goes in search of answers, not through rehashing self-help paradigms, but by emulating ambitious 'big thinking' such as the Human Genome Project. Talking with Kates, she says: 'It is a new way to look at business strategy, translated into a practical, step-by-step process for getting businesses (and other organisations) 'unstuck': to discover sources of sustainable revenues and tap into untapped customer opportunities.'

The core belief is that the powerful insights that have helped to grow companies such as GE, Johnson & Johnson, Zurich Financial and hundreds of others, can influence adjacent industries, and so implant successful ideas to revitalise their competitive edge.

'The current view of competition,' says Kates, 'is that our products and services compete with the peers we see in front of us today. Nokia would look to HTC or Motorola to plan their next move. But, I call that the 'keeping up with the Joneses', or the silo mindset.' Her next move is penetrative, as she explains we are just as likely to compete off-radar in the future. 'Nikon and Canon compete with the iPhone and Androids for pixel power, not just other camera companies.'

Kates has led more than 250 strategy projects for companies as large as Royal Dutch Shell and as small as CoolerEmail. Over time, she has come to understand 'two extremely important things'. First is that what she learned in her MBA training may well have suited a world that changed in a predictable manner, or a business environment requiring improvements in efficiency or incremental modifications. But her clients were expected to deliver double-digit growth on a sustainable basis. 'The new realities - rapid cycle changes, globalisation, transparency - required a radical rethinking.'

Second, she observed companies successful in delivering revenue growth and staying ahead of a rapidly changing market had common characteristics. Armed with these ideas, Kates set out to research and characterise those characteristics.

A cynic might say that a metaphor borrowed from biology is simply a fancy way of disguising regurgitated management tropes. But Kates thinks that the idea of the genome as metaphor is useful and stresses that the over-used clich' of 'corporate DNA' is not what she's talking about. Indeed, 'that is simply a point of departure. The point of the book is genomic. We discover powerful opportunities for our 'next' by formalising our hunches about where our next opportunity might be (for example, Nokia could think 'cameras') and studying the patterns of other organisations that have already mastered that genomic element.'

Kates has identified six category areas that allow a structured approach to a thought model to help an organisation identify other's patterns and pave the way to becoming unstuck. These are: product innovation, customer impact, process design, talent and leadership, secret sauce and 'trendability'.

'They are my original concepts about the 'levers' companies can recombine to describe their genomic pattern today and discover their opportunity for tomorrow.' The important point here is that they are dynamic, unlike the static SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) that can only, at best, formalise what you already know about where you are today.

'The categories are designed to aid discovery. They mirror the way that true scientific discovery occurs. You begin with a hunch and trace it with analogous situations that reveal a new answer.'

The rules for business have undergone a dramatic shift since the times when we could predict our growth based on number of units we could produce next year as compared to last year. The original tools were 'not designed for today's new realities such as speed, globalisation, transparency/crowd dynamics'. She expands this by saying that in the bad old days the first response to being stuck was to innovate our way to revenue growth. But that innovation was never properly linked to sustainable revenue growth. 'Creativity actually got a bad reputation as a result.'

'Find Your Next' was written to change the response that the alternative to inertia was simply to design your way out of it. Kates says that the emphasis is now on addressing realities head-on: 'providing actual evidence as well as a new process that everyone can understand'.

On an abstract level, as engineering managers we can all sympathise. The mere fact that we can apply Kates's grown-up thinking to what we do should make it easier for us to understand how the wheels of the machine can get clogged up in the dirt that they pick up from the road. But these are tough times. Austerity applies as much to thought as it does to budget planning. But, we can't go back to our stakeholders pleading that we need to make room for big thinking. Kates believes there's another way.

'The short-term pressures are best addressed not by our rear view mirror, but by the cross-industry perspective. Everyone needs to stop what they're doing right now and think differently. Nokia can think about tomorrow: 'What is Nikon doing next?' instead of 'What are other handset manufacturers doing next?''

The 'business genome' approach is no mystery, she concludes, and it can work overnight. And if you find her message hard to conceptualise, I recommend that you give her highly original guide to repositioning your views on how to get unstuck some of your valuable time. 'Find Your Next' is full of inspirational case studies, and is above all an inspirational read. *

'Find Your Next' by Andrea Kates is published by McGraw Hill, £21.99. E&T readers can order 'Find Your Next' (McGraw-Hill £21.99) for the special price of £16.50 (incl p&p). Simply call 01628 502720 and quote 'ETAK2011'. Offer valid until May 2012.

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