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What makes a company innovative? Andrea Kates shares her thoughts.

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

It used to be that companies were judged as innovative based on how many ideas they could bring to market. There was a tension de-fined between the “innovate/explore” and “execute/exploit” mindsets.

Huge debates emerged about whether a company should focus on its core or on emerging “edge” opportunities. In today’s market, three things have changed.

First, the speed of change is unprecedented: keeping up means shifting to new arenas at a breakneck pace.

Second, there are new forces of change - coming from industries outside of the ones where we are used to competing and operating – and that requires cross-industry insights.

Third, the business models themselves have shifted, opening up new opportunities to collaborate, to build an ecosystem through relationships that transcend the traditional supply chain mindset.

The bias of most tools we use grounds our thinking in ways we’re not even aware of - Andrea Kates

All of these conditions add up to the need to classify a company as “innovative” based on a multi-dimensional view that I call futureproofing, which is a four-step process: See, Learn, Decide, and Commit.

See: How good is a company's ability to see and respond to emerging trends?

Learn: How effectively can a company acquire new capabilities that will keep it relevant? I call it Perpetual Refresh—the ability to master new skills.

Decide: How well does a company align its leaders around priorities to take action?

Commit: To what extent is the culture geared to aggressively pursue new initiatives, while operating well and keeping a check on the pulse of the customers and the market. It’s not just about idea generation.

Innovative companies focus on becoming futureproofed by adopting a new mindset, adding new capabilities, and embracing new metrics. Innovative organizations always have a clear vision about where to head next and they work backward to chart a path to get there.

To adopt the futureproofing approach requires tossing out conventional tools like SWOT (Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Threats) as our sole point of departure to begin the strategic journey. The bias of most tools we use grounds our thinking in ways we’re not even aware of - for example, SWOT tends to focus on historical or present-day data and is generally vetted by the internal team.

By contrast, Design Thinking can be brought in, to reflect emerging customer beliefs and needs. Or, Lean Startup can bring in customer discovery and experimentation. While all of these are valid, it is a blend-ed, future-proofed approach that is better suited to the dynamics of today’s market.

Andrea Kates helps corporate teams and business leaders drive revenue growth through innovative routes to market, future-based insights, and cross-industry in-spiration. Former tech CEO in San Francisco and now a global advisor and leader of high-impact initiatives for companies like Ford, Mayo Clinic, KK Wind, Intergraficas, and Cisco. Leadership Training, Innovation Initiatives, Thought Leadership/ Key-notes, Board Member.


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