Episodes

Andrea Kates on Innovation

Andrea is a consultant and author who equips leaders to translate emerging trends into growth for their businesses.

My guest today is Andrea Kates. Andrea is a consultant and author who equips leaders to translate emerging trends into growth for their businesses. She’s helped major organizations around the world to “find their next,” and has spoken about business innovation at TED and The Aspen Institute among other venues. In this episode, we discuss how Andrea helps clients innovate by thinking beyond the confines of their existing information environments.

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Show notes

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Jorge: Andrea, welcome to the show. Tell us about yourself. Who are you?

Andrea: I love that question because there are​ so many different directions of where that could go. But I think in terms of the context for The Informed Life, who I am right now is that I work with large corporations and scale-ups​ to drive revenue growth in new arenas. I’ll tell you in a minute about my heritage, which I never talk about, but it’s fun to have a podcast to do that. What I do for ​clients now, large corporations, it really requires a way of thinking that I think is very parallel to this notion of The Informed Life. Because I need to think beyond a traditional MBA analysis — that I was trained in — and have pretty much over the years developed a lens for seeing untapped customer needs and looking at information in very different ways than clients do and being able to do early interpretations of market shifts. And what it really requires is a way of thinking about information in terms of not just the way it comes at you naturally, or the way that it can bombard you, quite frankly, but to start structuring ways that you let the information in and the way that you let the information transform into something so you can put it out in different ways. So what I do for a living is I help companies find new sources of revenue, usually in the bucket of innovation. And the way that I do it is by being able to help them see differently and understand meaning from a lot of diverse information around them.

Jorge: That’s fascinating. The way I’m hearing your description of how you use information in this is that somehow you’re trying to help these organizations see new… See things that they might not see right now — surface new things — and information plays a role in that in that you are kind of constantly on the lookout for things that might influence their trajectory. Is that fair?

Andrea: It’s completely fair. And you know, I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years. It’s interesting, somebody once asked how I’m able to do this and… I perceive anomalies. Whereas within the four walls of a company, they don’t see these different pieces of information as anomalies, they just listen to information and put it all into the same sets of categories. Whereas a lot of times it’s the outsider or the guide of a growth process… I see anomalies. And it allows them to have a fresh set of eyes, quite frankly, and move in new directions.

Jorge: Can you give us an example of what an anomaly would be in a project? Are you talking about anomalies in the market for an organization or anomalies in the way they’re working?

Andrea: Yeah, so it comes from two arenas. Inside the four walls, it’ll come as… A lot of times people say “well, it’s not that we’re…” and whatever comes after that statement on a consistent basis means that there’s probably something that that is an untapped opportunity that they should probably pay more attention to. So I work with an energy company that was in traditional oil and gas and they said, “it’s not that we’re stuck in a mindset of traditional oil, but and I think that’s interesting…” And it turned out that they were in fact missing the opportunity to transform into the gas market which was like 500 million dollars of opportunity for them. But I could feel from from the way that that I started working with the teams that there was something that was a limit that they didn’t see and it was because of this this piece, right? And then when I’m working with customers, there’s a lot of times where there will be an anomaly where the expected answer is the thing that the people start telling you about, but then they’ll apologize and say “well, you know, I really don’t mean to say this…” We’re doing a project in the automobile industry now — in the auto industry and mobility — and people will say “well, you know, actually I don’t want to drive it all. Hahaha!” And I realized after a while that that’s meaningful. That the joke, the humor, the anomaly — the thing that’s off pattern — is actually the beginning of being able to use information to find a pathway to a new business opportunity.

Jorge: How do you keep track of this stuff? This information that you’re gathering that might be relevant to them?

Andrea: I ran a company years ago and made the mistake of explaining — on the record, at a board meeting — that we had two sets of books. And I didn’t I didn’t mean that we were being illegal, what I meant was that there is the set of books that was sort of managerial and the set of books that was more the reporting. But they said, “please never say that again, that you have two sets of books.” But in fact, I have two sets of organizational systems for how I manage information: the one that I tell people I use, which is like Asana and all of these linear organized ways like Fitbit, you know, like how many steps. So that’s what that’s what I say I do, because I feel like that’s like telling the doctor that you only have one glass of wine per month. But the reality is that — and this is where I’ll start with a bit of a confession — I learned a long time ago that the way that I process information is actually kinesthetic and visual. What that means is that if I move a pile from one place to another, I literally have to start all over and can’t remember the order of my thinking. I was trained as a teenager as a choreographer, and worked with a woman who was my mentor at the time named Twyla Tharp. She actually ended up writing a great book I recommend called The Creative Habit. And her way of choreographing was to be able to pretty much storyboard things. Have it have information that you wanted to take from lots of different places, but be able to put it in a kind of storyboard and then work it through physically. You know, be able to walk through from room to room her concepts. And so I find myself telling people that I organize information like Asana and Fitbit and tracking things. But in reality, what I’m doing is I write by taking lots of pieces of paper and putting them in different order. I work with teams by being able to really discern meaning from rearranging sticky notes within a strategy session. I take different pieces of information and I have to create almost dollhouses of how the the ideas flow. And I remember when I wrote a book — Find Your Next — about a little while ago — I sat down with the guy who was a graphic designer and we took all of the ideas for the book and put them in graphic format around the room so that I could see the ways that my ideas were full pulling together and based on that, I could do the research and analysis to develop a linear path that became a book.

Jorge: There’s a photo of Steve Jobs in his home office and the place is a mess. Like his desktop is just covered with stuff. And you know, he was someone who was well known for the elegant simplicity of the products that he worked on, yet his work environment did not necessarily reflect elegant simplicity. But there’s there’s this notion that I’m that I’m hearing from you that you use the physical environment to… you populate it with visual cues that trigger ideas. Is that a way of reading that?

Andrea: It’s exactly true. And and what I find is that it’s strangely the rearranging of ideas… Like I just wrote a book review on a really great business strategy book. And I had all these ideas, but I couldn’t figure out what my topic sentence was until I physically picked up different cards and put them in different ways and you know crumpled one and put one in front of the other and made almost like an arrangement. And as soon as I saw the arrangement that seemed elegant, I realized what I was trying to say. I was burying the lede, and after doing that little exercise with all the information I said, “oh, I know what I’m trying to say!” And I came up with my lead line.

Jorge: That’s so cool. I’m wondering about the constraints of that system. Because one of the things that you run into when you’re dealing with using the physical environment as your thinking place, let’s say, is that you’re constrained by the by the limitations of atoms, right? The walls are only so big. I’m wondering how you manage multiple projects using such a system. Or if you do — I mean, maybe you focus on one thing at a time.

Andrea: So multiple projects is perfect because I end up putting everything on the computer now. I mean, luckily the computer has gotten to the point where you can keep things in organized places. So I translate the sort of natural way that I organize things into things like Asana, so that it’ll become a file folder. But I can’t go the other way. I can’t start with the taxonomy and develop any content and substance and new thinking. I can’t do analysis based on that. When I do large data sets of information, I have to walk away from it and then it goes back into a spreadsheet at the end so I can reduce it. I can expand to think and figure things out, and then I reduce it so that I can organize it and tap into it later. But it’s almost like a symbolic… the file folders are almost like a symbolic logic that I can go back to, and then if I quote double click on it, then I can get back to my thinking. I have to get the visual again. I’ll take a lot of pictures and put them in file folders.

Jorge: Pictures of the walls?

Andrea: Pictures of the walls, pictures of… The work in customer discovery and the research that I do for corporations and interviews. I end up taking pictures or developing symbolic ways of representing ideas that I’m working through and then I have to sort of reconstruct them almost almost like those. What were those monkeys that you could add water and it turned back into a sponge? Remember those?

Jorge: Sea-Monkeys?

Andrea: The Sea-Monkeys. Yeah. It’s like a Sea-Monkey. So I flatten it up and I compress it. And then if I want to get back to that thinking, I’ll add the water and the Sea-Monkey appears again.

Jorge: When you’re talking about reduction, you’re talking about a reduction kind of in the sense of dehydrating vegetables or something. Right?

Andrea: That’s exactly it. Because I have probably, I don’t know, 20 projects going on at any given time. And you can’t have all the Sea-Monkeys in full form in front of you because it’s overwhelming.

Jorge: I had never thought of Excel as a tool for dehydrating Sea-Monkeys. That’s gonna stick in my mind now.

Andrea: Yeah, well, that’ll be their new tagline: “dehydrate your Sea-Monkey.” I’ll call Satya Nadella right now and say, “you know, we really need to really change your tag line for Excel.”

Jorge: So this is this is fascinating. I mean, the process you’re describing sounds to me like t he way that people sketch. For example, when I’m thinking of folks who paint… You will often see sketchbooks filled with first drafts of the painting, right? And they know that the sketchbook is not going to be the finished artifact. It might be beautiful, but it’s not the finished artifact. They’re working towards a painting, which is in some ways kind of the end result of this exploration that happens in the sketchbook. And it sounds to me like for you, the physical environment is where these explorations happen and then those get reduced or formalized into digital tools.

Andrea: That’s right. And one of the things that has always baffled me is how people who function only in a spreadsheet can ever come up with a way to grow corporate revenues by 10% other than “let’s multiply this spreadsheet by 1.10 and we’ll get 10% growth.” Which, by the way, isn’t how it really happens. But once you’re constrained by an information system that organizes data and displays it within one set of constraints, h ow do you develop the the collisions that are required to say “where might new growth come for a corporation?” It’s not necessarily going to come from one of the line items that you’ve already got in your current line of sight. And so my role as a corporate strategist is to be able to take people away from those constraints physically. And since they can’t do it, I go away and do my process, come back and translate it. And it usually means that there’ll be new line items, new columns, whatever, on a spreadsheet — because that’s the lexicon that we share — but I have never been able to come up with a way for a healthcare organization, an energy company, a consumer products company, an automotive company to “get to their next.” Which is my whole concept. You know, how do you get to your next by starting only in a linear format from the organization of their information on day one? Never.

Jorge: What I’m hearing you say — which is something that I agree with — is that staying within the same structures can only lead to incremental growth. Whereas if you want to affect a completely different trajectory, you have to think outside that structure and perhaps think about… Well, there’s this phrase “paradigm shift,” right? Where you’ve you’ve broken outside the bounds imposed by the structures that you are accustomed to working within.

Andrea: So that’s super interesting, Jorge. Because that’s always been a question of mine. Is it possible — and I know paradigm shift can be almost a cliche, you know in business — whatever, but what it’s really about is, can you come up with those fundamental sort of “tectonic plate” ideas — shifts in ideas — without somehow changing the way that you’re taking in information, processing information, manipulating information, thinking about information. I think you can’t. I think that the status quo has such a magnetism when you’re dealing with one view of information.

Jorge: For folks in business whose life and work gravitate around tools like Excel, these things can acquire almost totemic value. I’m wondering how you manage the shift when you are advising these people and working with them… How do you manage to shift their thinking beyond the information management tools they can grow so attached to?

Andrea: It’s probably a daily challenge for me. Because of two things… Well, three things. I think first of all, I’m a translator. So I just got back from Japan and we were looking at blockchain initiatives for a large financial institution. And all of those things are disruptive, disruptive, disruptive. You know, there’s nothing about it that’s comfortable. And yet, clearly if people don’t start thinking about some of these things beyond the pizzazz of “oh, blockchain, Isn’t that cool?” Actually, fundamentally if we’re trying to look at something you can take to the bank, you know, something you can really count on and bet on, it has to have substance to it. So how do you combine this discomfort with, “well, what the hell is blockchain? What would it look like to have a whole new way of making millions and millions of dollars based on somehow breaking up information in a new way and being able to distribute it in a new way, etc.” And so… it always has to come back to a spreadsheet. I mean it always has to come back to an Excel spreadsheet because the question is always going to be, how is this going to bring 10%, 20% growth to our current line of business. So what I do is a couple of things. One is that I’m very grounded in the fact that we have the same score card — and the Excel will always be the scorecard — but I don’t allow that scorecard to be the source for inspiration of how to grow the business that drives the scorecard. And so I make sure that we kind of put a pin in it. We say “okay, we’ve got the spreadsheet” and I physically walk away from it. And then we start to do expansive research and make sure that there’s solid evidence, but then of course we have to sort of squeeze it back in — you know, you dehydrate it again, squeeze it back into the Excel spreadsheet — because that tends to be the place where people keep score.

Jorge: It sounds like you acknowledge the importance of the numbers and the structures that those numbers serve — or are served by, rather — but then move folks beyond that. And it also sounded to me like by the very nature of the sort of work that you get hired for — which has to do with thinking beyond our organization’s current ways of working — those tend to gravitate around subjects like blockchain, where people are kind of willing to give the domain the benefit of doubt or to step outside their normal ways of thinking.

Andrea: Yes, and I think that the way that people can capture even an idea of what is blockchain — and I think you’re a really good thinker about this — you have to start then with a whole different pathway. Like have something that’s familiar and make sure that you can come up with a metaphor that they can relate to and bring them on that journey of “what might it look like for this to be the case based on a different way of thinking?” than “let’s just incrementally grow what we’ve been doing and invest in this one was a real estate project.” So invest in real estate in a traditional way versus what would it look like to have fractional ownership of this real estate, but what it looked like to be able to develop tokens that could be put to different use, what would it look like to be able to have different timing of when something is liquid versus the point of sale. That will never jump out at you if you start with Excel. So I think that it really matters to come up with visual pathways and other ways of presenting the information so that people are not trying to… It’s kind of like if I’m trying to lose weight and all I keep looking at his calorie counts of food. That doesn’t get me to lose weight. It gets me to understand an element that’s required. But information in a in an Excel spreadsheet isn’t going to leap out at you like “oh, here’s a great pathway to having a new model for investing in real estate.” It’s just like when people try to do storytelling and narratives using PowerPoint in the old days, and they would somehow think that if they showed enough pie charts with enough words on the sheet that you would get the narrative. And then there was a whole new style of “just put a photo up there and don’t have any words and tell the story in a different way than you would tell the financial impact.” And I think that decoupling those is quite important.

Jorge: Yeah, one of them is focusing on outcomes and the other is focusing on “how do we get to the outcomes?” Right? I read the comments around Excel and measuring numbers as ways of understanding the outcomes we’re driving to and the variables that will lead us there, but that won’t necessarily elucidate the connections between the different parts that go into making this possible.

Andrea: I think that’s a really great insight.

Jorge: at the beginning of our conversation you talked about a three step process in which you take information in, you transform it, and then you share it back with your clients. And a lot of what we’ve been talking about to me feels like the “transforming” part of the process. Where you have some information — perhaps you’ve already met with the client few times, have done research — and lay it all out in this physical way to then transform it, reduce it into the Sea-Monkey domain. But I’m curious about the input part of this equation: how you go about finding the right information. I n the in the way of a disclaimer, you and I have worked together, and I’ve always been very impressed with your voraciousness as a reader. And you’re always sharing incredibly useful news items and things that are germane to the project at hand. I’m curious about how you go about that.

Andrea: Well, thanks. And it is interesting that we work together because our perspectives are very much in balance. You know, we have very different ways of working toward an outcome of trying to help companies grow and really figure out which information you can rely on but yet which information is surprising. And what isn’t implicit versus explicit, you know things that are explicit aren’t necessarily clear to everyone at the same time. So, I think the way that I take information in is — as you said, I have a huge capacity. I’m lucky. I was just reading a book by Daniel Pink called “When,” and it has to do with when you take certain times of day seem to be based on his research much more important for different tasks. And so I am lucky that I wake up ridiculously early and read and read and read and read. I have between news feeds and I try to stay off social media things, but definitely I’m always reading things that are based on how the brain works. Trends; especially certain industries of all things. You know, very basic consumer things like the food industry because that’s something that we all have to do three times a day is eat. And so as things change, I feel like that’s an early sign of things that are changing in society. I do my work globally and so I’m looking always in Scandinavia, Latin America, and Asia, you know, and what’s going on that’s different in different parts of the world. And so I do feel as if to be able to think in the ways that companies need us to think we have to be voracious readerS. So yes, I take a lot in. But also I’m always in search of something. So right now I’m very interested in the adjacencies . So I look at companies like Amazon and how they are developing business models that are not the obvious ways that people in business were trained to look at things. What in the heck is somebody who sells books over the Internet suddenly doing groceries? And then they’re building airports and they have Amazon Web Services. And they are doing content for their distribution of creative. It’s a model that I find to be really important, and I’m looking at how that is working around the world in terms of people who are stepping outside of the “silos” that they’ve been in. So I’m always looking for that as a theme right now. I’m always looking for things that are happening in brain science because I feel like the ways that consumers and customers perceive things, we know more and more about. How people make habits that stick and how people decide to be loyal to companies these days; it’s not just slogans. And so I think since I’m in the world of commerce, understanding the brain is something I’m just as a theme always interested in. And then I think the other piece is social change. Paul Collier just wrote an incredible book about democracy and is capitalism and democracy… Are they what’s going on in terms of the way that cultures and societies are organizing themselves? So I always have a few themes that I’m hot on and then I find that the ability to do… I think there’s a famous quote that’s “just connect.” So I’ll be able to sit and think about what is it that’s happening next. I’m working for a company in Mexico right now that is a consumer products company. What’s going to be the next way that people want to buy auto products in Latin America? And so I look at things that are from either other cultures, other parts of the world, other Industries: what’s happening in packaging, what’s happening in retail, what’s happening in some social causes, what’s happening in terms of importance of the environment. And I’m always thinking of connecting. How do I connect that in this…

Jorge: It reminds me one of my favorite quotes by Charles Eames. He said, “Eventually everything connects: people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.” Which is…

Andrea: That’s fantastic. That’s so interesting.

Jorge: One of the ways that folks can be innovative — where they can move beyond their linear ways of going about the world — is by exploring the points where fields connect, right? And products connect and ideas connect. And I’m fascinated by this as one of the themes that you are on the lookout for. I’m wondering if you have tools that you use to pick up on signals for these things.

Andrea: Well, I don’t know if it’s tools, but I keep notebooks and I keep files. I love OneNote now, because I find myself… What I like about OneNote is that you can… I have a Surface computer so I can draw something, put it in the file. Take a picture of something, put it in the file. The information organization — the way that I do it — really lends itself to something like OneNote, so I can read something, take a picture of it, hear something, have an audio… I don’t want to use the word ontology in polite society, but do you know the difference between a taxonomy — where you know what the organization is going to look like in the beginning? Right? So I have a file folder called pictures of flowers. Okay, great. Well, what if I take a picture of something and it’s kind of partly a flower but it also has an animal and it also has a rainbow and which file folder does that go in? So what I do with OneNote is I’ll take a picture of that with a bunch of stuff in it, something having to do with a new retail place that’s in China that has connectivity that maybe has a great user interface. That will be an idea. Put it in OneNote, and then later I’ll be able to make a quality connection. So I don’t try to make the connections upfront. And I think that that’s why what you’ve experienced is that I have this voracious input. But I end up making connections in ways that are surprising because of the ways that these new tools can actually support that way of organizing information.

Jorge: And how do you come about the information in the first place? Are you issuing Google searches? Like if you’re starting to work on a new project? How do you go about seeking out the content that you will be putting into your annotation system?

Andrea: So I do a couple of things. One is I do a self-brainstorm. I will physically — in my office — or on OneNote — have a question. So what will it take for consumers in Latin America to serve their automobile in new ways? Something like that. So it’s not just the things that they’re currently buying, but what are the adjacent things that they might buy around their vehicle ownership that obviously could help with this project in Latin America. As you and I know, when we do projects that are intense for a client, and we do a combination of lean Innovation and business model canvases as well as some design thinking and customer co-creation, we can take a lot of disparate elements and start to make sense of them because we physically put them in a room and sat in a war room for three weeks with the data, and you keep organizing, reorganizing, finding meaning, categorizing until it starts to surface what it is that is important for the client. And so I think that basically, when I have a question like the what I’m dealing with right now in Latin American automobiles, I have searches that are Google searches where I have keywords and I have news feeds that I watch. And there are people that I pay attention to, people like… John Hagel I think thinks deeply about things. I’ll follow Thinkers 50. I’ll follow Singularity University. I’ll follow Wiki Brands Collective… I’m a member of in Toronto that looks at trends on a global basis. And I start to discern based on this question that I have up on the wall and in my OneNote file. Okay, let me just put a bunch of things in here and then start to sort it out later.

Jorge: That’s fantastic. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s going to be hard to focus, right? Especially when there’s so much information available to us.

Andrea: Well, I love that. As you know now it’s kind of coming out in public, but very few people who were trained as choreographers and as structured improvisational performance artists in their teenage years who then go on to get MBAs and work with Fortune 500 companies. So I don’t usually tell people how I’m getting to my next level of insight, but the ability to to think that way, and to be fluid with information and sort of swim through it, and pull things, and match things in a very active kinesthetic way is something that more business executives should learn. W hat I know from my formal training and businesses is that you don’t get insights, as you said, from looking at data in a traditional way. And I think that the confines and the constraints of the data structures can limit the insights.

Jorge: That seems like a fantastic place to wrap up the conversation. It’s such a great summary and articulation of the work you do and the value you bring. So thank you Andrea for for this conversation, it’s been really insightful. Now, where can folks find you?

Andrea: Well, the best place to find me is the company that I run in San Francisco, iScale — which is i-scale.io — and on LinkedIn, it’s Andrea Kates.

Jorge: Again, thank you for your time.

Andrea: Great to talk to you.​