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An interview with Martin Reeves – Author, ‘Your Strategy Needs a Strategy’

An interview with Martin Reeves – Author, ‘Your Strategy Needs a Strategy’

Martin Reeves is Senior Partner at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) & Director of the Bruce Henderson Institute at the firm.

The Indian Economist had a chance to meet and speak with Mr. Reeves who is currently touring India to launch and promote his new book Your Strategy Needs a Strategy



So Martin, what brings you to India?

(MR) I am spending a couple of weeks in Asia talking to companies and B-schools. I have come to India for the formal launch of our book ‘Your Strategy Needs a Strategy’. I will also be interacting with clients and B-schools here. I will be here for a week visiting Kolkata, Mumbai and Bangalore. 

What are your thoughts on doing business in India?

(MR) As a strategist, when I come to India I always see new things. India and China are the places to be, where the winds of change are blowing strongest. Many Indian firms are “mavericks”. They have a culture of questioning. I see a lot of vitality, reinventing business strategy, and being skeptical towards conventional approaches. I find Indian leaders to be generally very clear in articulating their ideas, too.

Mahindra & Mahindra for example, which we discuss in the book and well-known as the world’s largest maker of tractors, differentiates its approach to strategy in quite an interesting fashion.

The Indian Economist ran a story reviewing your book quite recently.  What exactly are you trying to bring about in your book?

(MR) The book is a means to an end. The mission of the Bruce Henderson Institute is to originate and develop, translate and apply new ideas in strategy and management. The book is merely a vehicle to do that. The book will enable our clients to read about and apply new approaches. We also aim to acquaint more people with our way of thinking and our culture so that we can recruit the very best talent from B-schools and other institutions.

What is the strategy palette? Are there any examples of its application?

(MR) Business environments are much more diverse than they used to be. We are trying to help companies diversify their approach to strategy accordingly. The strategy palette is a choice framework to help firms match the right approach for each environment they face. The strategy palette helps companies choose between 5 very distinct approaches to strategy – Classical (“Be Big”), Visionary (“Be First”), Adaptive (“Be Fast”), Shaping (“Be the Orchestrator”) or Renewal (“Be Viable”) – based on three key parameters which define a business environment: predictability, malleability and harshness. Firms which correctly match the right approach to their environment generate more than a four percentage point advantage in total shareholder returns.

I was in Australia a week ago. The ideas in the book resonated well with companies there. Australia depends on natural resource exports. Global volatility and China’s recent slowdown demand that the big resource companies build more flexibility and adaptability. And the strategy palette and ideas in the book can help them deal with that.

These ideas also seem very applicable to India, but in a different way. India has many conglomerates, which especially need to apply the right approach to strategy in each of their businesses. India is also a fast growing vibrant economy, demanding an emphasis on capabilities of adaptiveness and shaping the environment – two big themes in the book

How did the book come to be?

(MR) What is interesting is that the book actually started in India. When I took on leadership of the BCG Strategy Institute my first job was to go and discuss the state of the art in strategy with senior leaders. My first meeting was with Mr. Gopalakrishnan at Tata and I realized from that and other discussions with Indian leaders that we really needed to rethink our approach to strategy. That was the genesis of the book – so I am very grateful to all of the Indian leaders who supported the project by contributing their ideas and experience.

There is an iPad game based on your book. What were the reasons behind creating the game?

The book was a good way to capture and codify our thinking. But most CEOs are busy people. Some may not have enough time to read the whole book.

Therefore we have released a companion iPad game along with the book, so that leaders can develop a muscle memory for the concepts.

It was quite fun developing the app – a new experience for me. We developed it with a leading mobile technology firm in Germany called Neofonie. We have received great feedback on the app and the first time we shared it publically we were hired to build a game for an engineering firm! We will be developing the game further to be multiplatform and as a tool for use in client strategy workshops.

We hear a lot about business tools created by BCG such as the BCG matrix, the strategy palette, etc. Do you feel this level of transparency could be detrimental in your competitive industry?

(MR) We are a big firm now, consulting on issues as diverse as organization, transformation, post merger integration and operations but our roots are in strategy. One reason why we invest in strategy is because we started out there. Lots of us are still very passionate about it! We try to advance the art of strategy and of course we share our ideas because we are a service business. Also by talking about our ideas, we also reveal our identity and hopefully inspire and attract the best talent. In the book we talk about the importance of not just running the business but also constantly reinventing it. Developing and sharing new ideas and approaches is our way of applying this maxim to ourselves.

Tell us about your journey at BCG.

(MR) I started at BCG 26 years ago. I was previously in the chemicals industry. From the beginning I had an inclination to strategy since I liked problem solving. I started working on strategy from my first day at BCG. I worked in London. Then, Eastern Europe on the industry policy and privatization. Then I went to Japan. I could work there because I had studied biophysics in Japan before. Currently, I am a senior partner at BCG in New York and Director of the Bruce Henderson Institute.

This year marks the 100th birthday of our founder Mr. Bruce Henderson. So we have renamed the BCG Strategy Institute to the Bruce Henderson Institute to celebrate his legacy, to renew it in relation not only to strategy, but also to all aspects of management. I am very proud that we at BCG not only run the business but also reinvent it. Ideas are always on the move and so there is never a dull moment.

After a background in biophysics, how did the shift to research on strategy happen?

(MR) I happened to study biophysics but my passion was always really for problem solving. I believe in something that I call the “technology of ideas”. What I mean is that the right idea, communicated in the right way can not only change how one other person thinks, but it can inspire them to behave differently and to enthusiastically spread the idea. Ideas really can change the world, and I feel privileged that I am in a position to try to do this every day.

Do you have any advice for B-school students in India?

(MR) Respect what you are being taught but realize it’s just the known part of a very large space to be explored and you are the generation which will change business. Don’t just exploit old ideas but also develop new ones because the world badly needs them. We have many unsolved social and business challenges which require new thinking. For example, large organizations need to reinvent themselves for the turbulent times we live in. Products are being transformed into services and software. We need to harness the rapidly evolving man to machine interface. And we need to figure out how to achieve prosperity at lower forecast growth rates in many parts of the world. You should be excited and proud that you will be the ones to solve these riddles.

And finally, what are your thoughts on The Indian Economist?

(MR) I like your youth and vigor. I see you as a scrappy maverick business paving the way for the next generation of journalism! I would classify you as a visionary company in the parlance of my book since you have created a new business model rather than merely apply the traditional one.

This interview was conducted by Varun Mittal, Editorial Associate, The Indian Economist in Mumbai.

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