Representative Image (Image Source: Reuters)
Beyond Great is a guidebook for corporate leaders seeking purposeful advice on how to thrive in “an era of social tension, economic nationalism, and technological revolution.” Though the topic is dreary, the writing by Arindam Bhattacharya, Nikolaus Lang, and Jim Hemerling -- all of whom are senior partners at Boston Consulting Group -- is surprisingly upbeat. Their approach makes the book a delight to read. There is enough cynicism going around right now, and a book that offers strategies to not only cope but also learn and flourish is more than welcome.
Published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, this book is divided into three parts: growing beyond, operating beyond, and organising beyond. Each part contains three chapters because the authors want to share nine core strategies that leaders can deploy to go beyond delivering “outstanding total shareholder returns,” to “deal with sudden disruptions and changes in the rules,” and to “adjust quickly to changing customer needs.” While the book does engage with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is oriented towards addressing a broader set of challenges.
According to the authors, three fundamental forces must be held responsible for transforming “the very nature of global business as we have come to know it over the past 150 years.” The first of these is the social tension triggered by “the worsening of the strain on our natural ecosystem and the rising discontent with capitalism and the resulting inequality.” The second is economic nationalism, “the ongoing erosion of US hegemony” and the decline in “the multilateralism that arose in response to World War II.” The third is the technological revolution “fueled by the exponential growth of global data and digital technologies.”
These developments place overwhelming demands on companies. If they want to keep up, innovate and win, they have to accept that unprecedented circumstances call for a new playbook. The authors insist that flexibility, light-footedness, and “making sure they really do treat their people well” can help organizations stay resilient while dealing with climate change, unexpected consumer behaviour influenced by social media, tariff and non-tariff barriers emerging from protectionist policies, and “faster technological obsolescence and cybersecurity risks” exacerbated by an increasing dependence on digital technologies.
What works in this book’s favour is the fact that the authors provide real-life examples to back up the strategies they present. Some of the organizations that have their work discussed in this book include Starbucks, MasterCard, PepsiCo, Natura, Tata Consultancy Services, Microsoft, Netflix, Unilever, Whirlpool, Siemens and Nokia. The authors’ anecdotes are drawn from their own practice as consultants, and from interviews conducted by their team of researchers. They also throw in some hard data for readers who are not convinced by theories and abstractions, and need to see numbers to get them going.
The nine strategies have been outlined as follows: “1. Do good, grow beyond. 2. Stream it, don’t ship it. 3. Refine your global game. 4. Engineer an ecosystem. 5. Flex how you make it. 6. Let the data run through it. 7. Get focused, fast, and flat. 8. Thrive with talent. 9. Embrace always-on transformation.” Each strategy has been fleshed out in great detail so that readers can get a flavour of how it has been implemented by others, and how they can implement it in their own organizations. This book would have been a more rigorous one if the authors had also offered critiques and counter-arguments. Are these strategies foolproof? Have they failed in certain contexts, and why? Are they based on assumptions that need to be articulated more clearly?
The authors advise corporate leaders to “integrate a concern for societal impact” into core operations to build goodwill and increase profits, rather than being limited to corporate social responsibility initiatives. Taking on this role is important in a scenario where societal problems require action beyond what governments alone can do. Consumers expect private players to find solutions such as recyclable packaging or environmental profit and loss statements published on an annual basis. Many make buying choices based on ideological considerations. It is not unusual to hear calls for a boycott of brands with controversial messaging.
In addition, the authors recommend a shift from “discrete product-based offerings” to personalized solutions that “deliver outcomes on an ongoing basis.” The most relatable case in point would be online streaming platforms that increased their revenue during the pandemic when lockdowns imposed by governments forced people to stay in. The authors write, “Leaders have to go asset light, pursuing swift, wide-scale global expansions without building expensive new infrastructure or mobilizing large teams (a feat made possible by relying on digital and local partners.) Such a strategy allows firms to minimize risk in turbulent times.”
Each chapter features a gamut of questions for readers to reflect on: As customer expectations change, what core activities still comprise the basis of your competitive advantage? What non-core activities can you hand off to others via partnerships? How might you build strong data governance capabilities so that your customers can trust in the security of their data? What kinds of non-traditional talent might be right for your company? Do you have a plan in place for attracting these individuals? What new tactics might you try? These thoughtful questions can help leaders assess what their organisations need, and how they can do their best to provide it.(Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect)