Interview with Matthew Hoffer Craig, Managing Partner, and Rebecca Bachmann, Chief Strategy and Technology Officer, Spire Strategy & Risk Advisory, Switzerland
The most successful business partnerships can take root just about anywhere. Some occur in the boardroom, while many others happen at the gym or on the golf course. But then there’s the case of Rebecca Bachmann and Matthew Hoffer Craig, who struck up a conversation on a bus heading to a tech conference and are now partners in Spire, a Swiss-based strategy and risk advisory firm.
They realised that with extensive and complementary skill sets, they could meet a demand that had yet not been addressed in the marketplace. Formed in November 2016, what makes them stand out from the rest is their self-described approach:
“Ingrained in our DNA is the belief that a great strategy requires unrivalled contextual intelligence. Spire’s approach is designed to obtain this intelligence through a holistic analysis of key quantitative and qualitative data points within and between three pillars: organisation, industry and environment.”
If past performance is any indication of future success, then the sky is the limit for the pair behind Spire. Together, Rebecca and Matthew’s collective work experience involves stints at Strategy&, the World Economic Forum, the US Department of State, General Dynamics and J.P. Morgan Investment Bank.
Tharawat Magazine recently sat down with Rebecca and Matthew to discuss the new enterprise and how 21st-century technology is affecting the global business landscape.
Welcome Rebecca, welcome Matthew to the Tharawat Magazine Podcast for Family Business and Entrepreneurship. We would love for you to explain to us a little bit more about Spire and how it came about. How did you get started?
Rebecca: It was a couple of years ago, and we were both attending a technology conference in Munich. The conference had a bus that took the participants to the World Economic Forum in Davos, and that’s where we met. We started talking about where the world was headed, and it was a very fortunate time to exchange views on how organisations, companies and governments are responding to this tremendous and tumultuous change we’re witnessing within the global system. At the time, Matthew and I were CEOs of separate ventures, but over the course of that year, we came to realise that there is a genuine need for a different type of global advisory solution, and we could create something pertinent that would respond to that need.
When you talk about the changes that are needed, if you were to sum it up in a nutshell, what was the gap that you saw in advisory services?
Rebecca: My background is in concept and framework strategy. Having worked with governments and Fortune 500 companies on strategy projects, we’ve come to realise that CEOs and company owners understand that the world they’re trying to steer their organisation through is more connected and complex than before. Only a few of them are confident in how to navigate it though, and that’s the precise gap we identified. We create truly bespoke strategies to support CEOs and organisational leadership to navigate a world where the only constant is change.
Matthew: My background is in finance, geopolitics and government affairs. I would see leaders from both the public and private sector grapple with exactly the same issues. For instance, if a company wanted to have big data analytics, they would have to go to one of the big four services firms. If they wanted to have a strategy consultant, they would go to one of the three main management consulting companies. If they wanted geopolitical risk advisories or support with digital transformation, for both of those there are a plethora of companies that offer those services. These are four or five separate segments; however, for the global system today, marked by unprecedented complexity, we think a holistic, 360-degree approach is absolutely critical. What Rebecca and I realised was that if we combined our respective skill sets, we would have an opportunity to build an advisory business supported by a new type of strategy model that could combine all of these segments on one platform. And that’s really what Spire is.
That sounds like a wonderful vision – a true holistic approach – but take us into the process here. What happens when a client comes to you and asks you to help them tackle this enormous complexity? What’s the Spire process?
Rebecca: It starts with a conversation. We engage exclusively with CEOs or owners of companies, and we initially sit down to hear the client’s thoughts. What we don’t do is simply respond to tenders or come in and find a solution for a predefined problem. When we say “supporting leaders to navigate the world’s complexity”, it’s about doing two things: using our model to draw out where the company is headed for the next five to ten years based on the existing data and then using a qualitative future-casting framework, spending quality time with the CEO and their extended team to imagine and co-create the future. Inevitably, there’s a gap, and we develop very bespoke strategies to fill that gap.
Matthew: I would add to that, when we first met, we spent close to a year developing the model. Given how much the world has changed, we realised that we needed to build something new – something relevant and novel. So what we have is a unique tech-driven strategy model that draws on a number of different elements. It draws on classical strategy, it draws on cognition, by which we mean fields of neuroscience, psychology and sociology, as well as geopolitics and physical sciences. The best way that I can describe complexity in the world today is to compare it to dark matter: we know it’s there, but we can’t really see it. And so to measure it and develop new approaches for companies, it means identifying and connecting a wide array of disparate yet connected data points from an organisation’s culture, its strategy, its financials, but also its external context, such as the geopolitical and digital environments.
You collect all that data from the company in an initial step and, as Rebecca said, it starts with that conversation. In that conversation, has it become obvious to the two of you why it is so hard for companies to act on their own data without outside help? Why do companies get stuck and why do they need third-party support in getting to that next level?
Matthew: I’d say that it’s not so much that they can’t do it for themselves when it comes to drawing conclusions from their own data. It’s more often the case that the right models and frameworks are not in place. Let me give you an example. If you look at the last ten years, big data analytics has suddenly arrived, and companies struggle to make sense of the troves of data they have. However, what we have found is that it’s more valuable for organisations to look into the future and try to predict and identify what we call “black swans” or “grey rhinos” – in other words, forecast outlier events. These outlier events can be actual events or non-linear innovations. These events can massively disrupt your business. Big data analytics is extremely useful for some purposes, but it is not useful in this case because it is built around clusters, and clusters, by design, miss outlier events. In a world as complex as today, navigating these risks means not only avoiding potential disruptions, but it can also serve as a significant competitive advantage.
You mentioned that you identify that gap and understand where the perception of the executive management may be and where the achievable or desirable competitive advantage lies. Once that gap is identified, how do you take your clients through the journey of implementing the strategies you propose? Are you there for that or are you mostly on the strategising part, and it’s up to every client to implement this themselves?
Matthew: We are there on the execution side as well. Execution is key. Thomas Edison said, “Genius is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.” What is absolutely essential for our strategy to work is to enable companies to differentiate between existing businesses that generate their present income and future businesses that will generate revenues in the future. These are two completely different things and require different mindsets. Existing businesses are about optimisation. These companies are good at what they do – it’s what they make money from. We’re not here to take their own watches and tell them what the time is. Future businesses are about strategy, and that’s what we try to help with – how they are going to deal with disruption and, when the time comes, disrupt their business model to do one (or all) of three things. First of all, create new businesses and products. Second, find and convert new customers who are not customers today, and third, build a new value chain to change how you deliver value to your existing customers. In order to do this and execute all of this change, it’s absolutely critical to bring in an independent, objective third party – one that doesn’t know existing processes and therefore hasn’t developed an “emotional attachment” to the existing way of doing things, which is often what we find with middle management.
Rebecca: Objectivity is the most important thing. Through our approach, by the time we’re past the strategising portion of our engagement with the client, we understand the DNA and the people. I have a little voice in my head constantly reminding me that there’s no business without customers, and there is no company without people. That’s where our cognition element is critical. The human component – the decision-making with cognitive and emotional biases and the logical fallacies – is so prevalent in organisations. When we say our approach is holistic, we’re also talking about the qualitative and the intangible aspects that feed into how we execute our strategic recommendations within the company.
You’re talking about the cognitive side and the emotional side, and we know for a fact that most company success is based on strong culture. Companies with strong cultures regularly and consistently outperform those that do not emphasise strong cultures or consistency across the organisation. Could you tell us a little bit more about this? It’s easy to see how your model would be a great approach for hard data – you make sense of all this complexity and bring it back into one place to give the company an overview. But how do you tackle this intangible factor of culture?
Rebecca: We have a process we call “future-casting”, which is essentially a process during which we imagine the future. Our process starts with sitting down with the CEO and having a conversation. That continues later on once we’ve established a high-level overview of where we believe the key risk and opportunities lie. What we have is a variation of the Delphi method, a process where experts answer questionnaires, and then the answers are amalgamated and sent back. We try to find and create consensus based on informed judgement by experts. These experts come from within the company itself, the Spire team and the extended team, or are individuals that we specifically source for projects.
The feeling today with the Fourth Industrial Revolution or “next economy” is that companies in both the private and public sector are facing a digitisation challenge. We have conversations with a lot of SMEs, and there is this fear that the complexity you describe is insurmountable. There’s a feeling of having missed the boat already – there’s more of a feeling of fear than opportunity. What would be your Spire’s piece of advice to those who feel like it might be too late for them?
Matthew: First of all, it’s never too late. Second, when it comes to the critical topic of digital, the most important thing any leader in a company can do is distinguish between digitisation and digital transformation. The former is about applying digital technologies to existing processes. The latter is about creating malleable processes and business models that can adapt when required to – which is fairly often, given the pace of change in technology today. Our advice in this Fourth Industrial Revolution is that companies should engage in digital transformation. Unfortunately, that’s not a one-time process. We’ve seen many CEOs hire a CTO and give them one year to make their company digital. If you look at Amazon, however, they digitally transform every six months because it’s a way of being. You need to change the mindset first.
Finally, a question to you both as entrepreneurs. You built Spire from scratch at a fairly young age but combining a lot of experience. What is the next level that you want to achieve with Spire and what is your dearest wish with regard to the impact it will have on the private and public sector?
Rebecca: We would like to be of genuine value and to be seen as a partner in the long-term journey into the unknown.
Matthew: I completely agree with that. In this area of unprecedented complexity, conductivity and disruption, if we can add true value and create genuinely game-changing strategies for our customers, then we would have achieved what we set up to do.