An unconventional career path has helped BP’s Brooke Miller approach strategic thinking with a clearer and more targeted purpose.
Brooke Miller CPA likes to create options, bullet point upon bullet point – so much so that when presenting strategy to her team, the CFO of BP Asia Pacific often runs out of whiteboard, prompting calls from the floor to “Sharpie the walls!”.
“We do joke about my whiteboard not being big enough,” says a smiling Miller, seated in a meeting room at BP’s Melbourne Docklands office.
“But in my defence, I think generating options is very healthy.”
This comprehensive approach to strategy may have something to do with Miller’s background. Before joining the global energy giant in 2000, she worked as a landscape architect, helping to design projects as disparate as roads, schools and the odd zoo (those who enjoy the ambience of Royal Melbourne Zoo and Alice Springs Desert Wildlife Park have Miller, in part, to thank).
Along the way, she discovered design thinking, a strategic tool she jokes is now “rather hip, the latest thing”. When discussing the topic of design thinking, Miller opens up, noticeably talking faster, in an almost conspiratorial manner.
She’s a believer. In its simplest guise, design thinking is about identifying and defining a problem, brainstorming a mountain of ideas to solve it, refining those solutions and collectively choosing the best one before rolling out the fruits of your work.
“It’s a disciplined way of thinking about strategy,” says Miller.
“A lot of brands are using this to access creative thought in their teams and respond to volatile and changing marketplaces. It asks you to consciously stop and think about the opportunities and constraints in your environment ... Universities around the
world are now running courses in design thinking.”
Miller says that, for disciplined designers, it’s an old way of thinking. “There’s a great misconception that strategy only comes from very clever, strategic-thinking people, and they’re the only people who can think like that,” she says.
“I don’t believe strategy comes from a separate place in your mind. Design thinking teaches you to look at a marketplace from a range of perspectives and then pull out and synthesise those really important pieces. A really good strategic outlook is a really good synthesised understanding of what’s going on.”
From design to finance
In 2000, Miller completed an MBA at the University of Melbourne, a qualification “that tends to open up the world as your oyster”, she says. At that time, BP was looking for people who understood construction, planning and design, and Miller was attracted to the rhetoric.
“It was all about the energy future being very different to the energy past. I didn’t know what any of that meant, but I thought, ‘that sounds pretty exciting’,” she says, laughing.
“I think the company was saying that the energy being used, and in what proportion, was changing quite substantially, and that holds true today. In my time, I’ve seen the rise of US shale oil and gas, and it’s completely changed the face of the business landscape.”
“I get enormous joy out of working on the biggest jigsaw puzzle in the world”
Her first role with BP was in retail site selection. “In my case, I understood how to get stuff built, but I didn’t understand something basic like how to read a P&L,” she says. “Since then, I’ve been educated through a range of different universities and taken advantage of everything that’s on offer.”
BP strategy execution
In Australia, 6000 employees and long-term contractors work for BP across oil exploration and production, petrol refining and marketing, and natural gas. Its fuel retailing business includes more than 1400 service stations, 350 of them directly operated. Globally, BP’s 84,000 employees operate in 80 countries, and the company produces 3.2 million barrels of oil per day.
All this activity requires a steady spotlight on strategy. Miller’s team is responsible for the downstream (closer to the end user) oil and gas part of the business, refreshing strategy annually. The Melbourne office runs the finance and strategy teams side by side, which encourages crossover.
“You’ll notice four words written on the walls around the office: challenge, insight, independence and partnership,” says Miller.
“From a finance perspective, that’s what I’d call finance strategies. It’s not about writing reports; it’s about what’s going on in the marketplace and making insightful intervention.”
In 2015, BP Asia Pacific’s strategy team was kept active with a renewed focus on retail. In the course of 12 months, BP partnered with and/or outsourced regional and rural operations
to Lowes Petroleum, Great Southern Fuel Supplies, Toll and UGL Operations and Maintenance. Additionally, the company sold its bitumen business to Puma Energy, finalised the closure of Brisbane’s Bulwer Island oil refinery and joined forces with Virgin Australia’s Velocity Frequent Flyer to roll out a loyalty program.
“It was an exceptional undertaking by many people to execute all of these activities over a single year,” says Miller, stressing that strategy is driven through a collective effort.
“We’ve fundamentally changed the way we operate in Australia, and everyone’s really engaged in that conversation. Part of that is having a clear, consistent and embedded strategy so that people know how to make decisions in their particular area.”
A changing landscape
Miller says the marketplace is almost unrecognisable from two years ago, presenting a challenge to management as it strives to keep staff motivated. She is also mindful that the main focus of operations should be to operate.
“One of the approaches I have been working on with my team is positive disruption,” she says.
“The strategy team’s role is to look ahead and search for and, at times, create tension about disruption that can or should change your business – then to challenge the operating teams. It’s not always comfortable, but
it does mean that we are realistic about the need to be nimble and open to change.”
Identifying strategic opportunities and threats is a key component of a CFO’s responsibilities, and Miller is well aware that the bigger picture can sometimes be shunted sideways under the daily burden of improving operations and unearthing incremental efficiency gains.
“I’m quite disciplined around deliverables, but the actual strategic thinking is a fundamental part of my job as CFO,” she says. “It is difficult for me to switch off that strategy thought, and the best ideas tend to come when I’m switched off, when ’m running or cycling or swimming or doing something completely unattached to work.”
Miller is focused on future consumer demand, which she considers the major driver of strategy. “A very large component of strategy is data analysis, but we could almost drown in data on any given day,” she says.
“You need to be really nimble in this environment. We’re consistently looking for threats and we need to know our weaknesses before anyone else does. We actually need to know who’s coming and what they’re good at before they get too close. Things are tweaked very quickly – and tweaks can be huge. You need to be vigilant.”
Vigilance will be needed in 2016 as oil prices the world over continue to drop. In February, BP reported a global annual record loss of US$6.5 billion, with 7000 jobs to disappear by
the end of 2017.
Further, the disastrous economic and environmental toll of 2010’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill (at last count, a cost of US$54.6 billion to the company) continues to bite. Despite this, the company remains confident the oil price will recover in the third and fourth quarters of 2016.
While the latest round of fuel price volatility plays out, Miller remains upbeat about BP’s future and her part in it. “I get enormous joy out of working on the biggest jigsaw puzzle in
the world, and that’s what it is: getting all the pieces together to make it look the way you want it to look,” she says.
“The world changes and we might have to do something different, but I find that engaging. You’re never short of something to think about.”
Think like a designer
As companies such as Apple have used design strategically to boost profit share, designers themselves have come under the microscope.
The business community now wants to know how a designer thinks – and what’s in it for them.
The idea of design thinking gained initial traction following the publication of Tim Brown’s 2009 book Change by Design. Brown is the CEO and president of IDEO, a design consultancy that has worked with the likes of PepsiCo and Microsoft. In his book, Brown claims that “design thinking converts need into demand”.
A 2014 joint study involving Harvard University aimed to measure the effectiveness of design thinking by tracking the financial results of 15 design-centric companies. Over a 10-year period, the companies that placed real value on design (think Apple, Nike and Ford) trounced the S&P’s returns by 228 per cent. In essence, the study suggested that institutionalising design as a pillar of a company’s philosophy might boost growth and profit.
Skillsnet: developing the strategic thinking skill of seeing the big picture - online
In the education space, Stanford University offers a graduate degree in design thinking, partnering with blue-chip companies such as Google, Visa, General Electric, Motorola and Procter & Gamble to research new ways to solve difficult problems. The university says that design thinking “draws on methods from engineering and design and combines them with ideas from the arts, tools from the social sciences and insights from the business world”.
So, what’s required?
The design thinking process offers a simple solution to problems that are perceived to be complex. Designers intuitively tend to break down a problem to its seed, build from the base, collect information or materials, eliminate the unnecessary and transform the remaining vital parts into a finished product. A similar approach can be used in a business context, helping to solve problems creatively.
Four steps in design thinking
- Define or isolate the problem
- Consider and create solutions