A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin, Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works, Cambridge: Harvard Business Review Press, 2013.
A.G. Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble from 2000-2009, is one of the most-respected and successful corporate leaders of the young twenty-first century. Roger Martin, a long-time business consultant and currently Dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, is among today’s most original and prolific management thinkers. Having worked together for nearly three decades, the pair have written a book arguing that “strategy really works” through the development and practice of ongoing strategic leadership rather than the application of specific frameworks, analyses or best practices.
That said, Playing to Win does advance its own original model, which involves answering five key questions:
1. What is your winning aspiration?
(The purpose and motivating objectives, financial and non-financial, of your enterprise.)
2. Where will you play?
(The playing field – geographies, product categories, consumer segments, channels, vertical stages of production – where you can achieve this aspiration.)
3. How will you win?
(The way you will win on the chosen playing field or market -- your value proposition, profit models, partnerships, or competitive advantage.
4. What capabilities must be in place?
(The set and specific configuration of distinctive capabilities and reinforcing activities required for you to win in the chosen way.)
5. What management systems are required?
(The systems, structures and measures that enable your capabilities and support your choices.)
These steps and questions are interconnected, cascading into and reinforcing each other as visualized below:
Lafley and Martin nicely demonstrate how each of these questions can be answered and linked, mostly using examples from P&G like the creation of the new market category called “masstige” for the re-launch of Oil of Olay in 2000. They mount a compelling and always accessible argument that includes a very helpful “logic” flow of sub-questions to help users make better decisions about each of the five major questions. In doing so, they underscore how theirs is less an analytical than a process model, less about analysis or vision-formation or priority-setting and more about enabling continuous strategic thinking and decision-making.
This is an essential insight because it shifts strategy from being about a static plan or analysis to being more about an ongoing process. Put differently, the book emphasizes strategic management or leadership rather than a one-dimensional approach to strategic plan-making or priority-fixing like the BCG matrix or Michael Porter’s Five Forces (which makes an appearance here). While such tools are important for assessing point-in-time conditions, Lafley and Martin focus on how they are really means to developing an everyday way of strategic thinking and acting.
It is in that focus that Playing to Win becomes as much a leadership as a strategy handbook. If the process model rolled out in the book is ultimately “an integrated cascade of choices,” both the strategic value of the choices and the motivations and drivers of those making the choices share emphasis here. Repeatedly, the articulation of how the five questions can be answered is couched in some of any leader’s fundamental challenges and responsibilities: knowledge and information management, communications, decision-making. Far-reaching and robust strategic analysis is a crucial part of that process but should finally be relegated to serve the leader’s wider obligations. As a result, the leadership thinking celebrated here is integrated, disciplined and courageous, in part because it never grows too removed from decisive action.
Yet one of the issues that arises in approaching the book as a guide for leaders concerns the potential wider applicability of lessons and insights that are mostly drawn from P&G. With its scale, diversity and resources, one wonders about the relevance of the approach to strategic leadership to different types of businesses. Lafley and Martin do cite other examples throughout, but they tend (think Apple, Google, or General Motors) to be similarly outsized compared to most businesses. While no one size fits all, of course, some of the guiding assumptions here would be well-tested by smaller and creative firms. There’s also the further, fascinating question of whether the rapidly changing relationship between firm and customer, client or public is more varied than assumptions grounded in P&G’s consumer goods markets allow.
Upon reflection, the emphasis on strategic leadership thinking and action seems mostly quite promising for businesses of diverse sizes and market orientations. For creative organizations, in particular, the centrality of creative talent and the aspiration to creative excellence can often make the requisite assessments of capabilities and systems more challenging. In ways, though, that very need can be seen to recommend the embrace of more robust and ongoing strategic thinking and action outlined here. “There is simply no one perfect strategy that will last for all time,” Lafley and Martin write. “That’s why building up strategic thinking capability … is so vital.”
Reading these lines brought to mind a memorable presentation I had attended in 2011. At the Cannes Lions festival that year, the leadership of the award-winning and always forward-looking creative agency, R/GA, was recounting its history and also describing the thoroughgoing strategic review and re-organization it conducts every nine years (http://www.rga.com/about/featured/the-next-nine-years). The review by Bob Greenberg and his team is certainly done in planned cycles. A crucial takeaway from the presentation, however, is that these cyclical re-organizations are merely the most conspicuous outcomes of a thoughtfully developed and decisive strategic leadership capability that has proven enormously successful in creative communications.
A.G. Lafley is a renowned and passionate believer in deep customer understanding. He nevertheless recognizes the limits of uncovering knowledge of shoppers and other end-users. As he has observed elsewhere, “Customer research doesn’t tell you the answer. It is only an aid to judgment.” That approach is also a good way to think more generally about Playing to Win. While we can embrace the fundamental importance of strategic models and practices – even Lafley and Martin’s own – such knowledge must finally be less an end in itself than an aid contributing to a broader leadership practice driven by everyday engagement with purposeful prioritization, communications, and decision-making.