Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works by A. G. Lafley & Roger L. Martin, Harvard Business School Press, 260 pages, $27.00, Hardcover, February 2013, ISBN 9781422187395
I doubt there are two more intelligent business minds out there than Lafley and Martin. A.G. Lafley was the CEO of Proctor & Gamble, and Roger Martin is the Dean of the Rotman School of Management and an award-winning business author and innovator. Playing to Win meets the high expectations raised by those two names, and is the best business book I’ve read so far this year.
Playing to Win relays the strategic approach P&G used over the 10-year period Lafley (with Martin as advisor) led the company to increase its market value to $100 billion. But this isn’t an industry book as much as it is a “story about choices, including the choice to create a discipline of strategic thinking and strategic practice within an organization.” And that’s truly what makes this book so good. It is indeed a story, and its two authors are invested in communicating the impressive work done at P&G and teaching this approach to others.
Lafley and Martin first set out to right some wrong thinking about strategy. Strategy is not about having a vision, and it’s not about having a plan. Strategy should not be truncated by some rationalization that the world is changing too quickly for a long-term strategy, or be limited to being just a “bigger” version of what you already have, nor a series of benchmarks. So then what is strategy about? For Lafley and Martin, strategy is about winning.
The essence of great strategy is making choices—clear, tough choices, like what businesses to be in and which not to be in, where to play in the businesses you choose, how you will win where you play, what capabilities and competencies you will turn into core strengths, and how your internal systems will turn those choices and capabilities into consistently excellent performance in the marketplace And it all starts with an aspiration to win and a definition of what winning looks like.
Winning requires a strategy that “is a coordinated and integrated set of five choices: a winning aspiration, where to play, how to win, core capabilities, and management systems.” Those five choices, which the authors visualize as a cascade, can then be applied to multiple aspects of a problem. This systematizes strategic planning at every level.
Part of Playing to Win’s appeal is that the authors are unapologetic in their insistence that we aim high and set lofty goals. The other is that they provide a rock-solid ladder on which to climb.