Playing to Win: A book review by Bob Morris

Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works
A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin
Harvard Business Review Press (2013)

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” Michael Porter

Note: I reviewed this book when it was first published and recently re-read it, curious to see how well its insights have held up. If anything, they are more relevant now than they were eight years ago.

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I am pleased that A.G. Lafley has co-authored another book, with Roger Martin, after previously co-authoring The Game-Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation, with Ram Charan. Whereas in the first the focus is on how to drive revenue and profit growth with innovation, the focus in this book is on how strategy really works. Most of the time it doesn’t and reasons vary. However, Lafley and Martin identify these familiar troublemakers:

1. Defining strategy as a vision
2. Defining strategy as a plan
3. Denying that the long-term (or even the medium-term) strategy is possible
4. Defining strategy as the optimization of the status quo
5. Defining strategy as following best practices

Rather, Lafley and Martin suggest that a strategy “is a coordinated and integrated set of five choices: a winning aspiration, where to play, how to win, core capabilities, and management systems.” In this context, I am reminded of two recently published books. In Judgment Calls, Tom Davenport and Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” In Martin’s brilliant book, The Opposable Mind, he calls this “integrative thinking.” Winning the game (whatever its nature and extent) would thus require a strategy that is both inclusive and collaborative.

In Paul Schoemaker’s business “classic,”, Brilliant Mistakes, he observes: “The key question companies need to address is not `Should we make mistakes?’ but rather `Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” The mistakes to which Schoemaker refers are deliberate. Their purpose is to help achieve strategic objectives. Those who play to win cannot be risk-averse. That is, play not to lose. If strategy is a set of choices “that uniquely positions the given enterprise so as to create sustainable advantage and superior value relative to the competition,” and I believe it is, then quality of judgment is imperative, not only when making a specific choice but throughout a continuous and cohesive decision-making process.

These are among the dozens of passages I found to be of greatest interest and value, also listed to suggest the range of subjects covered during the course of the book’s narrative:

o How to Win (Pages 24-29)
o Playing to Win (39-43)
o The Importance of the Right Playing Field, and, Three Dangerous Temptations (57-65)
o Differentiation Strategies (83-88)
o Gillette and the Strategic Choice Cascade (107-112)
o Understanding Capabilities and Activity Systems (112-119)
o Systems for Making and Renewing Strategy (129-136)
o Systems to Support Core Capabilities (144-149)
o Customer Value Analysis (167-171)
o Generating Buy-In: The Traditional Approach (183-200)
o The Importance of the Right Playing Field, and, The Dangerous Temptations Six Strategy Traps, and Six Telltale Signs of a Winning Strategy (214-216)

When concluding their book, A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin acknowledge, “All strategy entails risk. But operating in a slow-growing, fast-changing, intensely competitive world without a strategy to guide you is far riskier. Leaders lead, and a good place to start leading is in strategy development for your business. Use the strategic choice cascade [Pages 17-18 and 33-34], the strategy logic flow [161-177] and reverse engineering of strategic choices [186-200] to craft a winning strategy and sustainable competitive advantage for your organization. Play to win.”

No brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of material that A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin provide in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of their book. Also, I hope that those who read this commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not they wish to read the book and, in that event, will have at least some idea of how an enriched and enlightened understanding of what strategy is — and isn’t could perhaps be of substantial benefit to their professional development as well as to the success of their organization.


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