Winning the Right Game: A book review by Bob Morris

Winning the Right Game: How to Disrupt, Defend, and Deliver in a Changing World
Ron Adner
The MIT Press (October 2021)

How to understand the implications of change in order to manage the disruption it creates

In my opinion, there is no other single source that offers better strategies to “disrupt, defend, and deliver in a changing world” than Sun Tzu’s Art of War. He asserts that every battle is won or lost before it is fought. Hence the importance of thorough preparation, which includes contingency planning. And in the section on “Estimates,” for example, he stresses the importance of deception: If you are far away, seem near (and vice versa); if you are weak, seem strong…if you are exhausted, seem eager to engage…etc.

Ron Adner may not have had Art of War in mind when writing this book but he certainly offers an abundance of concepts, tools, and frameworks necessary to confront the threat of ecosystem disruptions and to develop the strategies that will enable almost any organization to play ecosystem offense. Decision makers should keep in mind this advice offered by two of my mentors. First from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” And then from Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what [begin italics] not [end italics] to do.”

As Adner explains, this approach of using ecosystem strategy to manage disruption “is not about technology, or vision, or risk-taking, although they clearly play an important role. Rather, it is about a new approach — a new playbook —  for strategy when boundaries are shifting and rules are changing.  Even if you already have a sense for the right answers, the concepts and language provided here will help you connect the dots of your own intuition and — perhaps more importantly — help you connect the dots for others, making it easier for them to follow your logic and your leadership.” (xii)

These are among the other passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Adner’s coverage:

o Breaking Industry Boundaries Breaks Industry-Based Strategy (Pages 8-11)
o Understanding Ecosystems through Value Architectures (14-18)
o Value Inversion: How Friend Turns Foe and Drives Ecosystem Disruption (24-28)
o The Three Complementor Trajectories (28-30)
o Winning the Right Game (35-36)

o The Three Principles of Ecosystem Defense (38-40)
o Owning Up to Mistakes Can Open New Possibilities (67-69)
o The Three Principles of Ecosystem Construction (73-76)
o ASSA ABLOY: The Incumbent’s Advantage (94-100)
o What Race Are You Running? (109-111)

o Committed to a Choice: Seize, Wait, Shift, or Shape (127-131)
o Fighting the Forces of Conservatism (134-135)
o Maintaining Alignment versus Re-establishing Alignment in the Pursuit of Growth (143-146)
o The Hierarchy of Ecosystem Winners (149-152)
o Roles Are Not Permanent: Personal Computing (158-160)

o Leadership Mindsets Must Match Ecosystem Cycles (164-166)
o From Potential to Reality(173-175)
o The Right Mindset in the Right Role (175-178)
o Mindsets Matter (185-186)
o Language and Strategy (190-192

I agree with Ron Adner: “At its heart, ecosystem strategy is about partner alignment. Customer insight and great execution are the [begin italics] necessary but no longer sufficient [end italics] drivers of success…This means that the notion of winning itself must become more nuanced. Winners in industries dominate at the top. Winners in ecosystems can create and capture value from a variety of positions, and choosing where to play is just as important as what, how, and when to play.”

Here are two concluding suggestions I presume to add. First, in addition to highlighting key passages, keep a lined notebook near at hand  in order to record your own comments as well as questions, page references, etc. This will help to facilitate, indeed expedite frequent review of key issues and material later. Also, with all due respect to the wealth of information, insights, and counsel provided in this brilliant book, it would be a fool’s errand to attempt to apply all of the recommendations. Readers must take into full account their organization’s  current circumstances (i.e. strengths, vulnerabilities, resources), then select the material that will be most helpful to achieving the given objectives.

For many (if not most) C-level executives, this could well prove to be the most valuable business book they ever read.

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