Business book review: Playing To Win

23 Jan 2013 by BusinessTraveller
The title for once is spot on: there are plenty of books written by academics or management consultants on strategy, and even more written by ex-CEOs, but this is a hybrid between the two, and successful because of the joint expertise the two authors bring to the subject. A.G. Lafley is the former CEO of Procter and Gamble, Roger Martin a strategic advisor who worked with him to help double P&G's sales, quadruple its profits, and increase its market value by more than $100 billion in just ten years (the figures are reproduced in one of the two appendices, for doubters or the interested). The book starts off very simply, and pays its respect to Michael Porter, author of Competitive Strategy (they must know him well, since they refer to him as Mike), but as the book progresses and you learn more about Proctor and Gamble’s business (and you learn a tremendous amount) it becomes more detailed as flesh is added to the theoretical bones. There are well known stories here, including the reinvention of Olay, but also lesser-known ones (Bounty, Gillette, Swiffer, and Febreze), including a lot of stuff that it’s hard to believe is known outside the company or its immediate competitors, so you do feel like you are getting inside information. The author’s aim is “to show how leaders in organizations of all sizes can guide everyday actions with larger strategic goals built around the clear, essential elements that determine business success--where to play and how to win.” I’d say they are successful in that aim. Lafley and Martin have created “a set of five essential strategic choices that, when addressed in an integrated way, will move you ahead of your competitors.” They are:
  1. What is our winning aspiration?
  2. Where will we play?
  3. How will we win?
  4. What capabilities must we have in place to win?
  5. What management systems are required to support our choices?
All of this is backed up with very detailed examples from P&G, and although these lack context sometimes since we don’t always know what the competitors thought or did, this is partly addressed in considering how competitors might be expected to act against a proposed strategy (cf p. 174). Occasionally the individual authors step out to speak directly, and when they do it can be very forceful. Here is Lafley on strategy "Grow or grow faster is not a strategy. Build market share3 is not a strategy. Ten percent or greater earnings-per-share growth is not a strategy. Beat XYZ competitor is not a strategy. A strategy is a coordinated and integrated set of where-to-play, how-to-win, core capability, and management system choices that uniquely meet a consumer’s needs, thereby creating competitive advantage and superior value for a business.” You can also sense some of the management speak that goes on in companies such as this when spending months considering the “where-to-play” choices over diapers: it’s the first time I’ve encountered “choiceful” (as in “in our view, far too few companies have a clear, choiceful, and compelling winning strategy in place.” The trouble with words like that is it could mean "having lots of choices”  or, rather like the new buzzword “mindful” meaning always being aware and open minded about alternatives. The book delivers on the title. It’s a unique and nuanced view of strategy and its implementation. Highly recommended. Tom Otley
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