Book Notes: “Playing to Win”

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

You can’t successfully design something as complex as an information environment if you’re not clear on the strategic direction it seeks to support. Unfortunately, the subject of strategy can be hard for designers to grasp, perhaps because people often explain it only at very high levels.

That’s why Playing to Win is one of my favorite books on business strategy: it makes the subject concrete. The authors’ backgrounds have the right balance between theory and practice: A.G. Lafley is a former CEO of Procter & Gamble, and Roger L. Martin was dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto. Together they crafted strategies that helped P&G win in several markets, and the book is chock full of case studies.

So what is strategy, according to the authors?

strategy is an integrated set of choices that uniquely positions the firm in its industry so as to create sustainable advantage and superior value relative to the competition.

The book’s title isn’t arbitrarily chosen; the goal here is clear: you’re in this to win. It’s a zero-sum, competitive challenge, harkening to strategy’s roots in warfare. (The word derives from the Greek stratēgos: stratos, which is “army” plus agein which is “to lead.”) When you’re crafting a strategy, you’re making decisions: choosing to focus on one thing and not another. What kinds of things? The authors highlight five key choices:

  • a winning aspiration,
  • where to play,
  • how to win,
  • what your core capabilities are, and
  • what management systems will support you.

The book examines these choices one chapter at a time, using real-world case studies. At the center of it all—and connecting back to user-centered design—is a deep understanding of the people who will be purchasing the company’s products or services. As the authors succinctly state, “deep consumer understanding is at the heart of the strategy discussion.” This requires establishing feedback mechanisms that allow the organization to be aware of who its customers are, what job they need doing, and how they choose what they do to carry out those jobs.

Having covered the key choices the organization must make to serve its market, the authors then lay out a framework for how to make these decisions logically within the organization. This flow covers four dimensions: the industry the organization is playing in (especially its structure), its customers (including both end users and channels), its relative position in the market (including the organization’s capabilities and its costs), and what its competition is doing. The authors proceed to offer a sequence of activities that can lead to sound strategic decision-making:

  1. Frame the choice
  2. Generate strategic possibilities
  3. Specify conditions
  4. Identify barriers to choice
  5. Design valid tests
  6. Conduct tests
  7. Choose

Far from an abstract take on these subjects, the book is replete with examples from P&G and other organizations that illustrate both best practices and counter-examples. It’s also written in actionable language that makes it easy to map to real-world problems. Because of this, I come back to this book when I’m thinking about strategic problems both for my clients and myself. Highly recommended.

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