Playing to Win: The Essential Questions of Strategy

playingtowinFormer Proctor & Gamble CEO A.G. Laffley and Rotman School of Management Dean Roger Martin have written a most helpful book on organizational strategy, using key decisions at P&G to illustrate the key questions of strategic planning. Though the book is rooted in corporate assumptions and decision making, any organization can use the principles of the book to improve their strategic choices. The authors describe the key questions of effective strategic planning as these:

WHAT IS OUR WINNING ASPIRATION?  

The first question is the most important one — how do we define success? In corporations, winning obviously includes increasing shareholder value and beating the competition. For nonprofits, “winning” happens when organizational mission is achieved with more effective results and with efficient investment of resources. But the authors encourage us to look beyond these more obvious aspirations of organizations to the true mission or true aspiration of the organization, and this usually means we should begin with customers and those we serve rather than with money or with process. What is our aspiration that will inspire our employees and delight our customers? That is the essential question that will drive performance and deliver results.

WHERE WILL WE PLAY?  

The questions of “where” and “how” are intimately related, and they require sometimes very painful and risky choices. The “where” question is this: where do our core strengths meet the opportunity? What is the playing field where we will operate? Which markets will we serve? Geographically, what is our scale and reach? Which customers and which groups will we target? Which ones will we not? The questions of where we won’t play are as important as where we will.

HOW WILL WE WIN IN CHOSEN MARKETS? 

What will enable the organization to create unique value and sustainably deliver that value to customers in a way that is distinct from the firm’s competition? (otherwise known as competitive advantage) The answer to where and how should mutually reinforce each other. Notice that the question here is not, “How will we play?” It is, “How will we win?” A strategy to play or participate rather than to win is a recipe for failure due to the inability to choose, according to the authors. This question also forces us to choose whether we will play as a low cost leader or as a differentiator — we can’t do both.

WHAT CAPABILITIES MUST BE IN PLACE TO WIN?

This question concerns the range and quality of activities that will allow the company to achieve its aspirations based on where and how it will play. This is based on deep understanding of those consumers or beneficiaries the organization serves, the capacity of the organization for innovation, the strength of the brand, go to market ability, global scale and other factors.

WHAT MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS ARE REQUIRED?

Management systems must be purposefully designed to support the choices and capabilities. Organizations often stop with the questions before this one, assuming that current systems are sufficient to meet the organization’s aspirations. But this also is a choice for failure because management systems that are mutually reinforcing must be in place. The choices made about what, where and how must be communicated to every employee. Employees must be trained to deliver. Plans and measured choices must be in place to make these investments and sustain capabilities over time.

Beyond these questions, the authors include two chapters on decision making that are very helpful additions. I personally found their suggestions on how to choose between two or more options to be incredibly useful. The authors suggest this process any time your organization needs to decide between two or more good options:

  • Use the above strategic questions to define the choices
  • For each choice defined, ask the question, “What would have to be true for this choice to be the right one?” Do not allow the discussion to slip into “What is true?” because it tends to promote judgmental thinking that shuts down a conversation and stifles creativity. Rather, ask what would have to be true for each choice to be the right choice.
  • Executives and managers should refrain from making definitive statements without asking the opinions of others in the room. The authors suggest a form of “assertive inquiry” whereby you make this statement or something similar,” I have some thoughts on this. But I would like to hear yours.” Generally, hear out the thoughts of others before stating your own, especially if you are the one with the most perceived authority or influence in the room.
  • Once the truths for each choice are defined, go through each truth and ask whether those things are true. Stay focused on what must be true, and whether it is, not on whether the choice itself is the right one.
  • By process of elimination, you will have arrived at the right choice because it will be the one that contains the most “truths that have to be true.”
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