A Review of Lafley and Martin's Strategy Book

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

A client has asked us to design and facilitate their annual offsite IT Group retreat. This year, it is to be built around the book above; the whole company has committed to this approach. Given our expertise in strategy execution, this was a welcome request.

In preparation for the retreat, everyone is being asked to read the book, including us.

This is a very quick read for anyone familiar with the strategic planning literature generally and with the few books available on strategy execution. In the main, it's also quite useful—for what it is.

The core of the book, written by a former CEO (Lafley; of Proctor and Gamble) and the Dean of a business school (Martin; Toronto's Rotman School of Management), is addressed to what the authors consider a set of "five essential strategic choices that, when addressed in an integrated way, will move you ahead of your competitors." Those choices, stated as questions, define the work of strategy. Those questions 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?

Seems a simple matter to succeed, doesn't it? Just answer these questions! In fact, as the authors acknowledge, effective strategy-making and execution is hard because answering these questions provokes a great deal of debate, much of which is not productive. In our view, these activities are also hard because even when you have the answers, you have to implement!

The core of the book focuses on P&G, which evidently has used this approach extensively. The authors point out that the approach works in all industries and organizations, but I find myself wondering why the authors did not provide other examples if this is the case. What works in consumer products can hardly be said to work everywhere. (More on this, below.)

"Ultimately," these authors write, "this is a story about choices, including the choice to create a discipline of strategic thinking and strategic practice within an organization." This makes great sense, but in our experience, doing so is far easier said than done. After 30 years of working with executives to create and execute strategy, we are almost ready to say that any approach to these tasks is better than what we normally see: slapdash strategy making and even worse execution.

One thing I personally like about the book is the focus of questions 4, and 5, above. These focus on matters that are almost always given short-shrift in strategy making: the nature of the organizational machinery needed to enable and fulfill the strategic intentions embodied in the answers to the first three questions.  

We use the strategy mapping tool (modified from the tool originally introduced by Kaplan and Norton) because it addresses all five questions. This book has enabled us to pick up a trick or two to make strategy mapping even more useful. For instance, going forward, we will work more intensively with the process outlined for question #3, helping our clients better answer how they will win on their chosen playing field. 

One major criticism I have of the book is that there is almost no discussion of the role value discipline plays in strategic decision making. This term, introduced to the literature by Fred Weirsema and Michael Tracey, says that to succeed, your firm is going to have to obey the "rules" of one of three disciplines:

  • Product leadership (best product)
  • Customer-Intimacy (best overall solution)
  • Operational excellence (best cost)

By the logic of the value discipline perspective—with which we agree—an organization must excel at one of the disciplines and be "good enough" at the other two in order to win in its marketplace. (Request our free paper on choosing a value discipline, "Choosing a Source of Competitive Advantage," here.)

P&G is clearly in the product leadership business and must follow the dictates of this model, but the authors say nothing about it or how the imperatives of such a business differ from other businesses. Omitting any reference to this, a thinking process used by every major consulting firm, is just baffling. It's baffling because knowing what your value discipline is points the way to a host of capabilities and processes the firm has to have in place. If you know what these are, decision making becomes much more efficient. Repeatedly, we find that our new clients have no clue about what a value discipline is let alone know what theirs is. We find that forcing our clients to work though this is immensely helpful because most other strategic decisions cascade from this.

We're critical of this point, but the major criticism we have of the book is that it says almost nothing at all on how to implement a strategy. If an executive group answers all five of these questions, success is in no way guaranteed. By answering the questions, you may have a winning strategy, but you will not see success if the people in the organization—especially your middle-level managers—are either unaware of it or thumb their noses at it. This is key to what execution is all about.

P&G is a great company and they must do a lot to engage all levels of the organization in support of strategy execution. But this story goes untold in this book. We do hear how the C-suite worked out their disagreements and get into alignment on the content of the strategy, but we hear nothing about what they did/did not do to align others with it, at least not enough.

Our final word on the book is a positive one: the book clarifies the important questions in strategy making and tells us a good deal about how one company answered them. But it is no end-all-and-be-all on the topics either of strategic planning nor of strategy implementation.