Business bookshelf: 'Playing to Win'

  • Updated: January 12, 2013 - 9:19 PM

PLAYING TO WIN

A.G. Lafley

and Roger L. Martin, Harvard Business Review Press, 272 pages, $27

Bosses fail for many reasons. Some are unlucky. Some are sunk by their lack of ambition. As A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin see it, settling for muddling along rather than going all-out for victory means that a company "will inevitably fail to make the tough choices and the significant investments that would make winning even a remote possibility."

Lafley did not fail. In his 10 years at the helm of Procter & Gamble (P&G), he revived the global consumer-goods giant. In doing so, he drew on conversations with leading academic thinkers on strategy, including the godfathers of the field, Peter Drucker and Michael Porter. Above all, he relied on Roger Martin, initially a consultant at Monitor Group and later dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

As Lafley's "principal external strategy adviser," Martin was the only person with whom the boss really shared his "out-of-the-box strategic musings," and "Playing to Win" is essentially their reflections on how to do business strategy effectively. This is a fascinating tale, featuring a cast of familiar brands, including Pampers, Tide and Olay, each of which went through a transformation under Lafley's eye.

A good strategy has five components, the authors argue. The first two are closely intertwined: figuring out what winning looks like and which markets to play in. The next is figuring out how to win -- the company's distinctive strategy in any market. This in turn will be heavily influenced by the fourth and fifth components: identifying, and playing to, the company's unique strengths relative to its competitors, and identifying those things that need to be managed for the strategy to succeed.

Since Lafley left P&G in 2009, the company has stumbled badly. Meanwhile, Monitor, Martin's own firm, got into financial difficulty and has been sold at a discount to Deloitte. What do these sorry tales say about strategy? Rather than explore whether their many strategic successes somehow also sowed the seeds of later problems, Lafley and Martin coyly note that "no strategy lasts forever."

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