'Playing to Win' as a strategy process framework

A friend was looking to engage a consultant to guide their business through a strategy process.  We chatted about it over a few drinks one night and a few days later he asked: what do you think of the framework in ‘Playing to Win’.  Here’s what I told him: maybe you’ll find the advice useful.

‘Playing to Win’ is a great book.  I use some of the quotes from the book in my strategy teaching and on my 2½ minute video highlighting the insights of some of strategy’s gurus.  QED: I like their approach overall.  They have a neat playbook (p. 213) which expands upon their basic questions:

·         What is our winning aspiration?

·         Where will we play?

·         How will we win?

·         What capabilities do we need in place? 

·         What management systems do we need?

I wouldn’t take away from this framework, but I might add to it. 

Firstly, I don’t think it gives enough weight to the ‘case for change’.  It starts the conversation at ‘our winning aspiration’.  But my experience, and the research, suggests that without being able crystallise the gap between the aspiration and current state it is very hard to create the appetite for change throughout the leadership team; and without them on side, execution will stall.  IBM talks about the gap in terms of either a performance gap or an opportunity gap.  Either way, there needs to be a gap which allows us to make visceral the need for change. 

Secondly, it doesn’t make explicit the shareholder expectations.  A bold ambition will fail if shareholders do not have the appetite for the risks that come with ambition.  Or if the mantra of ‘returning cash to shareholders’ is dominant, even good growth opportunities may not find support.  Thus, it is important that the Board’s expectations are explicitly factored into the conversation. 

And finally, it doesn’t explicitly explore the macro forces that operate in the broader business environment: eg. technology, demographics, global macroeconomic trends.  These issues will implicitly shape the conversation around the five core questions, but you might find it useful to make this a more explicit element of the conversation. 

So, a neat framework, and in good hands it will help strategic leadership teams wrestle down their strategies. 

The caveat is: in good hands.  What matters more than the framework is the quality of the thinking, and the quality of the conversation.  Minztberg, one strategy’s gurus, once quipped ‘we need better practise, not neater theories’.  The consultant’s real ‘value add’ is not the framework he or she brings, but their ability to use their expertise, experience and energy as a force multiplier to lift the conversation.