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Book Summary – Playing To Win: How Strategy Really Works

Playing to Win - Book summary

Any organization without a sound strategy is bound to fail. Yet, most leaders don’t truly understand strategy nor how to apply it. “Playing to Win” demystifies strategy and equips you with concepts, frameworks, tools and processes to help your organization to win.  In this Playing to Win summary, we’ll explain “what’s strategy?”, outline the 5 choices in the strategy choice cascade, before giving an overview of how to apply it via your strategy playbook. For the full details, examples and tips, do get a copy of the book, or get a detailed overview with our complete book summary bundle.

Playing To Win summary - book summary bundle

The strategy framework in this book was jointly developed by the 2 authors, who were previously the CEO of Procter & Gamble (P&G) and the dean of the Rotman School of Management respectively. When Lafley became the CEO of P&G in year 2000, he used this framework to revitalize the company and it has now become a standard process at P&G. This approach to strategy can be applied to any business, function, or organization.

It’s a misconception that strategy has become irrelevant in today’s fast-changing environment. In fact, a sound strategy is even more vital today to create a true competitive advantage. Strategy is also not about adopting best practices nor is it the same as vision, mission, plans, tactics or optimizing processes. Strategy is fundamentally about making specific, integrated choices to win in the marketplace.  We’ll now summarize the key concepts, components and processes involved in developing a winning strategy.  Do get a copy of our full 14-page summary for more details or get the full mojo from the Playing to Win book.


Strategy: An Integrated Cascade of Choices

Basically, your strategy is your set of answers to 5 key questions. They’re closely interrelated: the choices at the top cascade downward, and the choices at the bottom refine and reinforce the choices above. In small companies, there may be only 1 choice-cascade, while in large organizations there may be sub-levels of choices.

Playing to Win Summary_what's strategy_Choice Cascades

What is your winning aspiration?

Your aspiration states why you exist, what you seek to be, and what winning looks like for your organization. It guides all your decisions and is the starting point to align the rest of your strategic choices. In the book / complete summary , we (a) explain why you must play to win and not just play to compete, (b) share examples to illustrate the difference between playing-to-win and playing-to-play, and (c) explain how/what it means to define winning at various levels.

Where will you play?

Choosing the right playing field is really about defining the business you’re in, where you’ll compete to win (and achieve your aspiration), and where you’ll not compete. You can go for a narrow or broad choice, but you must choose. If you try to play in every field concurrently, you’ll end up under-performing and failing in all sectors. In the book / full Playing to Win summary, we (a) explain each of these where-to-play choices (geography, product segment, customer segment, distribution channel, stages of production), and (b) what to consider and where to start.

How will you win?

Once you’ve chosen where to play, you can define how to win there, i.e. the strengths, model and value proposition to gain the competitive advantage needed to win in your chosen playing field. Broadly, you can go for a low-cost strategy, differentiation strategy or both, though the exact details will vary for each organization and your strategy must evolve over time. In the book / complete 14-page summary, we (a) explain each of these strategy approaches in more detail, and (b) share examples and lessons learned from various P&G brands’ experience (e.g. Pampers, Citrus Hill)  succeeded or failed.

What capabilities must be in place?

Your core capabilities are the entire set of activities that jointly allow you to realize your where-to-play and how-to-win choices. An activity system (coined by Michael Porter) is a 1-page visual representation of these capabilities. A small business may have 1 activity system for the whole company, while a large corporation like P&G will have different activity systems for each business unit. In the book / full summary, we explain (a) how specifically P&G translated its where-to-play and how-to-win choices into a list of core capabilities, (b) the 3 criteria (feasibility, distinctiveness and defensibility) that your activity system must fulfill, (c) how to integrate and strengthen core capabilities in large organizations via reinforcing rods (shared capabilities that cut across multiple divisions or units form), and (d) how P&G used these principles to create massive success from its acquisition of Gillette in 2005.

What management systems are required?

Having a sound strategy isn’t enough. To win, your organization needs supporting systems and structures to cultivate its capabilities, as well as measures that tell you how well you’re delivering on your strategic choices. In the book / complete summary, we elaborate on various tools and techniques you can use to develop strategic-thinking abilities for better decision-making, to improve dialogue and communication at all levels, and to track/measure desired outcomes.

Getting Started: Your Strategy Playbook

The 5 sets of strategic choices above affect what you do and don’t do. Obviously, it’s not easy or straightforward to find good answers.  There are many strategy tools (e.g. SWOT analysis or BCG Growth Matrix) that you can use to brainstorm and filter ideas, but where do you start?

Basically, you should start with a rough definition of your winning aspiration, then move on to spend more effort on your where-to-play and how-to-win choices, because they form the heart of your strategy and define where/how you will play to win.  To find and choose the best where-to-play and how-to-win choices, the authors recommend using (a) the strategy logic flow and (b) reverse engineering. These, combined with the 5 strategic choices of the choice cascade, form your strategy playbook.

Playing to Win Summary_develop strategy playbook

In a nutshell:

• The strategy logic flow gives you a structured approach to think through your strategy, using 7 questions along 4 key dimensions to analyze your organization’s current realities, and help you to generate strategic ideas/choices.
• The reverse engineering process helps you to choose the options that give you the highest chances of success.

In the Playing to Win book, the authors explain both elements above in great detail, along with other useful strategy tools.  You can get a detailed overview of the process in our full summary bundle and infographic.


Other Details in “Playing to Win”

The book is packed with many detailed case studies and tips, including:
• Examples involving brands like Gillette, Pampers, Olay, Tide, Impress, Swiffer, Febreze and Bounty; and
• Details of various strategy tools and models you can use for your strategic analysis;
• Additional appendices about P&G’s performance and the microeconomics of strategy

Do get a copy of the book for the full details, get our Playing to Win summary bundle for an overview of the various ideas and tips, or check out more resources/details at the official website.

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