Playing To Win is one of the best selling strategy books of recent years. It is intended as an example and method for large corporations. But it includes lessons about clarity, focus and honesty which apply to any business. Be careful though, Some of the thinking is dangerous for a startup
This column is a new diversion for me. A lot of my small business consulting is about applying knowledge. Over my career I have studied pretty much all the biggest business ideas. And I have applied them for the last 30 years. I use my practical experience of what works every day. But I have not found an effective way to share this in my writing. This is my latest attempt. I am going to make a brief explanation of a well known business idea. And then explain what a startup can learn from this thinking.
What Is Playing To Win?
Playing To Win is an approach to strategy set out in a book of the same name. The book was co-written by A G Lafley, long time CEO of Proctor & Gamble. And a strategy consultant who advised him in that role, Roger Martin.
How Does It Work?
Lafley believes that business strategy is sound in theory but abstract in practice. Playing to Win (PTW) is a systematic attempt to explain how strategy applies in the real world of a global corporation. The book is built around examples from P&G during his first tenure as CEO. (He returned to the company for another stint shortly after the book was published). The case studies support a model with 5 major components:
Each of these elements requires careful planning and forceful execution. The stories in the book focus on how P&G delivered. How they achieved the clarity and consistency to make PTW work in practice. It is tough to have a big workforce pull in the same direction. Making strategy happen in large corporates is a complex challenge. P&G’s results during Lafley’s first time as CEO show a high degree of success.
A startup is different in almost every way from P&G. Yet PTW holds some value even for a company at the opposite end of the business spectrum.
Most important is clarity and focus. The diversions and complexity may be less than in a global enterprise. But many startups try to do too much. The key message of PTW is do some thinking and make some clear decisions. Like all strategy it is as much about what you don’t do as what you do.
The structure also provides a useful way of thinking about business strategy. Set objectives and be clear about your markets. Define the differentiation that will allow you to succeed. A template based on the ideas in this book can be a helpful aide. Writing your plans down in this format will give your business plan added credibility.
I also like the emphasis on honesty. You need to be clear eyed about what is unique in your business. And about the capability you require to build your startup. Be honest with yourself if you expect to appear authentic to your customers.
The How To Win section of the book is strong in this respect. Even the largest consumer products company on earth does not have automatic differentiation. You don't need to articulate unique value from day one. Think about the path to competitive advantage.
PTW frames strategy through some excellent questions. They are a good way into strategy for any business:
“What qualitative evidence can support your winning aspiration?"
“How can you write down the critical assumptions that create your where to play approach?"
“What are the biggest challenges your customers/ potential customers face?"
The Not So Useful Stuff
PTW is like most business strategy books. The examples and illustrations come from established global leaders. These are interesting but hard to translate into a startup culture. Specifics about management roles and job titles for example are far too onerous for an early stage company.
There is also a big problem with some of the language and ideas. As the title implies there is much about beating the competition. I find fighting analogies unhelpful for startups. The startup world is not a zero sum game. The efforts of founders and the benefits of technology add to the economic sum. It is not about winners and losers.
Business is not war. I know that some people find battle cries inspiring. It is a short term fix. Your startup needs to have a positive reason for existing. Even if that reason is just to make people a little happier by showing them pictures of cute cats. “We are better than the competition” is a negative outlook.
Next Steps For Startup Strategy
Not every book on business strategy is worth reading. Playing To Win is an exception. It is short and easy to follow. Stories from A G Lafley are in separate sections so it is easy to focus on these. I will be sharing more tools and ideas from the business world. How can big business ideas help startups and SaaS companies grow and develop? If you want to know more, get in touch or subscribe to our newsletter for regular updates.
Kenny Fraser is the Director of Sunstone Communication and a personal investor in startups.