Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works

man holding chess piece

Are you merely playing the game, or are you playing to win? In the competitive world of business, the difference between the two can define your organization’s success or failure. Drawing from the insights of A.G. Lafley, former CEO of Procter & Gamble (P&G), and his co-author Roger L. Martin, this guide delves into the intricacies of crafting a winning strategy. Their book, “Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works,” offers a comprehensive roadmap for any company, business unit, or product launch aiming to outshine competitors. Through a series of strategic questions and actionable steps, Lafley and Martin outline how to establish a competitive edge and maintain it. This article will explore their methodology, ensuring you are equipped with the knowledge to play to win.

Understanding the Five Strategic Choices

Articulate a Winning Aspiration

A winning aspiration goes beyond mere profitability or market share. It centers on fulfilling customer needs and generating value. For example, instead of aiming to lead in the skincare market, P&G’s aspiration might be “helping women have healthier, younger-looking skin.” Such aspirations align the company’s efforts towards meaningful goals that resonate with customers.

Determine Where to Play

Choosing the right battlefield is crucial. This involves decisions about geography, product types, consumer segments, distribution channels, and stages of production. For instance, P&G’s decision to commit to the skincare market was based on the market’s profitability, brand loyalty potential, and ability to generate transferable consumer insights.

Know How to Win

Winning means offering superior value to customers. This can be through differentiation (unique products that command premium prices) or cost leadership (offering similar products at lower prices). For P&G, success often comes from innovative products and deep consumer insights, as exemplified by their Gain detergent brand, which tapped into a niche market focused on the sensory laundry experience.

Develop the Core Capabilities

Capabilities are the activities and competencies needed to support strategic choices. For P&G, key capabilities include deep consumer understanding, innovation, brand building, go-to-market ability, and leveraging global scale. Each capability is cultivated to ensure the company can effectively execute its strategies.

Implement the Management Systems

Effective management systems embed strategy into the organizational culture. At P&G, this involved shifting from presentation-based strategy reviews to open, inquiry-driven discussions. This change encouraged honest dialogue and strategic thinking across the company.

Developing a Winning Aspiration

A winning aspiration is the cornerstone of any strategy. It should reflect a genuine commitment to meeting customer needs. Consider the following examples from leading companies:

  • Starbucks: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.”
  • Nike: “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. (*If you have a body, you’re an athlete.)”
  • McDonald’s: “Be our customers’ favorite place and way to eat.”

Each statement emphasizes a deep connection with customers, aiming to deliver beyond the basic product features. For internal units, like P&G’s Global Business Services (GBS), winning aspirations might focus on providing top-tier support and services that enable other business units to excel.

Where to Play: Strategic Choices

Deciding where to play involves meticulous analysis across several dimensions:

  1. Geography: Identify the most profitable markets and leverage existing expertise.
  2. Product Type: Focus on high-demand products that align with the company’s strengths.
  3. Consumer Segment: Target the most attractive and underserved consumer groups.
  4. Distribution Channel: Choose channels that optimize reach and customer satisfaction.
  5. Vertical Stage of Production: Evaluate benefits of integrating different stages of the production process.

P&G’s launch of Liquid Tide is a prime example. Despite entering a market dominated by Unilever’s Wisk, P&G identified a growth opportunity in liquid detergents and successfully introduced a product that created new customers without directly competing for Wisk’s market share.

How to Win: Defining Competitive Advantage

Winning strategies hinge on either differentiation or cost leadership. Differentiation involves creating unique products that justify higher prices, while cost leadership focuses on offering similar products at lower prices. P&G typically employs differentiation, using its innovation and consumer insights to stay ahead.

Consider the Gain detergent brand, which was revitalized by identifying a niche market focused on scent and sensory experience. Similarly, Pampers’ entry into the Asian market involved creating a diaper affordable for local consumers without compromising on essential features, showcasing how understanding and catering to specific needs can drive success.

Building the Necessary Capabilities

Implementing a strategy requires developing specific capabilities:

  • Deep Consumer Understanding: Continuously gather insights to predict and meet emerging needs.
  • Innovation: Invest in R&D to create groundbreaking products and processes.
  • Brand Building: Cultivate strong, trusted brands that resonate with consumers.
  • Go-to-Market Ability: Optimize timing and methods to reach customers effectively.
  • Global Scale: Leverage size for operational efficiencies and competitive advantages.

P&G’s approach to innovation, for instance, involves collaborating with external partners and continuously refining internal processes to stay ahead of trends and consumer expectations.

Embedding Strategy into Organizational Culture

For a strategy to succeed, it must become part of the organizational fabric. This involves:

  • Promoting Open Dialogue: Shift from presentation-based reviews to interactive discussions.
  • Encouraging Strategic Thinking: Foster a culture where strategic planning is a continuous, inclusive process.
  • Aligning Goals and Rewards: Ensure that performance metrics and incentives support strategic objectives.

At P&G, CEO Lafley transformed strategy meetings into platforms for debate and collaboration, ensuring that strategies were not only well-formulated but also embraced by all levels of the organization.


What is a winning aspiration?

A winning aspiration is a statement that reflects a company’s commitment to meeting customer needs and generating value, beyond mere financial metrics.

How do you decide where to play?

This involves analyzing geography, product types, consumer segments, distribution channels, and vertical stages of production to identify the most promising opportunities.

What does ‘how to win’ mean?

‘How to win’ refers to defining a competitive advantage, either through differentiation (unique products) or cost leadership (affordable prices).

What are core capabilities?

Core capabilities are the essential activities and competencies needed to support strategic choices, such as innovation, brand building, and go-to-market ability.

How do you embed strategy into organizational culture?

This involves promoting open dialogue, encouraging strategic thinking, and aligning goals and rewards with strategic objectives.

In Conclusion

In “Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works,” Lafley and Martin offer a robust framework for developing and implementing a successful business strategy. By focusing on winning aspirations, making informed choices about where to play and how to win, developing necessary capabilities, and embedding strategy into the organizational culture, companies can distinguish themselves in the competitive landscape. Implement these insights to transform your business strategy and ensure long-term success.

For further insights into business strategy and management, consider the following articles on our website, Steffis Blogs.

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