Playing to Win
A Year of Strategy
A Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights Retrospective
It all started innocently. I was getting frustrated with how long it took to get quick hit writing out. For what are hoped to be timeless pieces for the print edition of Harvard Business Review, I don’t mind the one to three years it takes to get an article ready for publication. But I had a time-sensitive piece on COVID and strategy that I submitted to a faster-cycle publication (that shall remain nameless) in the summer of 2020 when companies were desperately trying to figure out how to navigate COVID. The editor liked it but told me that it would be at least three weeks until she would even look at a full draft.
I groused about that lackadaisical reaction to Jessica Krakoski, who was helping with the publicity of my fall 2020 book, When More is Not Better. She suggested that I experiment with writing for Medium because on that platform, the minute you have finished writing a piece, you can hit ‘publish’ and it is out there. I followed her suggestion (thanks Jessica!) and on July 23, 2020, published Habits, COVID & Strategy. I enjoyed my first Medium experience and wrote another nine pieces on a variety of subjects.
Then, in response to a client’s question, I wrote The Role of Management Systems in Strategy to provide practical advice on how to think about the fifth box in my Strategy Choice Cascade, and published it on October 5, 2020. The response was so overwhelming that I decided to write more pieces for Playing to Win enthusiasts who wanted tips on how to apply the framework in practice. The series built a momentum of its own and an increasingly large audience. I established a weekly rhythm and published one Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) piece every Monday morning for 52 consecutive weeks: A Year of Strategy.
I will first recap the year and then provide thoughts on where from here?
A Recap of A Year of Strategy
The three important roles Management Systems can play in reinforcing strategy.
You will know that you have made a strategy choice if the opposite is not stupid on its face.
If you think your market share is under 20%, you probably have defined the denominator too broadly.
It is more helpful to understand your strategy as what you do than what it says in any strategic plan, and therefore every organization has a strategy.
Strategy is a technique for solving problems. If you don’t define a problem to be solved, your strategy exercise is likely to have limited value.
Strategy is created throughout the organization and hence the chartering of strategic choices is a very important leadership skill.
Much of strategy involves making lists of laudable things to do but that don’t add up to a winning strategy.
Strategy is a practice and that the only way to get good at strategy is to practice the practice.
You should do strategy when your What Would Have to be True is no longer true, not on some calendar cycle.
How to apply Playing to Win to social sector organizations of all sorts.
How to integrate key Design Thinking attributes into the Playing to Win strategy process.
How key Integrative Thinking attributes can and should be integrated into the Playing to Win strategy process.
Avoiding the trap of considering Where-to-Play and How-to-Win independently rather than in tandem.
Business leaders should not see their job as presiding over strategy but rather engaging deeply in strategy.
There are more similarities than differences between B2C and B2B strategy.
It is both specious and dangerous to argue that your business is too fast-moving to do strategy.
How to integrate Scenario Planning attributes into the Playing to Win strategy process.
How to untangle Capabilities from How-to-Win and think about Capabilities in the Strategy Choice Cascade.
This was the least successful of the 52 posts. Must not have felt sufficiently practitioner focused, but it identifies important watchouts for monopolies.
The second most read post provides the key distinction between Strategy and Planning.
Insights on the first box in the Strategy Choice Cascade — the Winning Aspiration.
Investing to catch up competitively has much lower utility than investing to leapfrog competition in order to win.
Managerial effectiveness is aided by clear strategy, not independent of it.
The implications for strategy of two opposing forces in business — producing a consistent replicable outcome and producing an outcome you would actually want.
Your business model is neither independent of nor fits in one box of the Strategy Choice Cascade but is a part of all five boxes.
The dynamic by which industries shift from a pre-competitive state to a competitive state and implications for strategy.
For short periods you can be both but in due course, competition will make you choose.
The most controversial and widely read of the whole series. Many readers assured me that SWOT isn’t that bad — hardly an endorsement of the tool!
The second most controversial and third most read. Many readers explained that scholarship and current practice disagree with me. But my job is to fix faulty conventional wisdom, not bow to it!
The modern strategist needs these two skillsets, but modern education favors manipulation of quantities over appreciation of qualities.
Strategists pay too much attention to averages, which reinforce the status quo, rather than outliers, which give clues to where the future is leading.
There are three forms of digital strategy with differing potential for your overall strategy.
The analytical blunder strategists make when they take data from the past to make inferences about the future.
The application of the Playing to Win strategy framework to your personal career.
How to productively link your planning to your strategy.
The three classes of questions to review and test strategy; questions about logic, fit, and distinctiveness.
Pay for performance doesn’t help cause productive actions to be taken on strategy; in fact, it causes the opposite.
How Agile principles can be integrated with the Playing to Win strategy process.
In service of great strategy, one needs to balance exploration of things in which the organization is now not expert with exploitation of things in which the organization is expert.
Revenue forecasting is largely a waste of time because the decision to send revenues to the organization doing the forecasting is completely in customer hands.
Successful branding is all about building customer confidence.
The most important test of your strategy is the can’t/won’t test: are you confident that competitors either can’t or won’t successfully replicate your strategy.
The important role of sales in strategy and the underappreciation of sales in business school curricula.
Diversity of viewpoints is critical to great strategy and that to leverage that diversity, you need to utilize the Integrative Thinking toolbox.
In communicating your strategy, less is more, and a picture is worth a thousand words.
The proper role of the CSO is to: 1) facilitate the creation of strategy; 2) coordinate the creation of strategy; and 3) ensure the consistency of strategy.
The wrong question is whether we should listen to customers. Instead, it should be in what way we should match how we listen to customers with the strategic task at hand.
Most management/board relationships are set up for disappointment. The key to success is a better when and a more nuanced what.
The battle in strategy theory between the positioning school and the resource-based view of the firm is silly; we need to integrate aspects of both into a better strategy theory.
The important role that What Would Have to be True can play in helping you determine strategy in the face of discontinuity.
The four keys to transformation success: strategy, patience, resilience and growth.
The importance of engaging in strategy in order to learn faster than competitors so as to beat them.
Where From Here?
That is 85K words of PTW/PI, more than the original Playing to Win book’s 67K words. Two publishers have suggested publishing A Year of Strategy as a book — who would have known, publish it first for free, then as a book? I guess when you are at 256K views (and counting), that is evidence of an audience, so I will do that.
I am going to take a break on the weekly PTW/PIs. I plan to continue writing on Medium, but 1,500–2,000 words/week is a bit too taxing and has crowded out other writing — my HBR Senior Editor, David Champion, is still waiting for my next new magazine piece.
My plan is to get even more reader driven. Twenty of the 52 were motivated by reader questions, so readers have already played a big role (thanks!). But I welcome with open arms more ‘what about X/how should I think about Y’ questions. I am planning to broaden from the core Playing to Win theme, so other strategy and/or management questions are entirely welcome. I may do a number of miniseries (say 4–6 pieces rather than 52!) each around a particular theme and have had suggestions already that lend themselves to that format in that the answer has several distinct components and won’t fit into one sub-2000-word piece.
Thanks for spending A Year of Strategy with me and watch for my next Medium piece within a month.