Playing To Win

Are You Building a Strategy Tower of Babel?

If So, Wake Up and Install a Singular Language for Strategy

Source: Shutterstock

As with my prior piece, this one arose out of a recent client conversation. These conversations remind me of strategy topics on which I have a developed point of view but weren’t on my mind and therefore inaccessible until resurfaced by the client interaction. When that happens, I set out to get the point of view down on paper to avoid the ideas drifting back into the far reaches of my brain. To that end, this week’s Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI), my 15th Year II piece, is Are You Building a Strategy Tower of Babel? You can find all previous PTW/PI here.

The Conversation

The conversation in question was with a friend who had been a CEO client in in his prior job and had just become CEO of another large company and asked me to help him with strategy at the new one. The conversation, raised by him not me, was about the need he felt to install a consistent language and framework for strategy in his new company, as we had done in his previous one. I was happy because I had convinced him of the merits of that effort at his old job and the thinking had been sticky.

He was frustrated because when he got to his new company, he found that it had spent over $200 million with various strategy consultants over the previous couple of years. That spending notwithstanding, the strategy was all over the place and fully inadequate for the task at hand.

The Nature of the Problem

I have always been interested in the language and logic behind strategy and believed from the very first day of my advisory career that I should provide my clients with easy-to-understand and practical tools so that they would learn how to do strategy on their own. That included using a consistent language system for strategy. I wanted to avoid the consulting industry inclination to keep the client in the dark on their methodology and framework with the implicit goal of making the client dependent on them.

But I gained a new level of clarity about importance of the language and logic of strategy during the time I served as principal strategy advisor to Lowell McAdam, the terrific former CEO of Verizon. I started consulting to Verizon in 2014 and become Lowell’s principal strategy advisor by mid-2015 and remained in that role until his retirement in 2018. Verizon is one of America’s super-successful giants — $130 billion in revenues; $225 billion market capitalization.

Like many of the giant American companies, Verizon had literally all the major strategy houses doing strategy work for it, procured by a variety of senior executives across its variety of businesses — and lots of it! Given my work with Lowell, I got to see all of it. That helped me understand what a tough job he had. Each presentation had its own conceptual frameworks and language system. Was it Seven S’s or Three Horizons or Time-based Competition or Value Migration or Owner Economics or etc., etc? Figuring out how on earth each presentation with its own unique language system related to and fit with one another was super difficult — even for me as a deep strategy expert. For the client on the receiving end, it was still more daunting.

It struck me then that Lowell faced a proverbial strategy Tower of Babel. Nothing was compatible with anything else. One study’s conclusion was worded in one set of terms, while the next one used different terminology. There were just too many language systems to facilitate productive discussions either vertically (i.e., when a business unit or functional head came to Lowell for a decision based on work) or horizontally (i.e., when two business units or functions had to collaborate) across Verizon.

That realization motivated me to work hard on installing a consistent language system for strategy in the company. I think I was at least partially successful. I do believe that the clear strategy framework and language system helped Lowell resist the many consultant and investment bank reports that aggressively advocated for Verizon to acquire a big media content company. The pitches kept coming like the Mongol hordes. But having a clear language for strategy helped Lowell cut through the specious ‘owner economics’ drivel and refuse to bite. Unlike AT&T, which bought Time Warner for $85 billion during this frenzy and then had to divest it disastrously for $43 billion less than three years later, Verizon was able to continue focusing on the profitable roll out of 5G services.

The Influence on my Work

This need for installing a consistent and unitary language system for strategy has become ever more central to my work. The Verizon experience redoubled my efforts. But I had already been at it for a long time.

Looking back, arguably my first attempt on that front was at P&G in the 1987–1989 period. Unlike the big modern companies who use numerous strategy firms simultaneously, at P&G, Monitor Company was the first ever strategy firm to be hired when we started working there in 1985. In classic P&G fashion, if something was important, P&G wanted its people to learn it to avert dependence on outsiders. So, after our first couple of strategy projects there, P&G asked us to create and teach a program called the Applied Strategic Management (ASM) program, which I taught (along with several colleagues) to the newly formed Category Management teams across P&G for more than two years. That is the context in which I first met then Category General Manager and future CEO, AG Lafley. I worked on the effort to install a way of thinking about strategy at P&G for more than a decade. I didn’t think of it yet as a language system for strategy even though that is what it was. But it wasn’t until AG became CEO in 2000 did it become the installed language system for strategy.

AG and I wrote a book on the subject, Playing to Win, in 2013. People tend to think that the framework described in the book was created at a time relatively close to the publication date. But that is far from the truth. I created the core concepts and language system for the book as part of work for P&G North America President Wolfgang Berndt, who hired me in 1995 to review and improve the strategic planning system at P&G. Why wait 18 years to publish this set of ideas? I wanted to do it with AG who was so intimately involved in the evolution of the model and its use at P&G. He didn’t want to start work on the book until he retired as CEO, which happened in 2009. That is why it didn’t come out until early 2013.

This started what I think of as my open-source approach to the language of strategy. Playing to Win lays out in great detail a language system for strategy for anyone to use. And it is available for close to zero cost — $22.37 on Amazon last time I checked. Readers told us they liked the framework and language system and asked for more. So, in 2014, AG, myself, and colleague and Playing to Win editor Jennifer Riel published the Playing to Win Toolkit, a detailed guide to using the tools and language system in the book — a bit more expensive at $250, but still affordable for anyone wanting to have a strategy framework, language system, and a facilitation guide to utilizing it.

Next was the IDEO University taped course, Designing Strategy, co-taught with Jennifer Riel, starting in 2019 and offered several times a year to provide a language system for the integration of design thinking and Playing to Win strategy (it is at the $799 price point).

Then I started this Medium Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) series on October 5, 2020 and it stands at 115K words and counting — two books worth. People ask me why I give it away for free (technically not quite: it requires a $50 Medium subscription) rather than create a paid service? It is because the business world (and non-profits for that matter) need a simple and practical language for strategy and I don’t see anybody else doing that in a low or no-cost way. I want that to be my contribution.

The very latest thing I am doing on this front is a live online course on the live learning platform Disco. It is called Create Your Winning Strategy and it is happening right now in the month of February and will be offered again in May 2022. It provides my very latest thinking on the practical application of strategy in a live cohort-based learning setting (its price point is $2500).

They say the best way to learn is to teach. What I have learned from teaching strategy through Playing to Win, PTW Toolkit, Designing Strategy, PTW/PI, and Create Your Winning Strategy is that the application of strategy has many nuances. I have written over a quarter of a million words on strategy over the past thirty years and there are still questions that readers ask that can be helpfully addressed. But the only way to keep that coherent is to have a singular and simple language system for strategy. Otherwise, it does pretty quickly devolve into a Tower of Babel.

Practitioner Insights

Have a common, singular language for strategy: full stop. I have always admired IATA — the International Air Transport Association — for standardizing on a single language globally (English) for aircraft-to-controller (and aircraft-to-aircraft) communication. In flying, people die if the communication is encumbered by language differences, so one language is fully mandated. I accept that people don’t die if you have multiple language systems for strategy in an organization — but the proverbial planes sure have a hard time landing. So be like IATA, enforce one.

I happen to like mine and it was built for this purpose. But I would rather have you standardize on some other language than to have dueling language systems and frameworks. If an outside provider of strategy services refuses to adopt your chosen language system, then just don’t hire them. Find someone who will.

I really enjoyed being part of the core time that built Monitor Company into a great global strategy player by the time I left in 1998 to become Dean of the Rotman School of Management in my home country and province. I was encouraged by many to build another Monitor when I stepped down as Dean in 2013.

For several reasons, I chose instead to be a solo practitioner. One key reason was that I wanted to be Switzerland — a neutral player. (Maybe it is a family of origin thing. My forefathers all hail from Switzerland though they left in the late 1600s.) I don’t and can’t compete with McKinsey, BCG, Bain, and Monitor Deloitte for revenues because my revenue capacity is miniscule, and they are multi-billion-dollar entities. I wanted to be in a position to disseminate my ideas and language system freely for anyone who wants to use it.

Of course, I prefer if they didn’t copy my slides and remove the source — which happens widely and frequently. But if that is the price of putting a useful language system out there, so be it.

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Roger Martin

Professor Roger Martin is a writer, strategy advisor and in 2017 was named the #1 management thinker in world. He is also former Dean of the Rotman School.