Playing To Win

The Doctrine of Relentless Utility

The Winningest Personal Strategy

Roger Martin
8 min readFeb 26, 2024


Source: Shutterstock, 2024

I promised to write more on strategy applied to the personal domain based on the success of Being ‘Too Busy’ Means Your Personal Strategy Sucks, the piece that readers loved most across the first three years of the Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights series. I begin that particular Year IV initiative with The Doctrine of Relentless Utility: The Winningest Personal Strategy. It is guidance I give everyone who asks for career advice — and I am guided by the doctrine myself!

What is the Doctrine of Relentless Utility?

It starts with not spending much time worrying about your job description, what is or is not above your pay grade, how you will be evaluated in the HR system, or whether a particular thing you are doing will be ‘profitable.’ I know you can’t ignore these things entirely. But obsessing about them isn’t going to do you much good and will distract you in damaging ways.

Focus instead on being relentlessly useful. And that involves a pair of important strategy choices. You need a clear and compelling Where-to-Play (WTP). For whom (person or group) can you be strikingly useful by adding value for them? And you need a matched How-to-Win (HTW) to pair with it. Based on your context and your skills, how can you add value distinctly for them, in ways they aren’t getting now and are unlikely to get from an alternative source?

When you have chosen your WTP/HTW combination, be relentless in delivering on it. Don’t attempt to contract for it with the beneficiary of your utility. Don’t say: “I will give you this benefit if you give me the following in return.” Just be relentlessly useful and good things will happen. In advance, it will never be clear exactly what good things will happen and when they will happen. But don’t spend time worrying about that — it can only serve to distract you from being relentlessly useful. You have to trust that good things will happen — and they will.

Three Examples from the Rotman School

To provide concrete examples of the Doctrine of Relentless Utility in action, I will draw from my time as Dean of the Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto (1998–2013). When I joined as Dean it was a very weak school, third ranked in its local southern Ontario market, with lots of faculty infighting and financial problems. It had a very low profile in the local business community and whatever profile it had was generally bad. The media referred to it as the School of Mismanagement due to a scandal a couple of years earlier. Its intellectual profile was weak with few looking to Rotman for ideas. And the alumni were disengaged — our alumni database had current contact information for a pathetically low 10% of graduates. We had barely even tried to engage with the business and alumni communities.

We had a lot of work to do and three Rotman staff, though low in the formal organizational hierarchy, would go on to have much to do with the school’s success: Ken McGuffin, head of media relations; Karen Christensen, editor and publisher of Rotman Magazine; and Rod Lohin, head of alumni relations. Only one of them had a direct report (Rod with one).

I encouraged each of the three to not worry about anything other than being relentlessly useful in their domains — and each took up that task with gusto!

Ken McGuffin, Media Relations

Ken was the then-20-something head of, and in fact only member of, media relations at Rotman. He came to see his WTP as a two-sided market. On one side were the reporters (for print) and producers (for video), and on the other side, the Rotman professors. His WTP was a matchmaker in business ideas between the distributors/amplifiers and the generators.

His HTW for the reporters/producers was to get them information or quotes or an appearance from a professor on their topic of interest — and fast because their deadlines are typically very short, measured in hours not days or weeks. His HTW for the professors was to make it dead easy and pleasant for them — connect them and brief them well and then make sure to celebrate their contributions. Ken has the warm and engaging personality necessary to power this HTW for both sides of the two-sided market.

Ken went to work being relentlessly useful. Reporters and producers called, and they got connected to professors who delivered. And they did it again, and again, and again. Within five years, Rotman had achieved an insanely high 60% share of voice among Canadian business schools in the Canadian media (as measured by an independent media evaluation company). That meant that the other 40 MBA schools averaged one share-point each.

As he won the Canadian media relations competition, Ken embarked on international victory. By pursuing the Doctrine of Relentless Utility, Ken helped to move the school from getting one mention per quarter in the international media to two per day by the end of my term as Dean.

Fittingly, Ken went on to become famous in the education media relations business globally, speaking at conferences and sharing his wisdom. Meanwhile, I had to field calls from schools in Canada and abroad asking what PR agency we used — easy, we never used one — and how we ‘structured our media relations department’ — easy, it is one person.

Karen Christensen, Rotman Magazine

Karen inherited an alumni magazine that was distributed for free to the few alumni for whom we had current addresses. It was unclear whether it was read at all. She chose to be relentlessly useful — again with a two-sided market.

Her WTP featured on one side initially Rotman professors and later professors at other leading business schools who weren’t particularly good at writing for non-academic audiences — later expanded to business leaders, political figures and social innovators. On the other side were readers who had access to few outlets for thoughtful business content made accessible for non-academics. They only had Harvard Business Review, and to a certain extent the semi-academic Sloan Management Review and California Management Review.

Her HTW was to make it dead easy for thought leaders to publish expressions of their work that were easy to read for non-academics. She would read their stuff and write up something that was so good that they only had to edit it lightly. For readers, it created a highly readable addition to Harvard Business Review, which had very, very limited real estate for stories.

That WTP/HTW enabled her to attract superstar academics including Nobel Laureates Elinor Ostrom and Michael Spence, mere mortal superstar academics including Howard Gardiner, Daniel Goleman, Michael Porter, and Amy Edmondson. Later it expanded to business leaders including investment sensei John Templeton, design guru and IDEO CEO Tim Brown, and former Medtronic CEO Bill George, political figures including Jimmy Carter and Paul Volcker, and social innovators including Twyla Tharp and Linus Torvalds.

Rotman Magazine joined Harvard Business Review as a high-price subscription magazine which, in paid circulation, rivaled 50+-year-old California Management Review — published by leading academic publisher Sage and the prestigious Berkeley Haas business school. Stunningly, it even garnered hard-to-get newsstand circulation in Canada.

Once, a laid-off senior editor of Harvard Business Review asked about ‘joining the staff’ of Rotman Magazine. I told him that would be a bit tough because ‘the staff’ was comprised of one person. He got mad at me because he thought I was lying. I told him he was free to come visit ‘the staff’ (Karen) and see ‘Rotman Magazine world headquarters’ (a single 100 sq/ft office).

It was just one relentlessly useful person, who is now one of the two or three most famous editors of business school magazines in the world.

Rod Lohin, Alumni Relations

Rod was the director of alumni relations, with one direct report when he started. (He wasn’t the director of fundraising — that was somebody else.) He was in a tough situation. In general, alumni didn’t like the performance of the school and how little we did for them. In response, they didn’t stay in touch. In the year before I became Dean, the school had only two events the entire year that were open to alumni and others from the business community.

Rod focused his WTP on alumni interested in upgrading their personal knowledge base (rather than on helping alumni network or find jobs, etc.). His HTW tool was to deliver events using the school’s increasingly prominent suite of ideas and our growing coolness in the business school world. We ramped up our events by (literally) orders of magnitude, hitting 122 events open to alumni and the outside community in my final year as Dean. Early on, we instituted an event targeted entirely at alumni called Lifelong Learning — pitched as an annual recall to update alumni on the business school knowledge that had been created since their graduation.

Somewhat to the chagrin of the head of fundraising, we didn’t ask for anything from alumni. We just focused on relentless utility. Lifelong Learning was free and became so popular that non-alumni begged to be allowed to attend. Our first reaction was to say no, that it was special for alumni. But then with a brilliant brainwave, we decided to charge them non-alumni $1000 for what alumni got for free. Rather than not feeling special anymore, our alumni loved sitting beside someone who paid $1000 for the privilege they got for free. That was truly special!

By the time my term ended, Rod had 85% active contacts and huge alumni contributions to the school along many dimensions, monetary and otherwise.

Practitioner Insights

To be mammothly successful, dedicate yourself to the Doctrine of Relentless Utility and make a set of WTP/HTW choices that power your utility.

On WTP, figure out to whose benefit you are going to produce relentless utility. If the answer is, you — good luck. That won’t get you far. Spend plenty of time and energy on what defines utility for your targeted recipient. The worst thing is to aim at a recipient that doesn’t want or value what you are providing. Their definition of value is not always obvious. Start somewhere and learn so that you can hone and refine your WTP — i.e., what utility for which recipient(s).

On HTW, make sure the utility is something at which you can be truly outstanding. Chances are that your targeted beneficiary will have multiple entities providing value to them along various dimensions. You can’t do it all, don’t need to do it all, and therefore shouldn’t try to do it all. Pick a WTP/HTW combination at which you can excel. And keep toggling back and forth between WTP and HTW to get a combination that is strongest together.

You always have the option of expanding over time as your WTP/HTW combination gains traction. Ken started his WTP with Canadian media and then broadened to US and then global. Karen started with a narrower set of content contributors and broadened over time.

Work on deepening the strength of your HTW over time based on your track record of providing utility. Over time, Ken could suggest that new professors should check with their colleagues whether working with Ken would be good for them and the veteran professors would give Ken the two thumbs up. It was the same with Karen. When she came to me to brainstorm how to get Jimmy Carter to write an article, I suggested that she give his support staff the names of four or five other prominent collaborators to find out how easy and enjoyable it was — and he happily did the piece.

Importantly, none of the three contracted with their participants. Ken never asked for a quid pro quo from reporters or producers for getting them the perfect interview. He and Karen and Rod just focused committing, delivering, and waiting for good things to happen. Like the three of them, you can leverage the Doctrine of Relentless Utility as your winning personal strategy.



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.