Playing To Win

The Number One Ranked Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights Piece

Being ‘Too Busy’ Means Your Personal Strategy Sucks

Roger Martin
9 min readJan 8, 2024


Source: Roger L. Martin, 2023

This Year III piece has been a Read and Clap powerhouse despite only being out for only eleven months. It leads over the second-place pieces by 33% in Reads and by 70% in Claps, even though it was #3 in Views. Readers loved it! Looking back on the 156 posts, I see it in its own unique category of the application of strategy concepts to your personal work life — what I call Personal Strategy Advice above.

Given the overwhelmingly positive reaction from readers, I will do more of this category in Year IV, perhaps expanding beyond work life — we shall see.

It didn’t hurt that it had a provocative title, including the aggressive word ‘sucks.’ And it was a fundamental reframing too. It asked readers to stop seeing being too busy as heroic and laudatory, but rather as an indictment of their personal strategy.

With no further ado, I give you Number One of first 156 PTW/PI. Enjoy!

Being ‘Too Busy’ Means Your Personal Strategy Sucks: You Need a Better Where-to-Play/How-to-Win

Source: Roger L. Martin, 2023

People inform me they are busy as if it is a badge of honor. For me, it is a signal that they have a weak personal Playing to Win strategy. To explain why, my 7th Year III Playing to Win Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) piece discusses Being ‘Too Busy’ Means Your Personal Strategy Sucks: You Need a Better Where-to-Play/How-to-Win. You can find the previous 117 PTW/PI here.

Busyness in the Knowledge Economy

The essential unit of production in the knowledge economy is the human,and that unit has a couple of tricky features. First, its capacity is limited. It has only so many hours of the day to produce. Unlike a factory or mine or farm that can be expanded, its capacity is fixed. Second, each unit of production is unique, and hence not entirely fungible. When you expand a factory, you can add another production line that is identical to the other lines in the factory and thereby increase capacity in a homogeneous, seamless way. It is not impossible to do in the knowledge economy.Organizations expand capacity by adding another unit of production — i.e., another person — but as much as the organization would wish, the addition isn’t homogenous or seamless. At a minimum, both the original person and the new person have to spend lots of time meeting with one another to coordinate their activities.

The organizational challenge intensifies as the non-fungibility of the unit of production increases. If the unit of production is Julia Roberts, Warren Buffett, Taylor Swift, or Patrick Mahomes, there isn’t another unit of production that is even remotely close. The organization in question has exactly one unit of production and it won’t be getting another any time soon.

So, when the unit of production is relatively high-end talent — like a CEO, a head of R&D, a guru of branding — an individual can become the gating function of the entire organization. Hence personal strategy is very important in the knowledge economy.

Personal Where-to-Play/How-to-Win Strategy

The key Where-to-Play (WTP) variable in personal strategy is time, which is a totally fixed resource, the deployment of which is the individual’s most important strategy choice. A good WTP strategy choice is one in which there is a powerful How-to-Win (HTW) associated with it. Simply put, if you have a way of spending a given hour to create lots of value for your organization, then your HTW is nicely linked to your WTP. That theory of HTW has to be backed by distinctive Must-Have Capabilities (MHC) that, in turn, are built and maintained by Enabling Management Systems (EMS).

So, to have an effective personal strategy, you need to be deliberative about choosing where to deploy your limited available hours in tasks that your particular set of capabilities enable you to generate a win by creating disproportionate value for your organization. And, since this doesn’t happen automatically, you need a personal management system for doing it on an ongoing basis — because on this front, eternal vigilance is the price of effectiveness.

Case Study: Dean of Rotman

When I was appointed Dean of the Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto in 1998, it was my first academic job of any sort. I became intrigued during my hiring process by the task of figuring out what Deans did. A big component was financial planning, budgeting, auditing, and control. Another was everything related to the hiring of faculty, which was a convoluted and time-consuming dance. And it clearly had a big fundraising component — in fact on that front, the search committee wasclearly looking for me to pledge allegiance the idea of spending time on fundraising because apparently lots of Dean try to slough off on that front.

Intrigued, I did a quick study of what my predecessor spent his time on. The data wasn’t perfect, but it appeared he spent somewhere around a day a week on each of financial management, faculty hiring and fundraising — and the remaining two days/week on a wide variety of tasks.

Pretty quickly, I came to the conclusion that for the Rotman School at that point in time there were more important things that I had to accomplish and some things that just had to be done differently. We were a laggard school at the time — referred to as the ‘Faculty of Mismanagement’ in the press. I needed to motivate our professors and give them something to believe in. I had to fix the economics of the School to be able to hire a cadre of world-class professors. I needed to build the reputation of Rotman for intellectual property leadership, especially in the areas of Integrative Thinking and Business Design. I had to establish a culture of student service — and, in particular, having a culture in which professors valued teach alongside research. And I needed to fundraise in a more effective way.

My fundamental personal strategy problem was that I couldn’t do all those things while spending my time on the things the previous Dean had. So, Iembarked on a project to eliminate 100 status quo days from my annual schedule to replace them with 100 days of higher-value activities for which I had the MHC to excel.

I took aim at the 50 days doing financial management. I inherited a terrific Chief Administrative Officer, Mary Ellen Yeomans, who was brilliant and dramatically underleveraged in her role. I told her that my aim was to get my annual days on finance down to 5 days a year. She was stunned and a bit taken aback, thinking that I was telling her it was a low priority for me. I explained that I thought that she was so talented and knowledgeable in university finances and University of Toronto’s (UofT) in particular (because she had worked in central before transferring to Rotman), that she was better equipped than me. I had specific things in mind for finance at Rotman, including a fundamentally different funding model for the faculty — so it was really important. But her MHC were as good or better than mine and my hours were needed elsewhere. I did what I referred to as the Vulcan Mind Meld with her, which required an overinvestment of my time for six months. But for the remaining 14.5 years as Dean, I didn’t go over my 5-day mark.

I did the same with the Associate Dean Academic, Peter Pauly, who I also inherited. A stellar academic with a great eye for young talent, he had better capabilities than me in faculty hiring. We changed the hiring strategy dramatically and I worked to achieve another Vulcan Mind Meld with him to ensure that we went in the new direction. And I got this activity down to the sub-5-day-per-year level.

The fun thing about both of them is that gaining much greater responsibility than anyone in their positions across UofT gave them great job satisfaction and enabled me to pay them dramatically more than under the previous regime.

I knew that I needed to spend time on fundraising, but what we required there was a fundamentally different WTP/HTW choice. The traditional one in that area was to make a list of rich alumni and spend lots of time meeting with them to ask them for money. I had known a lot of rich people in my life and didn’t believe that was an even marginally effective way to fundraise, especially for a School that had a low reputation and had done a terrible job of keeping in touch with its alumni. I believed that we had to work on worthiness and to get people of means (whether alumni or not) involved in the School in ways that they enjoyed and valued, and in due course, they would want to help us. As a result, we earned the first 7-figure and 8-figure unsolicited donations, in UofT’s 150+ year history. We raised a quarter billion dollars in my 15 years as Dean. While that is chump change for my alma mater, Harvard University, in Canada that easily led all business school peers.

Observers often asked me how much time I spent on fundraising. I told them I had two truthful answers. One was 100% because I worked 100% of my time on making the School worthy of donations. The other was 5% because I spent only a couple of hours a week meeting with rich people and asking them for money.

With the time I recovered from activities others could be doing better and/or I shouldn’t have been doing at all, I was able to write eight books while serving as Dean, including ones important to the School on Integrative Thinking and Design in Business, plus a few hundred articles, helping to raise the IP profile of the School while we were building the faculty complement. I taught no fewer than two courses a year — and as many as seven — even though Dean’s have a ‘teaching load’ of zero, because I wanted to lead other professors by example. They couldn’t claim their other work was too busy for them to teach when the person with the heaviest non-teaching schedule in the School taught when he had zero obligation to do so.

To motivate each individual professor and give them a better ability to see the ways they could best contribute to the School’s success, I met with each of them individually once a year. We started my time as Dean with 36 full-time, tenure-stream (FTTS) professors and observers were boggled that I would spend two weeks of my year on this activity. By the end of my time as Dean, it was 120 FTTS professors and another 50 adjuncts (who clamored to meet as well) and it took eight weeks of my year. But I still felt it was one of the very most valuable uses of my time as Dean.

A huge part of the turnaround of the Rotman School was a superior WTP/HTW for the Dean’s time. It utilized distinctive MHC — including IP creation capabilities, a different way of interacting with donors, and practice with managing racehorses at Monitor Company. I needed to create EMS to ensure that those capabilities were properly deployed, which was co-created with and run by my superlative chief of staff, Suzanne Spragge.

Practitioner Insights

I often work with my CEO clients, to take a chunk of time out of their calendar. Usually, the target is either 12 or 24 days — i.e., one or two days a month. We can always find the days and repurpose them to more valuable activities. It typically requires help from the CEO’s chief of staff or executive assistant to install an EMS that prevents back-sliding.

But you can do it yourself. “I’m just too busy” is a profoundly unpleasant feeling. But it is also very unproductive. It is bad for you and bad for those around you.

Remember that strategy is what you do not what you say. So, even if you don’t think of yourself as having a personal Playing to Win strategy, step back and reverse engineer what it actually is based on what you actually do. Use your calendar application to figure out your real WTP.

Then determine a level of work that would stop making you feel ‘too busy,’ and re-allocate your time based on a WTP that enables a HTW based on your own unique set of MHC. Finally, put in place an EMS that helps you build and maintain the MHC necessary for the HTW in the WTP you have chosen. That is how you will achieve your Winning Aspiration rather than going to bed frustrated, feeling “I am just too busy!”



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.