Playing To Win

Yet Another Year of Strategy

A Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights Year III Retrospective

Roger Martin


Well, here we are at the end of Year III for the Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) series, which surprises even me. In the fall of 2020, I started publishing one PTW/PI piece every Monday morning and kept it up for 52 consecutive weeks from October 5, 2020 to September 27, 2021. Then, I did it again for another 52 consecutive weeks from November 1, 2021 to October 24, 2022. And now I have just finished a third year with 52 consecutive weeks from December 12, 2022 to December 4, 2023. You can find all the previous PTW/PI here.

As I did with Years I & II, I am providing a recap of Year III today.

A Recap of Yet Another Year of Strategy

1) Why ‘Execution’ is a bankrupt Management Concept

I started the year off with a bang taking on my managerial bête noir — the concept of ‘execution.’ The piece has been highly read — though many disagreed fundamentally. But my job is, in part, to provoke and this one did the trick!

2) Striving to Follow the Golden Rule

A more philosophical piece in which I argue that companies will be sustainable organizations only to the extent that they follow the Golden Rule — and do unto others in their ecosystem (customers, distributor, suppliers, employees, etc.) as they would have those others do to them.

3) Strategy Choice, Risk and the Road Not Taken

Why managers are risk averse when it comes to strategy. It is in part because they will never know what would have happened on the road not taken.

4) Benchmarking is for Losers

Another provocative piece that argues you will never win if you spend your time benchmarking competition and replicating them.

5) Strategy is Singular

Makes the case that for any one entity, there is only one strategy. Those who use the plural of strategy generally define strategy as a list of initiatives, which they call ‘strategies.’

6) Sticking with Strategy

A response to reader questions on how long to stick to strategy. The What Would Have to be True (WWHTBT) tool is the best device for determining whether to stick with or modify your strategy.

7) Being ‘Too Busy’ Means Your Personal Strategy Sucks

Popular piece that argues the state of feeling ‘too busy’ is a consequence of not having a robust personal strategy.

8) Curating Meeting Experiences

An argument that in the post-COVID world, leaders need to spend time and energy on curating meeting experiences that participants won’t want to miss, rather order them to ‘return-to-work.’

9) The Origins of Playing to Win

This popular piece provides some history on the origins of Playing to Win.

10) Unclogging Your Decision Factory

A diagnosis of the three drivers of slow/inefficient decision-making. Provides practitioner remedies for each of the three.

11) Decoding the Strategy Choice Cascade

Response to reader questions on the number of boxes in, the order of boxes on, and the shape of the Strategy Choice Cascade.

12) Platform Businesses & Strategy

Exploration of the similarities and differences between platform businesses and ‘normal’ businesses, and argues that while not the same, they are more same than different.

13) Cost-Effective Differentiation

Argument that it is critical for a differentiator to be highly cost-effective in order to be sustainably successful.

14) Platform Business Taxonomy

Follow up to the piece two weeks earlier that lays out a taxonomy of different forms of platform businesses — and the strategic consequences of type.

15) Strategy & Leadership #1 — Neutralizing Your Equity Market

First piece in what turned out to be a four-part series on strategy and leadership. This one is on how leaders of publicly traded companies need to manage with the intent of neutralizing the deleterious impacts of the public equity markets.

16) Strategy & Leadership #2 — What Choices to Make — and Not?

A conceptual framework for thinking about who should make which choices in a company, from senior leadership on down.

17) Strategy & Leadership #3 — How to Help Your People Make Better Strategy Choices

Introduction of The Responsibility Ladder as a tool for helping the people who work for you to make better strategy choices. And it can be used by you to make better choices for your bosses.

18) Strategy & Leadership #4 — Being the Guardian of Validity

Identification of the importance of leaders serving as the guardian of validity in a business world that inexorably leans toward reliability.

19) Finishing Strategy

Response to reader questions about when you know you are finished with strategy. The answer is that you never are because strategy is a problem-solving technique and there will always be problems to solve.

20) Do You Know What is Going on Below?

Concerning a frustration of mine and not enough about reader concerns and it garnered the fewest views of the year — lesson relearned!

21) Jobs to be Done & Playing to Win

The first of five Year III pieces that discuss linkages — or not — between Playing to Win and other popular frameworks, such as Jobs to be Done. In this case, there are nice synergies between the two bodies of work.

22) A Dangerous Schism

Provocative piece that points out the fundamental inconsistency with what business students are taught in their strategy classes versus their statistics classes.

23) Blue Ocean Strategy & Playing to Win

Second of the comparison pieces, this concludes that there is a mixed bag with some consistencies and other areas in which the two books are in conflict.

24) The Whether/How Distinction

A technique for sorting strategy choices during the process of creating a corporate strategy into whether (should we do x) or how (how should we do x) to better target the work necessary for making the relevant decision.

25) Business Model Generation & Playing to Win

Third of the comparison pieces, and the most popular, this concludes that there are great compatibilities between Playing to Win and my favorite other strategy book.

26) What Strategy Questions are You Asking?

Popular piece arguing that a key signal of competitive advantage is that you are asking questions that your competitors haven’t yet discovered are important questions.

27) Confident Companies do Less

Provocative piece arguing that doing fewer things is a sign of a confident company, while doing many things is a sign of the lack of confidence in anything. The piece provoked polarized reactions.

28) Strategy & Competitors

Provides advice on what things about competitors to watch and how to utilize the insights from the observations.

29) Commercial Innovation Strategy

Discussion of the category of strategy called commercial innovation — that is, innovating without altering the fundamental product or service.

30) Balanced Scorecard & Playing to Win

Fourth in the comparison series, this focuses on the things that I learned from Balanced Scorecard that I use in Playing to Win strategy work.

31) How to Prepare for Strategy

Provocative piece arguing that much too much prework is done for strategy exercises. Much of what is done in prework would be better performed during the strategy exercise not before.

32) What is Strategic Thinking?

Very popular piece laying out the four characteristics of strategic thinking, plus a set of disqualifiers to avoid.

33) How to Thwart Strategy Masquerades

The five ways that planning typically masquerades as strategy and an argument that showing restraint is critical to preventing strategy masquerades.

34) How Brands Grow & Playing to Win

Fifth in the comparison series, this one is the least viewed of the five, which makes me sad because I love How Brands Grow and find it very valuable for Playing to Win strategy.

35) The Strategy Lessons from the Bud Light Fiasco

The Bud Light fiasco viewed through the lens of segmentation. Argues that companies — especially broad-based ones — need to be wary of fault lines that lurk below what appear to be a homogenous segment.

36) Strategy, Strategy Everywhere

Discussion of the proliferation of strategy terms. Provides a way of thinking through their productive use — and the avoidance of use of some of them.

37) The Downside of Go-to-Market Strategy

About my antipathy toward go-to-market strategy as a concept because it dis-integrates rather than integrates strategy.

38) Performance Measurement Transparency

On the importance of maintaining transparency and flexibility in performance measurement. Locking on a specific set when management is uncertain is a losing game.

39) What Were They Thinking?

Inspired by a stay at the Hyatt Centric hotel in Manhattan, in which the hotel attempts to fool its guests by mislabeling its floors. It shows Hyatt’s logic is pathetic and self-defeating.

40) Dangerous Cost Reduction Projects

The danger of hiring consultants for cost reduction projects when their only responsibility is for cost reduction, not protecting revenues while doing so.

41) Strategy for the Experience Economy

The application of pioneering work by Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore on the coming of The Experience Economy. Their work, which they first published twenty-five years ago, is arguably more important today.

42) Measuring, Managing & Mattering

Exposé of famous quotes attributed to geniuses Peter Drucker and Albert Einstein that are patently false.

43) Who Should Do Strategy?

Well-received piece that argues strategy is a line responsibility, suggests team composition, and outlines productive and unproductive roles for strategy consultants.

44) Heuristics, Management & Strategy

The important role of heuristics in both the advance of knowledge and the development of strategy.

45) Ways of Understanding

On the degree to Peter Drucker and Albert Einstein employed similar approaches to research in very different fields. In addition, argues that very sadly, this form of thinking is verboten in the current worlds of both management and scientific research.

46) Tackling Mysteries

Advice on how to tackle business mysteries using the Knowledge Funnel as a tool. It provides leaders with advice about the balance they need to maintain while exploring mysteries.

47) Turning the Future into the Past

A way of thinking about innovating in a business world that obsesses about data — which tells you nothing about the future but only the past.

48) The Work and Workings of Leadership Teams

The three different modes of working between which leadership teams need to toggle in order to be effective.

49) Strategy for Natural Monopolies

Response to a reader question on how to think about strategy in natural monopolies, like public utilities and membership organizations. It didn’t appeal to many readers, so it wasn’t a great choice of reader questions to answer.

50) Being Fired — Repeatedly

The story of me being fired three time as an advisor to Procter & Gamble and coming back each time to have a highly productive 37-year (and counting) relationship.

51) Playing to Win & Pivoting

The trendy strategy word ‘pivot’ and how to pivot your strategy in useful, not random ways.

52) Market Maps Make Me Nervous

The three dangers in the use of market maps and what to do to avoid falling prey to each danger.


I hope this overview helps you identify which PTW/PI pieces address questions or issues that you have so that you can more easily go back to reread them.

And thanks for spending Yet Another Year of Strategy with me.



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.