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The key points of 'Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works By Roger L. Martin

In the world of business strategy, 'Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works' by Roger L. Martin stands out as a seminal work that offers practical insights into making strategic choices that can lead to success. The book, co-authored with former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley, presents a clear framework for understanding and applying effective strategy in any organization. It delves into the nuances of strategic decision-making, highlights the importance of execution, and provides real-world examples of strategies that have either succeeded or failed. Below are the key takeaways from this influential book.

Key Takeaways

  • The 'Playing to Win' framework outlines five interrelated strategic choices: defining winning aspirations, determining where to play, deciding how to win, developing the necessary capabilities, and designing supportive management systems.

  • A.G. Lafley's leadership at Procter & Gamble exemplifies the successful application of the strategy framework, emphasizing the importance of clear choices and consistent execution.

  • Strategic pitfalls can be avoided by recognizing common traps such as underestimating execution challenges, over-complicating strategies, and failing to adapt to market changes.

  • Case studies from Procter & Gamble and other industry leaders illustrate how the 'Playing to Win' framework can be adapted to different sectors, reinforcing the universal applicability of its principles.

  • Sustaining a competitive advantage requires continuous innovation, agility to respond to market dynamics, and a commitment to ongoing strategic review to navigate the complexities of the business environment.

Understanding the Playing to Win Framework

The Five Key Strategy Choices

At the heart of the 'Playing to Win' framework are the five key strategy choices that determine the nature and direction of an organization's strategy. These choices are critical as they provide a structured approach to making decisions that can lead to sustainable competitive advantage.

  • Winning Aspirations: What is the organization's vision of success?

  • Where to Play: Which markets or segments will the organization target?

  • How to Win: What will be the organization's unique value proposition in the chosen markets?

  • Capabilities: What are the key abilities required to win?

  • Management Systems: What structures are needed to support the strategy?

The Strategy Choice Cascade

The Strategy Choice Cascade is a core concept in 'Playing to Win' that illustrates how strategic choices are interconnected and flow from one to the next. Each choice informs and shapes the subsequent ones, creating a coherent and aligned approach to strategy. The cascade begins with defining the winning aspirations, which set the ultimate goal of the organization.

  • Winning Aspirations: What is our winning aspiration?

  • Where to Play: In which markets and with which customers will we achieve our aspirations?

  • How to Win: What will be our unique value proposition in these markets?

  • Capabilities: What capabilities must we have to win?

  • Management Systems: What management systems are required to support our choices?

By following the Strategy Choice Cascade, organizations can avoid the common pitfall of disconnected strategic initiatives and ensure that their strategy is a coherent whole. This approach helps to minimize regret and reduce bias in decision-making, drawing parallels to the principles found in 'Algorithms to Live By'.

The Role of A.G. Lafley in P&G's Success

Under the leadership of A.G. Lafley, Procter & Gamble (P&G) experienced a period of remarkable transformation and growth. Lafley's tenure as CEO, from 2000 to 2009, and then again from 2013 to 2015, is often cited as a textbook example of effective strategic leadership. His focus on consumer understanding and innovation drove the company to new heights.

Lafley's strategy hinged on making deliberate choices about where P&G would compete and how it would win. He emphasized the importance of core strengths, such as brand management and go-to-market capabilities, and aligned the organization's structure to support its strategic objectives.

  • Reinvigorated iconic brands

  • Expanded into new markets

  • Streamlined the product portfolio

  • Fostered a culture of innovation

His legacy at P&G serves as a powerful illustration of how a clear and well-executed strategy can lead to sustainable competitive advantage.

Delving into the Strategic Choices

Winning Aspirations: Defining Success

Defining winning aspirations is crucial for any organization aiming to craft a successful strategy. Winning aspirations go beyond financial metrics, encapsulating the broader impact and legacy a company seeks to achieve. These aspirations should be ambitious yet attainable, providing a clear direction for the entire organization.

  • Empower team members to take ownership of their roles.

  • Prioritize happiness and well-being within the workforce.

  • Set aspirational goals that inspire and motivate.

  • Align these goals with achievable targets to maintain momentum.

By clearly articulating winning aspirations, companies can ensure that every decision and action is aligned with their ultimate purpose. This alignment is essential for sustained success and fulfillment in both business and personal development.

Where to Play: Choosing the Right Battleground

Deciding where to play is a pivotal element of any successful strategy. It involves identifying the markets or segments where a company can compete effectively. Choosing the right battleground is crucial for focusing resources and efforts where they can yield the highest returns.

  • Assess the market landscape

  • Identify growth opportunities

  • Evaluate competitive dynamics

  • Consider company strengths and weaknesses

In the context of Blue Ocean Strategy, the aim is to create uncontested market space that allows for innovation and value creation. This approach shifts the focus from competing in overcrowded industries to exploring new market spaces, which can lead to strategic planning for higher profit margins and making competition irrelevant.

How to Win: Crafting a Unique Value Proposition

In the quest to outperform competitors, a company must define how to win by crafting a unique value proposition that resonates with its target customers. This involves a deep understanding of customer needs and preferences, and the ability to deliver on these better than anyone else.

Value proposition is not just about the product or service itself, but also how it is marketed, sold, and supported. Companies must consider the following elements:

  • Distinctive features or benefits that set the product apart

  • The customer experience and service level provided

  • Pricing strategies that reflect the perceived value

It is essential to continuously refine the value proposition as market conditions and customer preferences evolve. This agility ensures that the company remains relevant and competitive in the long term.

Capabilities: Building Strengths to Compete

In the quest for competitive advantage, capabilities are the bedrock upon which successful strategies are built. These are the unique strengths and abilities that a company develops over time, which enable it to outperform rivals. To cultivate these capabilities, organizations must focus on a few core competencies that align with their strategy and enhance their position in the marketplace.

  • Identify core competencies

  • Invest in skill development

  • Foster innovation and continuous improvement

  • Align capabilities with strategic objectives

By honing in on what they do best, companies can create a formidable barrier to entry for competitors. This involves not only identifying and refining existing strengths but also being vigilant about acquiring new skills that can keep the organization ahead of the curve.

Management Systems: Aligning Structure with Strategy

Effective management systems are crucial for ensuring that an organization's structure is fully aligned with its strategy. These systems encompass the processes, tools, and metrics that managers use to guide and monitor the execution of the strategy. The alignment between structure and strategy is essential for the seamless operation and achievement of strategic goals.

Management systems should facilitate coordination across different parts of the organization, ensuring that all departments are moving in the same direction. This includes establishing clear communication channels, performance management frameworks, and decision-making processes that support the strategic objectives.

  • Clear communication channels

  • Performance management frameworks

  • Decision-making processes

The concept of adaptability, as highlighted in 'Business Adventures' by John Brooks, is also relevant to management systems. Organizations must be prepared to evolve their management practices to stay competitive and successful in the long term.

The Pitfalls of Strategy Execution

Avoiding Common Strategy Traps

In the pursuit of a winning strategy, organizations often fall into common traps that can derail their efforts. Avoiding these pitfalls is crucial for maintaining strategic focus and achieving long-term success. One such trap is the misalignment between strategy and execution, where the grand vision fails to translate into actionable steps.

  • Overestimating capabilities

  • Underestimating competition

  • Ignoring market changes

  • Neglecting customer feedback

  • Failing to iterate and adapt

Another frequent mistake is the lack of clear priorities, leading to a diffusion of efforts and resources. By clearly defining what is most important, companies can channel their energies into the most impactful areas. This focus is the bedrock of a robust strategic foundation.

The Reality of Execution Gaps

While a strategic plan may be well-crafted, the reality of execution gaps often becomes a stumbling block for many organizations. These gaps arise when there's a disconnect between the strategy and the day-to-day operations. To bridge this divide, it's essential to understand the common causes of execution failures.

Communication is often at the heart of execution gaps. Without clear directives and understanding of strategic goals, teams can become misaligned. This misalignment can lead to a series of issues:

  • Inadequate resource allocation

  • Misunderstood priorities

  • Lack of accountability

  • Insufficient feedback mechanisms

Addressing these gaps requires a vigilant approach to management and a commitment to continuous improvement. It's not just about having a strategy, but also about the ability to implement it effectively, adapting to challenges, and learning from each step of the journey.

Learning from Strategic Failures

Strategic failures often provide the richest sources of learning, offering insights that can lead to significant improvements in future strategy formulation and execution. Understanding why strategies fail is just as important as knowing why they succeed. It's essential to analyze failures without assigning blame, focusing instead on the lessons that can be extracted.

Strategic failures are not just setbacks, but opportunities to refine and strengthen strategic approaches. A common pitfall is the inability to adapt to changing market conditions or to recognize when a strategy is no longer viable. To benefit from these lessons, organizations should:

  • Conduct thorough post-mortems on failed strategies

  • Encourage open dialogue and innovative conflict resolution

  • Embrace a culture of persistence and continuous learning

Learning from failures requires a structured approach to ensure that the same mistakes are not repeated. This involves documenting the strategy, the execution process, and the points of failure, then disseminating these findings throughout the organization to foster collective learning.

Case Studies and Real-World Applications

Procter & Gamble's Turnaround Story

Procter & Gamble's (P&G) turnaround story is a testament to the power of strategic transformation. Under the leadership of A.G. Lafley, P&G refocused its efforts on core brands and markets, leading to a remarkable resurgence. The company's commitment to the 'Playing to Win' strategy was pivotal in this success.

Key initiatives included:

  • Streamlining the product portfolio

  • Investing in innovation

  • Expanding into emerging markets

  • Enhancing organizational efficiency

The results of these strategic choices were clear:

P&G's experience underscores the importance of adaptability and the willingness to make tough decisions in the face of market challenges.

Lessons from Other Industry Leaders

The insights from Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim resonate with the principles of 'Playing to Win'. Creating uncontested market space is a common thread, emphasizing the need for innovation and value creation over direct competition. Cirque du Soleil is often cited as a prime example of this strategy's success, having redefined the circus industry by combining theater with traditional circus arts.

Beyond the blue oceans, industry leaders teach us the importance of agility and customer focus. They demonstrate that:

  • Adapting quickly to market changes is crucial.

  • Understanding customer needs leads to better strategic choices.

  • Differentiation is key in crowded markets.

These lessons, when applied within the 'Playing to Win' framework, can guide companies to not just compete, but to truly lead in their industries.

Adapting the Framework to Different Sectors

The versatility of the 'Playing to Win' framework is evident in its adaptability across various sectors. Each industry presents unique challenges and opportunities, requiring a tailored approach to strategy. For instance, the technology sector demands rapid innovation and agility, while healthcare may prioritize regulatory compliance and patient outcomes.

Adaptation of the framework involves understanding the sector-specific landscape and aligning the five strategy choices accordingly. Here's how different sectors can approach the adaptation:

  • Technology: Focus on speed, innovation, and intellectual property.

  • Healthcare: Emphasize patient care, compliance, and long-term value.

  • Manufacturing: Prioritize operational efficiency, supply chain management, and quality control.

  • Retail: Concentrate on customer experience, brand positioning, and omnichannel presence.

Sustaining Competitive Advantage

Innovation as a Strategic Imperative

In the landscape of modern business, innovation stands as the cornerstone of sustained success. Companies that prioritize innovation are often the ones that stay ahead of the curve, adapting to changes and seizing new opportunities. The Business Model Canvas, introduced by Alexander Osterwalder, exemplifies the importance of innovation in business strategy. It serves as a tool for companies to visualize, design, and iterate on their business models, ensuring they remain competitive in a dynamic market.

To effectively leverage innovation, companies must embed it into their strategic framework. This involves a series of deliberate choices:

  • Embracing a culture of continuous learning and experimentation.

  • Investing in research and development to foster innovation.

  • Aligning organizational structure to support innovative initiatives.

By making innovation a strategic imperative, companies can not only adapt to the present but also shape the future of their industries.

Maintaining Agility in a Dynamic Market

In the face of ever-changing market conditions, maintaining agility is crucial for sustaining a competitive edge. Agility enables organizations to respond swiftly to new opportunities and threats, ensuring they remain relevant and competitive. To achieve this, companies must focus on several key areas:

  • Build relationships with customers and partners to understand and anticipate market needs.

  • Establish market leadership by offering a unique value proposition and driving innovation.

  • Cultivate mental toughness through goal-setting and resilience, enabling the organization to withstand and adapt to market pressures.

By prioritizing these aspects, businesses can create a dynamic and responsive strategy that aligns with the fluid nature of today's markets. The ability to adapt quickly is not just a strategic advantage; it's a necessity for survival in a landscape where change is the only constant.

The Importance of Continuous Strategic Review

In the ever-evolving landscape of business, the need for continuous strategic review cannot be overstated. Regular reassessment of strategy ensures that a company remains aligned with its winning aspirations and is responsive to market changes. This process involves not just a periodic check-in, but an ongoing cycle of evaluation and adjustment.

  • Monitor industry trends and competitive moves

  • Assess internal performance metrics

  • Revisit and refine strategic objectives

  • Engage in proactive risk management

Leaders should balance control and freedom for innovation. Continuous improvement, skill development, and challenging tasks drive motivation and success in work processes. By embedding these principles into the strategic review process, companies can ensure that they not only survive but thrive in the long term.


In conclusion, 'Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works' by Roger L. Martin offers a compelling and practical framework for understanding and applying strategic thinking in any organization. The book distills complex concepts into accessible insights, emphasizing the importance of making deliberate choices, understanding the competitive landscape, and aligning the organization to effectively execute the chosen strategy. Martin's approach underscores that strategy is not a one-time event but a dynamic process that requires continuous assessment and adaptation. By embracing the principles outlined in the book, leaders and managers can cultivate a strategic mindset that drives their organizations towards sustainable success and competitive advantage.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the 'Playing to Win' framework?

The 'Playing to Win' framework is a strategic approach to business that outlines five key choices organizations must make to achieve a winning strategy. It was developed by A.G. Lafley, former CEO of Procter & Gamble, in collaboration with Roger L. Martin.

Can you list the five key strategy choices in the 'Playing to Win' framework?

The five key strategy choices are: 1) Winning Aspirations, 2) Where to Play, 3) How to Win, 4) Capabilities, and 5) Management Systems.

How did A.G. Lafley contribute to P&G's success?

A.G. Lafley contributed to P&G's success by implementing the 'Playing to Win' strategy framework, focusing on consumer understanding, innovation, and core strengths, which led to a significant turnaround in the company's performance.

What are some common pitfalls in strategy execution?

Common pitfalls in strategy execution include a lack of clarity, failing to align the organization with the strategy, underestimating competition, and not adapting to market changes.

How can companies avoid strategic failures?

Companies can avoid strategic failures by rigorously testing their strategy choices, being adaptable to new information and market conditions, and ensuring that their strategy is coherent and well-communicated throughout the organization.

Why is continuous strategic review important for sustaining competitive advantage?

Continuous strategic review is important because it allows companies to remain agile, respond to market dynamics, innovate, and adjust their strategies as needed to maintain a competitive edge over time.

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