Playing to Win: Roger Martin on Strategy for Corporate Counsel, a CCCA Keynote

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These are notes from a keynote address by Roger Martin, Dean, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto on April 15, 2013 at the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association National Spring Conference 2013 in Toronto. Note: these are my selected notes from this session; any inaccuracies or omissions are my own and not the speakers’.

Playing to Win
Roger Martin
Dean, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto and author of 8 books

Martin has previously done strategy work for law firms. It is important for law, IT and HR departments to understand strategy and add to it in any company they are supporting. This talk is based on book Martin co-authored with A.G. Lafley: Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works (Harvard Business Review, 2013).

Strategy is simply the choice to do some things and not other things. It is not a plan. However, most strategic planning does produce long documents. There is no reason why a strategy can’t be 5 pages or less. It should discuss the choices made: do some things and not others .

A strategy should answer these 5 questions. The answers have to fit together and support each other.

1. What is our winning aspiration?

Need to aspire to win against the competition, not your own organization, to be a winning strategy. E.g. set a goal to sell more cars than the competition, as opposed to setting a goal to sell more of the new model of your own car over the old model.

2. Where will we play?

Many often see this as fore-ordained; however, where to play is always a choice.

e.g. Quicken by Intuit were getting calls asking about accounts payable/accounts receivable features; however, this software product was meant to be for personal finances. They company started to listen, and discovered these were small business owners/sole proprietors trying to use Quicken for business purposes. Inuit listened and created QuickBooks, now six times the market size as Quicken.

3. How will we win?

What will leave you in a unique position for adding or creating value?

E.g. Starbucks created the coffee shop as a “third place” (after home and the office), and created coffee as a ritual

4. What capabilities must we have?

If you don’t specify the capabilities for winning, you won’t have a strategy worth winning.

e.g. Burberry started to target a younger demographic across the world than any other luxury product manufacturer. They had to develop new on-line capabilities to do so. As a result, they now win the award every year for their online presence: see their annual reports and online with videos. These had to be developed online from scratch. They partnered with fashion designer Christopher Bailey to put together an innovation council of young designers from across the world.

5. What management systems are required?

e.g. Four Seasons hotel aimed to be top hotel in every market in which they operate, with unparalleled, friendly service. They created a system that no one else has, a glitch reporting and recovery system. Any time something is not perfect, it gets reported as a glitch. Every morning the entire hotel staff reviews the “glitch report” and the service recovery program for every glitch. The glitch stays open until customer is made happy. All of these get reported back up to head office. They encourage glitches to be reported; a glitch-free hotel is seen as negative.

Does this apply to not-for-profit organizations? (Question from the audience)

Martin: This applies equally to public sector organizations.

Example: Tennis Canada – tired of Canada “playing to play”; wanted to play to win. Would stop funding players who were only reasonably good, would only fund those who would train wanting to win. Hired someone to run tournaments to raise enough money to help pay for new building of capabilities. Last year for the first time Canada had singles titles in junior grand slam tournament – had 3 of the 8 winners and other winners. Based on “play to win” strategy created 9 years ago.

Concluding thoughts

There are no decisions made that are not consistent with the strategy. Otherwise you get every stakeholder asking you to do a lot of things; need to make decisions based on the strategy.

Counsel sits close to the centre of action in their organizations; every role is more important if they know what choices have been made and support that strategy. Can also help to drive that strategy.

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