What is Playing to Win?

Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works is a business strategy framework first introduced by Harvard Business School Professor Roger Martin and A.G. Lafley, former Chairman and CEO of Procter & Gamble (P&G), in a 2013 HBR article. The article offers an approach to managing the tension that exists between deliberate strategy and emergent strategy (Ariely, 2017).

Since then, P&G has used this framework successfully, growing from $70B to over $90B in revenues while also dramatically improving its organic growth from 2% to 4% during Lafley’s tenure as CEO (from 2000-2015).

Five Elements of a Playing to Win Strategy

The Playing to Win strategy framework includes five elements that, taken together, represent the cornerstone of a winning business strategy.

The Elements Are Not Steps. Many managers think of strategy in terms of steps—how do I define my business? How do I decide where to play? How do I determine what capabilities I need? When we think about it this way, each element is simply a component part of the whole. But that’s not how Playing to Win works at all. For example, deciding on your Winning Aspiration is not simply one step in crafting your overall strategy; instead, it’s an essential component by which you will evaluate every other strategic choice you have made.

Similarly, the five elements are not merely a checklist or template of things to include in your total strategic plan—such as “these are the necessary ingredients that go into my recipe for playing to win.” Nor should you think about them as a process you follow or a set of questions you answer: “These are the questions that come up in crafting my Playing to Win strategy; here are some answers I have come up with as part of that process.”

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Choosing Your Winning Aspiration

The first step in creating a winning aspiration is making sure you have the right people and roles involved. A common mistake is to leave out key stakeholders, who can bring new ideas to the table that you may not have considered or thought about before. When choosing your winning aspiration, make sure that everyone involved feels ownership and accountability for achieving it.

The second step is to make sure your winning aspiration considers all aspects of your business strategy: customers, operations, competitors and finance. Many companies focus on one or two areas of their strategy and ignore the others, which often results in an unbalanced approach that doesn’t deliver results. In order to be successful in developing your winning aspiration, make sure it’s well-rounded and covers all areas of your business strategy.

The third step is setting a timeline for when you want your company to achieve its winning aspiration. Setting a timeline will help you achieve it faster than if there were no timeline at all because it creates a sense of urgency and makes people more accountable for their actions. If people know they only have two years left until they retire from the company then they are more likely to work harder now than later down the road when they might get lazy or tired because there isn’t any incentive other than getting paid less money now than later on if things don’t go as planned with their job title change rolling around next month!

Defining Where to Play

There are three questions to ask when defining where to play:

  • Which markets should you play in, and how should you play in each of those markets? You need to determine which markets your products or services can deliver value to. Then decide how you will compete. For example, will you be a low-cost provider, a premium player, or a technology leader?
  • How should you position your products and services in the market? You must also define the positioning of your offering in relation to current and potential competitors. This means identifying what makes it unique versus competing offerings. Is it better performance, value for money, or something else? And if so, how does that translate into an attractive offer for customers?
  • Are there specific customers who can gain more value from the offer than others? Finally, figure out which segment(s) of customers are best served by your offer compared with other offers. Your offer may have greater appeal for some segments than others—for example,, better suited for more experienced users rather than for beginners.

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Identifying How to Win

Once you have defined the What, Who, Where, and How Many choices for your strategy, you can move to define How to Win. This is a critical choice in your Playing to Win Strategy framework because it determines what kind of business you are going to be.

The How to Win question addresses the second part of our definition of strategy: “Why will we win?” How to Win defines the basis on which you will create superior customer value and superior profits relative to competitors. It focuses your investment choices on What and Where shaping the Who and How Much dimensions as well.

How to Win is defined by the choices you make in the five elements of a Playing to Win Strategy:

  • Your winning aspiration (the reason why customers choose your brand)
  • Your strategic thrust (what makes your chosen customer value expectation distinctive)
  • Your offensive approach (how are you going to get from here—where things are today—to realizing that aspiration?)
  • Your defensive moves (how will you counter competitor moves on those elements where they expect something different from yours)
  • And Metrics that matter most (measures that support these moves).

Each element plays a vital role in determining how your company will win in its chosen market space. It’s important that these five elements hang together logically; otherwise, there is no common story or logic behind them and thus no real strategy!

Which choice do I make? Like all other strategic choices, this one needs rigour—and discipline! In our experience working with dozens of companies across multiple industries over many years, we have found that 3-5 choices typically define an appropriate framework for How to Win. Any more than 5 suggests too much complexity; any fewer than 3 would be insufficiently thought through.

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Writing Your Strategic Approach

A good strategy is a written-down integrated set of choices. It’s your company’s unique approach to winning.

It answers the questions: “What is our winning ambition?” and “How will we get there?”

For many people, this is their first exposure to the concept of a business strategy. In fact, it’s more common for people to confuse the term “strategy” with the tactics that are used to execute it (in other words, the marketing plan and action items). A good strategy guides your actions but doesn’t instruct them: it’s about setting direction, not prescribing solutions.


Good business strategy means winning big. To win big, you need a solid business plan and to execute that plan flawlessly. Once you have this business foundation in place, though, you have to play to win. This means playing your A-game when it matters most. It also means being willing to change things up when the situation calls for it. Good strategy and smart tactics can help you claim victory every time.

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