Playing to Win


I am starting a series of posts on A.G Lafley and Roger Martin’s Playing to Win. It’s a delightful book on strategy AND it’s not what you might typically think about when the words “business strategy” are mentioned.

For many of you, the words “business strategy” will produce one of two responses.

One: you will want to fall asleep, close this tab in your browser, block my facebook updates.

Two: you think about businessmen and women in a room figuring out how they can make more money, often at the expense of you, the customer.

So what is different about Lafley and Martin’s approach? The winning is strongly linked to delivering superior value to your customers…i.e. you win when your customer wins.

Peter Drucker said, “the purpose of a business is to create a customer.” Contrast this with what is taught in every Economics 101 class, “the purpose of a business is to maximize profit.”

What Lafley and Martin show us (in this book and Martin’s articles) is that the way to maximize profit (the Econ 101 definition) is to maximize customer satisfaction. The ideas are related, but those that put the profit maximization ahead of making the customers happy will not win in the long run.

I think Johnson and Johnson’s credo is a great example of this idea. I’ve include the entire credo below. (highlight is mine). LINK TO PDF

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Notice the order in the credo:

  1. Customers
  2. Suppliers and Distributors
  3. Employees
  4. Communities
  5. Shareholders

The shareholders are listed LAST! Does J&J care about their shareholders? Absolutely, but they ensure that the shareholders win by taking care of 1-4 on the list above. “When we operate according to these principles, the stockholders should realize a fair return.”

I’l end this with a few questions, what do you think would motivate your employee base (or yourself)? A: Solving an important problem for your customer, somehow making their lives better, etc. or B: Improving returns for shareholders?

For me (and for 99.999% of the world) it’s A. I get excited about discovering and meeting our customers needs. I want to help ensure that they are delighted.

What should we be teaching students in economics? The purpose of the firm is to maximize profits? or should it be that the purpose of the firm is to maximize customer value? Which one would attract the best and the brightest into business? Again, I believe we could dramatically change the experience of most business school students by focusing on improving the lives of customers.

For the next few blog posts, I’ll dive further into some of the ideas discussed in Playing to Win. Now that you see that strategy can have a higher purpose, please come along for the ride.

Roger was kind enough to spend a few minutes with me and sign my copy of his book.

Roger was kind enough to spend a few minutes with me and sign my copy of his book.


Creating a #FAIL folder

Last year I created a folder in evernote (I am a huge evernote fan) with the title of “winning.” The idea was that I would forward complimentary emails and notes or add an entry after a successful project, presentation, etc. I think it is important to look back and reflect upon past successes.

That said, I am a huge believer in accepting failure. I love the term “failing forward.”

Almost everyone I admire has had some substantial failures in their lives. They are willing to talk about the events, what they have learned, and how they have grown due to having failed in one way or another. In addition, there are thousands of millionaires in Silicon Valley that have embraced this idea. It has allowed for substantial risk taking and resulted in unprecedented innovation.

This very spirit is embodied in Intuit’s Scott Cook. I love the quote below…

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This article is awesome! Click here for the full version.

Cook gets that failure is a part of learning. It’s refreshing to hear successful people talk about failure. It tends to put me at ease. I know I am hearing from a REAL person, who has made REAL mistakes…just like the same mistakes I make.

With all this in mind, I decided to create a #FAIL folder in evernote. Just like I want to keep track of successes, I should also be noting where I have failed.

I got this idea from Tina Seelig. In one of her courses at Stanford, she would have all the student’s write a #FAIL resume. Think upon this exercise for a moment. Think about how much time you may have spent making your real resume stand out. How you emphazise the resposibility and achievements you may have had from each job. You might even have a professional review and/or write the resume.

Consider spending a similar amount of time on your #FAIL resume. Brainstorm how to make it clear just how badly you f’d up that project at work. Or how you bad you were as a boss…don’t hold back. But just as important, what was it you learned from the failure. This is why Scott Cook is ok with faulure…it enables him to get smarter, wiser, more experienced, etc faster than he would have been if he didn’t fail.

So fill up your fail resume and folder with all sorts of failures. It will help you make sure you are learning from your mistakes.

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A framework for tough decisions

As I mentioned in a previous post, I love Tina Seelig’s book, What I wish I knew when I was 20. One of my favorite stories from the book centers around a student that approached her with a tough decision. The student was running a business idea challenge and one of the groups didn’t show for the final presentation/competition – the group had failed to notice that the time and location had been changed. To make matters more complicated, the prize was meaningful and the teams had been working on the project for an entire semester. The student leader had to decide, “do I let the group make up the final presentation or not?”

So what did Tina tell the student? Rather than telling him directly what he should do, she gave him something much more valuable – a framework for making these tough decisions in the future. She told this student the following:

“Image you are in an interview two years from now. The interviewer asks you to describe a time where you faced a difficult decision and how you responded. Your response to this situation is the answer to this question.”

WOW…this totally changed the problem. The student now saw himself as a central character in a bigger narrative and he had the chance to impact the outcome of the story. He could now step back and say, “is this the story I want to tell?”

In the end, the student decided to let the team compete and credited Tina’s guidance with helping him make the best decision.

So how does this relate to you? Are you facing a tough work situation, where you don’t see a way out? Are you on a dysfunctional team, working through corporate bureaucracy, or in a difficult class. Rather than think about this as a setback, view this an opportunity. Two years from now you can describe how you succeeded despite the challenges. (Note: I am not saying that you should stay in every job, project, etc, leaving might be an equally compelling interview response about being perceptive about knowing when to move on.)

I have found Tina’s framework extremely helpful. If your switching costs are low and you have lots of options, the temptation to avoid a challenge is real (i.e. you could drop a physics class and take “Intro to running” instead). Try to view your decisions through the lens of the future to put perspective around difficult decisions.


Always improving


As I was reading to my daughters last night, I thought about two things I do while reading to them that relate to this idea of improving:

  1. When I read I try to work on voice inflection – not being monotone, using different voices – in general, I try to get into the story as much as possible
  2. I try to read long passages at a time without looking at the page. Read a sentence quickly to myself, look up, and then say the sentence out loud. I’m not sure when this will come in handy (apart from having to deliver a pre-written speech in front of a large audience) but it’s something I practice anyway

So after typing these out, I realize this may sound very strange, but my kids love #1 and they don’t even realize that I am playing a memory game (I had typed out “they don’t even realize that I am doing #2” but I decided that sounded ridiculous!). I read to my kids every night, so every night is an opportunity to use the time I have to also work on my ability to speak in public.

What is something you do every day that could also help you improve on a skill you need for your job? Do you have an opportunity to take on a leadership role at a non-profit that you are involved in? I had a co-worker who viewed volunteering to read scripture in church as a way to improve her confidence to speak in public. Is “always improving” a reason on it’s own to volunteer? Of course not. I read to my kids because I love spending the time with them…it’s one of the highlights of my day. That said, I’m always looking for ways to improve.

The Opposable Mind

I was recently reading Roger Martin’s article entitled “How Successful Leaders Think” and I was struck by this term “opposable mind”. It immediately made me think of this picture:

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Most of us operate on the right side of the picture (“converge”), where we try to make trade-offs and converge to the one “right answer.” But, as Roger Martin points out, truly great leaders intuitively can hold divergent ideas in their mind and develop a new and better solution (vision, direction, etc). Integrated thinkers (as he calls them) actually welcome divergent ideas because it is necessary to their thought process. Let me say it another way…they need divergent ideas as a part of the learning process.

Although reading this article was the first time I had heard the term used in this way, Martin reminds us that this is not new.

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A great example of integrated thinking happened last week in Omaha at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting. If you’re not familiar with the spectacle that has become Buffettfest, over 30,000 people fill an arena in Omaha to hear Buffett and Charlie Munger’s take on a wide variety of subjects. 99.99% of these 30k people LOVE Berkshire and Buffett. (See below for a visual)

Despite having so many fans around, Buffett invited one of his toughest critics to the show – Doug Kass, president Seabreeze Partners Management and Berkshire bear. I don’t buy that Buffett invited Kass because Buffett is so confident he could answer Kass’s questions – rather, I believe Kass was invited to help stretch Buffett. Buffett has said before that he could be wrong and welcomes intelligent debate.

Buffett’s actions point back to the heart of Roger Martin’s article:

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Buffett is working the tension of introducing other ideas. He realizes that he doesn’t have the one answer and that a key ingredient in his development is divergent thinking. And speaking of Darwin, here is a quote from Buffett during the annual meeting in Omaha:

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So how often do you work your opposable mind? Are you in an echo chamber where everyone looks like you, thinks like you and acts like you? Do you like to listen to news shows were your beliefs are supported? Work out your opposable mind by having thoughtful conversations with people who are different from you. Seek to understand and welcome the divergence – I believe it will help your thought be more sophisticated and the path you end up taking will be more informed and potentially surprising. I love Roger Martin’s description of the difference between “either, or” and “both”. It makes me think of my previous post on “yes, AND

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Everybody can do ‘or’ – strive to do both through integrated thinking.

Edited to add this amazing endorsement.

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Brain Storm


Marriott knows me so well! I am in Toronto preparing for two design thinking sessions at an insurance conference. It will be fun to teach others in the industry a new way to approach problems.

I spent most of the day at the Rotman Business school talking with other design thinkers. I even got to meet Roger Martin and having him sign my copy of Playing to Win. I have more to post about Design Thinking and strategy once back in the states.

Now, I’m off to go drink a Molson, but not before going to the Canadian Tire to get change for my looney, eh.

First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy

I heard of this video from the brilliant Anna Love-Mickelson. It struck a chord with me, because reminds me a lot of what I am trying to do with design thinking at Protective Life. Sometimes, I feel like this shirtless guy dancing. (I kept my shirt on when we did the Harlem Shake). But much of the time, I feel like there is a movement afoot and there are lots of “first followers” that have surrounded me.

I love these lines in the video:

If you are a version of the shirtless dancing guy, all alone, remember the importance of nurturing your first few followers as equals, making everything clearly about the movement, not you.

Be public. Be easy to follow!

But the biggest lesson here – did you catch it?

Leadership is over-glorified.

Yes it started with the shirtless guy, and he’ll get all the credit, but you saw what really happened:

It was the first follower that transformed a lone nut into a leader.

There is no movement without the first follower.