What Jack Taylor can teach us about strategy

Half-way between the cities of Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, IA sits the Darby gymnasium. In its cozy rafters hang banners that tell of the records set by Grinnell’s men’s basketball team. The banners point to an unusual style of play: Grinnell has more “point champions” than national championships.

Grinnell’s strategy is simply to take as many shots as possible, defend the entire length of the court for the whole game (full-court press) and wear the other team down. In a game on November 18, 2013, Grinnell’s Jack Taylor scored 109 points and took 70 shots. The team won by the score of 173-123.

For anyone who has played basketball, you know just how difficult it would be to take this many shots and how unorthodox Grinnell’s style of play is. In an interview with Jack Taylor, he was asked, “it’s clearly successful. Why don’t other schools run this system?” Taylor responds as follows:

I think it’s difficult to implement. It’s hard to get a lot of players to buy in to such a unique system. Because it is such a crazy way to play the game. Our team it just so unselfish and we have all committed to it and I think that is what makes it successful.

There are a many lessons that could be drawn from Taylor’s words and Grinnell’s strategy, but I will pull out a couple.

First, sometime winning requires that you play the game in a way that the rest of the world sees as undignified. I can just see players, coaches and fans of opposing teams saying “this isn’t basketball!” as Grinnell is handily defeating them.

In your life or in your work, what does unorthodox play look like? Are operating the same as the rest of the world? Or have you picked a strategy that relies on key strengths that you have. Are you willing to do things that others are not?

Second, the more shots you take the more you will miss. Jack Taylor missed 35 shots on his way to scoring 109 points. Most players would be humiliated with 35 misses, but Taylor knows that part of his strategy will entail missing shots.

Are you willing to take a lot of shots? Can you live with failure if it means learning and having more wins? Are you accepting of the failures in others? Taylor’s team continues to pass him the ball, even after he misses five, six, or seven shots in a row. IT DOES NOT MATTER, they keep passing him the ball because they understand and buy into the strategy. Do you operate like this?

There is much to be learned from Grinnell and Jack Taylor. In fact, Malcom Gladwell has written an entire book about these kinds of stories. I just finished reading David and Goliath a few weeks ago and would I’d highly recommend it.

Push yourself to do something unorthodox and learn to embrace failures.


Strategy is hard work

I recently read a wonderful blog post by Roger Martin regarding JC Penny’s dramatic strategy #FAIL over the past two years. (note: I do read other authors, I just haven’t gotten around to blogging about them!)

The blog post is “Memo to JC Penney: Execution Is Not Strategy“. I won’t repeat the entire post, but here are some key takeaways:

  • Strategy is a coherent set of choices about where-to-play (WTP) and how-to-win (HTW) and, if that WTP&HTW is significantly different than the current one, a credible path for getting from the present to the targeted state.
  • JCP had a plan for betterment and not winning — one of the most common mistakes in “strategy.”
  • JCP did not identify a set of shoppers with whom it could win — for whom JCP was their best alternative, to which they would look loyally for their shopping needs for some set of goods
  • JCP needs to decide how is it going to provide a superior value proposition to competitive alternatives in that chosen space. This is a tough task.

The last bullet point made me think of the blog post title. Developing a winning strategy is always difficult. Having the patience to think through multiple paths and determine “what must be true” of each path takes patience AND practice. You have to recognize that your first idea is probably not your best idea. You have to be motivated by your winning aspiration and be ready to change where you play and how you win.

If that all sound easy please get in touch with me! That said, I’m convinced that this work is worth it. Companies that have winning strategies deliver more value to their customers, employees and shareholders. Their hard work is rewarded in the end.

Do you or your company have a strategy? Or like JCP are you focused on betterment and not winning?

Change the posture of your dialog

Ok, I will admit it; I do not have the best posture. I often find myself hunched over my laptop or slouching in a meeting, but posture is important. Slight changes in posture can have important long run impacts on overall health (e.g. less back pain). This is also true in sports – I grew up playing competitive golf and I remember every instructor stressing the need for good posture at address of the ball. Standing too upright or leaning over too much invited a whole host of issues. Standing in the proper athletic position (think Tiger Woods) increases the likelihood of executing the shot as desired.

So how does this relate to strategy? I asked myself the same question when I came across this section in Playing to Win. According to Lafley and Martin, changing the posture of dialog at P&G was crucial to helping P&G develop and execute successful strategy. Here’s why (from PTW):

No individual, and certainly not the CEO, would try to craft and deliver a strategy alone. Creating a truly robust strategy takes the capabilities, knowledge, and experience of a diverse team – a close-knit group of talented and driven individuals, each aware of how his or her own effort contributes to the success of the group and all dedicated to winning as a collective.

So what did Lafley and Martin do to help foster the collaboration necessary to win? They changed the dialog from advocacy (arguing for your position) to assertive inquiry. (aside: can the internet please create an “assertive inquiry” entry on wikipedia – it doesn’t exist yet!)

Here is the framework that Lafley and Martin installed (aside: I would love to know how)

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Like my hero, Nate Silver, I like to deal in probabilities. I get extremely frustrated when someone on the opposite side of an issue as me, will not admit that there is some non-zero probability that he or she is wrong. That posture feels arrogant and prideful – the opposite of the collaboration that is needed to win.

I love the humility embodied in the questions above. By asking questions, you signal to the other person that you care about their view and you want to hear more. You admit that you could be wrong and you want the group to get to the best answer rather than be right.

As I mentioned above, I am fascinated to know exactly how Lafley and Martin affected this change in dialog at P&G. I have a general idea:

Step 1: CEO begins using assertive inquiry

Step 2: CEO’s direct reports see that assertive inquiry is important and follow suit

Step 3: Assertive inquiry works its way through the organization

So what do you do if your CEO, boss, partner, etc likes to advocate and states their opinions as facts? Try assertive inquiry to get some insights into others thought process. In other words, start with yourself and change the posture of your conversation.


What is strategy?

As I have started to read more and more about strategy, I notice the word itself is often used (and misused). I admit that I’ve been guilty of misusing the word “strategy.” A google search for the word “strategy” turned up 529 million hits.

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Looking at the news turns up head-lines like “Will a new global strategy lift under armor stock?”. Or “Obama repeats strategy in student loan fight.” As you’ll see neither of these headlines accurately use the word “strategy”

Given my need for clarity around what strategy is (and is not), I wanted to devote a post to the subject. As I mentioned previously, I loved Lafley and Martin’s Playing to Win  – it has inspired several posts that I want to share.

What is strategy?

Michael Porter, the father of business strategy, wrote a seminal paper entitled “What is strategy” in 1996. This paper has become the most cited HBR article, ever.

In “What is strategy?” Porter defines strategy as “the creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities.” There is a lot going on in this definition and Lafley and Martin provide a valuable framework for unpacking Porter.

Lafley and Martin’s take

Building off of Porter’s work, Lafley and Martin, define strategy as

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Strategy is a “set of choices about winning” and as I mentioned in my previous post, “winning” can be a noble aspiration.

Having only read Lafley and Martin’s book a month ago, I have found the question set to be extremely valuable. They represent an easy way to teach yourself and others strategy. One of my favorite antidotes from the book relates to the idea of teaching strategy. This is from A.G. Lafley

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“I was going to teach strategy until P&G was excellent at it.”

Turning the framework on yourself

You’ve read this far and you think, “I don’t run a business” or “I’m in college” or “I’m not a manager.” How can you apply what is in Playing to Win? By applying the framework on yourself – your career, your marriage, your family, etc. Take your career as an example. I’ll use a hypothetical example:  Jen just started at E&Y and she wants to one day become a partner.

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Now Jen has a strategy. She will evaluate choices she has in light of this strategy. Her strategy will help clarify what choices she will make.

What must be true? (WMBT)  – this is a refrain that Roger Martin uses often and is a great way to brainstorm the requirements to successfully execute. I used WMBT to help work out Jen’s strategy.

For example, what must be true for Jen to learn how to sell and bring in business for E&Y? She must learn from the company’s best salespeople. Notice that this is just one answer….there are other answers to the question. The answer could have been, “Jen needs to read the top ten books written on how to sell.” That said, Jen must make a choice, she can’t do an unlimited number of activities in order to become a good salesperson (in this case she could read books AND learn from others at E&Y).  Strategy is a set of choices about winning.

The better the choices, the better the strategy and the more likely that executing on the strategy will lead to the winning aspiration – for Jen, making partner. Also, not making a choice, is a choice.

What is your winning aspiration? And what are the series of choices you are going to make to help ensure that you win?

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.