Playing to Win with Roger Martin

I just finished listening to Roger Martin’s ‘Playing to Win’ seminars in Auckland and Sydney.  In both of them, I joined Roger on stage after lunch for 45 minutes of unscripted conversation between us about our perspectives on the new approach to strategy that we both share.

Two things grabbed my attention in Roger’s seminar – the beginning and the end. He began by emphasising that strategy is about choices, and the choices are about ‘playing to win’ NOT ‘playing to play’.  Both of us believe that strategy in practice has atrophied into a bureaucratic ‘planning exercise’ that consumes huge time, is too analytic and does not create value. But Roger is driven by a simple desire to win, to excel and not to be mediocre.  This passion reminded me of something Roger told me years ago when we first met – that he learned strategy from his father not from Harvard or his MBA.  His dad was a small town entrepreneur who built one of Canada’s largest producers of chicken feed from very humble beginnings.  Watching his dad do that made a lifelong impression on him – and he captures that in his seminar.  It is an invitation to think more like a small business entrepreneur than a cog in a machine.

This led to the second point that really resonated with me.  You have got to ditch the ‘strategy and implement’ mindset.  He very smartly traced this back to the mind/body split that began to infect the western mind from Descartes onward (he did not mention Descartes in the talk, but I know that this was what he is thinking of).  That ties in closely with 2nd Road’s ‘strategic engagement’ work.  At face level we can feel patronizing in democratising strategy – as if we are primarily doing it to ‘engage’ our people and make them feel good. But this is secondary. In fact, as Roger pointed out, we are working off a new and different model of the ‘organisation’.  The industrial model of the organisation cursed us with the machine mindset and the brainless implementer model.  But today’s successful organisation needs to be more like a living system, and living systems work at various modular levels that interact with each other.  So that means that we need to reconceive the parts of the organisation as viable modules that each have their own ‘strategy’ about how they add value.  An exciting and liberating concept!

So what did Roger and I talk about?  We agreed that we have both arrived at a remarkably similar place – but from very different beginnings. The common place we have ended up is that strategy cannot run on analytics for the simple reason that analytics cannot invent the future. Roger began with economics and I began with literature and philosophy.  This gives us both a stronger confidence in what we have arrived at – it is like having two legs rather than one. So that is what we talked about. Roger interviewed me. He began by asking me about the two roads story – which he found quite liberating when I first told him about it. Before he met me, Roger would trace the origins of intuitive thinking back to CS Peirce, the great pragmatic American philosopher of 100 years ago.  But I take it further back to Aristotle – who invented both analytics and the art of ‘rhetoric’. Rhetoric is the toolkit whereby Humans invent new futures through the socio-intellectual art of argumentation.  And that is the heart and origins of strategy not analytics. Somewhere along the way, the recent art of strategy got its parenthood mixed up!!

I also gave some different examples of strategic innovation at work.  I deliberately went wild and mild. ‘Wild’ is the world of extreme innovation where organisations face deep threat and need to invent new revenue teams. I talked through some of our successes there. ‘Mild’ is the more low profile arena where internal functions like Finance and Operations need to create new value propositions in order to win their place in the sun.

It was a lot of fun and I thought Roger’s closing session on the future of democratic capitalism was a fitting conclusion.  He made a large socio-political case for why creativity matters.  We are creating a large, unrepresented underclass of people in dull jobs with low pay; this is very dangerous as they will be disaffected.  The answer is that we need spread ‘strategic thinking’ right to the front line of ordinary jobs – not just for the firm’s advantage but also for the employee’s advantage. Nice place to end. Strategic thinking dignifies human beings.