Saturday, January 19, 2013

The strategy book Lafley and Martin didn't write

The book could have benefited from more about Mr Lafley’s handful of strategies that did not deliver, for brands such as Folgers coffee, Pringles snacks, and pharmaceuticals. Rather than explore and learn from them, Mr Lafley prefers to bury these failures in an appendix. The Economist

I have been reading "Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works," by former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley and Rotman School of Management dean Roger Martin. It's a very good book on how to do big-company strategy. And I'm a fan of both authors - Martin once made my year-end "best of" book list.

But there was something missing, something that made the book less engaging and insightful than I wanted it to be. And I couldn't put my finger on that missing piece until I read the review in the Economist quoted above.

As stated by the Economist, Lafley and Martin spend 200 pages on P&G's right moves, and one page, in the appendix, on the failures. Moreover, the failures and their root causes are explained in the most generic ways. Pringles was divested because P&G "wasn't able to realize the full potential" of the business. The company was "unable to close a joint venture with Coca-Cola in the juice beverages and snacks business."

This raises the question of why the authors chose to take this approach. I'd venture that one factor is Lafley's and Martin's sheer politeness. Really scrutinizing the failures would mean opening up the strategies, and the people involved in their creation and execution, to critique. I'm sure it would have been mighty uncomfortable for Lafley, recently retired from P&G, to call out colleagues and to tempt the wrath of P&G's public relations department by criticizing the company that did so much for him (and vice versa).

As well, a deep investigation of the failures would dim some of the strategic brilliance ascribed to Lafley and Martin (who as the Economist points out was Lafley's principal external consultant on strategy). At any rate, they decided to write a sunnier, safer book, with the scary stuff limited to a page in the appendix.

This is a pity. If only Lafley and Martin had deployed their incisive minds on deconstructing and assessing P&G's failures as assiduously as they explain its successes, "Playing to Win" might have been a truly great book, instead of just a useful addition to the strategy bookshelf.

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