Playing to Win: Book Review and Critical Reception

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Playing To Win" by AG Lafley. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is Lafley and Martin’s Playing to Win worth reading? Are the tips in the book still relevant today?

In their book Playing to Win, former CEO A.G. Lafley and consultant Roger Martin explain the steps for developing a successful business strategy. When the two worked together at Procter & Gamble, they used this approach to double the company’s sales and market capitalization. 

Here’s our Playing to Win book review, including background and critical reception by the readers.

Book Overview

The book Playing to Win is a collaboration between A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin, who worked together at Procter & Gamble (P&G) as CEO and strategic adviser, respectively. The book teaches what business strategy is and how to use it effectively. Lafley and Martin suggest using a “waterfall” sequence of five questions that identify the company’s vision, target markets, and plan to dominate those markets. The answer to each question informs the next, hence the term waterfall strategy.

About the Authors

Lafley is best known for leading P&G as president, CEO, and chairman of the board from 2000 to 2010 and from 2013 to 2015. During those periods, he doubled P&G’s total sales and market capitalization—his success is credited to his heavy investments into brands that were already successful and his intense focus on customer satisfaction. Lafley stepped down as CEO in 2015 to become executive chairman of P&G, and he officially retired in 2016. When he stepped down for the second time, Fortune hailed him as “one of the most lauded CEOs in history.” 

Martin is an author, strategic adviser, and former dean of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto. In addition to advising CEOs of several major corporations, including P&G, Martin is known for his contributions to the theories of democratic capitalism and Integrative Thinking. Thinkers50 named Martin the world’s #1 management thinker in 2017 and regularly places him in the top 10.

Connect with AG Lafley:

Connect with Roger Martin:

The Book’s Publication

Playing to Win was published in 2013 by the Harvard Business Review Press. It was Lafley’s second book, following The Game-Changer, and, to date, it’s the last book he’s authored. 

Martin (a professional author) has many more books to his name, but Playing to Win remains one of his most popular and successful. 

Historical Context

A large part of Playing to Win’s appeal is that it provides a clear and easy-to-follow guide to creating a winning strategy. This was especially relevant in 2013 because the 2010s were—as the authors say in the book’s conclusion—a time of extreme globalization, thanks in large part to technological advancements and the internet. Since publication, the global marketplace has become even more complex, and it shifts quickly and constantly. That’s why it’s more important than ever for a business to have a clear and effective strategy guiding it through rapid market changes. 

Intellectual Context

Playing to Win is most notable for pushing back against business guides that discuss how to compete in the marketplace. Instead, Lafley and Martin insist that the purpose of business strategy is to dominate the marketplace—in other words, to win. That, plus the authors’ focus on clear and actionable advice, helps this book stand out among the plethora of popular business guides from the 2010s, such as Blue Ocean Strategy and Tools of Titans.

Simon Sinek’s 2018 book The Infinite Game would later dispute some of Lafley and Martin’s ideas, particularly the concept that you can “win” at business. We’ve included some commentary to explore Sinek’s perspective. 

Critical Reception

Playing to Win is a Wall Street Journal and Washington Post bestseller, and it has received largely positive reviews from critics. The Financial Times calls Playing to Win a manual for business strategy. Fortune lauds the book for its insightfulness and accessibility. Overall, fans of the book believe that it’s one of the most practical and easy-to-understand business strategy guides on the market.

Criticisms of Playing to Win are generally mild, such as Fortune noting that the book’s case studies all come from large corporations like P&G or Apple, and therefore might not be applicable to smaller companies and startups. The Financial Times says that it makes for dry reading, but that the lessons it contains are worth learning nonetheless. 

More serious critiques—mostly from individual reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads—take aim at how heavily Playing to Win focuses on Lafley’s time at P&G. They argue that the lessons are outdated, and that the examples and case studies are self-promotional fluff. However, the authors say in their introduction that they’ve seen their methods used to great effect in companies of all sizes across many different industries.

Commentary on the Book’s Approach

Playing to Win starts by presenting the five questions of Lafley and Martin’s waterfall strategy. The subsequent chapters explain each question in detail, including how to come up with effective answers and implement those ideas in your own business. It’s a logical structure that takes you step-by-step through the authors’ process of developing strategies. 

Playing to Win relies heavily on examples and anecdotes from Lafley and Martin’s time at Procter & Gamble, which illustrate (but lengthen) their lessons. 

Playing to Win: Book Review and Critical Reception

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of AG Lafley's "Playing To Win" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Playing To Win summary:

  • Why the cascade strategy will help you become victorious in your chosen field of play
  • Why you should make every choice with the purpose of not just competing, but winning
  • How to develop a system of decision-making for your company

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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