How to Create Your Company's Winning Aspiration

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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What is a company’s winning aspiration? Why must a company play to win?

A winning aspiration is a statement of what success in the marketplace will look like to a company. Companies must always play to win because it is very difficult to win if you are only trying to compete. Companies that simply try to compete are at risk of being driven out by more aggressive competitors.

Read more about the meaning and importance of having a winning aspiration for your company.

Creating a Winning Aspiration

Question 1: What is your company’s purpose, or “winning aspiration”?

To answer the first question in the cascade, figure out your definition of success and what you want your company to achieve. What is the ideal future for your enterprise? The answer, your “winning aspiration,” can include a statement of purpose, but it’s not only a statement of purpose. It’s also a statement of what success—or “winning”—would look like at your company. Once a company understands its winning condition, it can take actions to achieve it. 

To develop your organization’s winning conditions, make your goals about serving and pleasing your customers, not about making a certain amount of money and satisfying your stakeholders. Without customers, you have no chance at success. Look at famous mission statements like Nike’s (“to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world”)—they all talk about pleasing customers, not stakeholders. In fact, they talk about victory for their customers—becoming the best or the leader in delivering a service. 

What Winning Looks Like

To figure out your winning aspiration, you have to figure out what your business is on a deeper-than-surface level.

Generally, companies will tell you their business is their product or service. For instance, a telecoms company may say they are in the business of producing and selling phones. In reality, though, all successful companies are actually in the business of meeting customer needs: Their product is just the vehicle. For example, the telecoms company is actually in the business of fulfilling its customers’ need to be connected to others. They fulfill this need by selling phones. 

Similarly, center your winning aspirations around meeting customer needs rather than around a product. To figure out how to best serve your customers, research what the customer needs. Then, tailor your company to meet that need better than anyone else.

Defeating Competitors

In any market, you’re naturally going to have competitors, many of whom will also be playing to win. One way to hone your own strategy is to find the competitor that presents the greatest challenge to you—the company that you think is the best. Then ask: What are they doing that I’m not? How are they serving people better than I am? What could I do that would overtake them? 

For example, in 1999-2000, P&G went through a reorganization in the middle of a modest recession. They felt pressure from their competitors, so they reorganized their strategy in order to defeat them. They decided that they needed to diversify their holdings with a “best-of-breed” approach—working with companies like Hewlett-Packard to help their IT. This approach not only forged a relationship in which P&G could rely on Hewlett-Packard’s good services, but it also helped both companies achieve victory: P&G became Hewlett-Packard’s most important customer. The partnership was deep and enduring. 

P&G didn’t look for a “good solution,” they looked for a solution that would lead to winning and defeating competitors. This led them to find a diverse group of companies to partner with that they believed to be the best in their own fields. P&G grabbed a competitive advantage wherever they could—something that all companies should strive to do. 

The Importance of Playing to Win

You need to have a winning aspiration precisely because it is hard to win. Companies that want to win don’t win all the time. So if you’re just trying to participate, you have no chance of winning. In fact, you have a significant chance of losing. 

For example, GM launched the car model Saturn in 1990 in an attempt to compete for younger car buyers, who were buying Toyotas, Hondas, or Nissans. They created a whole new division to work on Saturn, put together a significant capital outlay, and tried to take a market share. However, they didn’t want to dominate the market, they just wanted to compete. The Saturn division needed more resources than it was given, and it started taking losses. GM was too modest. 

Remember that setting winning conditions is not the same as achieving them. Without more strategy (covered in the rest of the book), you’ll have aspirations, but no way to reach them.

How to Create Your Company’s Winning Aspiration

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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

Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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