The “Playing to Win” Framework, Part II — The Strategy Process Map

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How a leading strategy expert combined Design Thinking and scientific inquiry to allow anyone to create winning strategies

In our first article in this series, we met Roger L. Martin, and reviewed a few of his many strategy successes over his long career.

We also learned about the two tools Roger and Jennier Riel use in their IDEO U course “Designing Strategy”: The Strategy Process Map and the Strategy Choice Cascade.

In this piece, we’ll lay out the exact steps Roger uses to formulate winning strategies.

But strategy typically isn’t approached this way.

The Dreaded Yearly Planning Cycle

How do most businesses approach strategy creation?

To understand just exactly how much of a departure the “Playing to Win” Strategy Process Map represents for most of the business world, it’s helpful to understand how strategy is typically formulated during most organizations’ yearly strategy planning cycle.

Across Roger Martin’s extensive career, he’s seen a conventional, Analysis-driven approach to strategy dominate:

“Strategies are supposed to be driven by numbers and extensive analysis and uncontaminated by bias, judgment, or opinion. The larger the spreadsheets, the more confident an organization is in its process. All those numbers, all those analyses, feel scientific, and in the modern world, “scientific” equals “good.”

Martin, Roger L.. A New Way to Think (p. 65). Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition.

But Roger feels these rearward-facing, purely Analytical approaches to “strategic planning” are simply ill-equipped to prepare organizations to thrive in the face of a rapidly-changing world and better-equipped competition, which at best, could spell a rapid slide into irrelevance.

Is “out of the box” ideation enough?

But the measures companies use to counteract their usual overly Analytical- and Planning focused approaches tend to be equally unhelpful:

One common reaction is to become explicitly antiscientific — to throw off the shackles of organized number crunching and resort to off-site “ideation events” or online “jam sessions” intended to promote “out of the box” thinking. These processes may result in radical new ideas, but more likely than not, those ideas cannot be translated into strategic choices that guide productive action. As one manager put it, “There’s a reason we keep those ideas outside the box.”

Martin, Roger L.. A New Way to Think (p. 66). Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition.

The Design Thinking Approach to Strategy

But strategy creation doesn’t have to be restricted to purely Analytical- and Planning focused, nor wide-open, creative “jam sessions” — there’s a better answer, a superior, third way:

“To put it in scientific terms, developing a winning strategy involves the creation and testing of novel cause-effect hypotheses and the identification of what must be different about the world for those hypotheses to work.

And a structured development of novel hypotheses is as much a scientific process as the structured analysis of data.

Martin, Roger L.. A New Way to Think (p. 66). Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition.

Ultimately, creating, then testing a hypothesis — rather than collecting and analyzing terabytes of data — forms the foundation of Roger’s approach to strategy.

Design Thinking

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.

— Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO

Design Thinking has for decades been used to unleash innovative approaches to problem-solving.

Roger’s unique genius led him to apply Design Thinking to strategy formulation.

His deep familiarity with and experience using Design Thinking has resulted in both countless articles, as well as a book about applying Design Thinking to business,

The Double Diamond

I think you can use the Double Diamond to tell all sorts of design stories in really helpful ways. Part of its beauty is its simplicity.

Jonathan Ball, Design Council

At its core, the Design Thinking Double Diamond applies open-ended creative ideation (“Divergence”), and then focuses it through scientific hypothesis, inquiry, and testing rigor (“Convergence”).

The core of Design Thinking — the Double Diamond. Adapted from Design Thinking Defined, IDEO.

As we’ll see, the Strategy Process Map makes deep use of Design Thinking practices to unleash Creativity to Design a better future.

The Seven Step method for creating winning strategies through creativity and rigor

The Strategy Process Map. Adapted from Roger L. Martin “Strategy and Design Thinking” and IDEO U, “An Overview of Our Best Design Thinking & Strategy Frameworks.”

Developed over many years, the Strategy Process Map combines the strengths of both Design Thinking and Scientific Inquiry to use the Double Diamond cycles of Divergent and Convergent thinking to create winning strategies.

In order, the steps are:

  1. Identify Your Strategic Problem
  2. Frame a Strategic Question
  3. Generate Strategic Possibilities
  4. Ask “What Would Have to Be True?”
  5. Identify Barriers
  6. Test to Learn
  7. Make a choice

We’ll go through each below.

A note before starting — Bring the right team on the journey!

Because formulating strategy through the “Playing to Win” framework represents such a radical departure from traditional yearly strategic planning, it’s important to approach it with a group of people who can give it the greatest chance of success.

With this squarely in mind, Roger Martin is clear on the importance of expanding to involve more than just your organization’s elite strategy team at this point. Ideally, you would step through the Strategy Process Map with a diverse, cross-functional group of people representing a wide range of specialties, experience, and expertise — of course, not only the executive leadership sponsor would need to be involved throughout, but also the middle management team responsible for rolling out and managing to the strategy, as well as the people downstream who would actually be making choices on the front lines daily to “activate” the strategy.

This not only helps these key people feel committed to the chosen strategy, but gives them a head start in deploying it across the organization.

Step #1: Identify Your Strategic Problem

We begin by identifying the biggest problem your company faces.

The main tool used at this step will be the Strategy Choice Cascade, a set of five questions (which we’ll dig into further in the next article in this series) which help us map our current strategy. Through the systematic process of asking these five questions, and mapping what the group understands to be true about your strategy, we’ll identify what isn’t working, and what’s preventing your company from reaching its goals.

Crucial at this point is frame the problem in client-centric terms:

“Continue probing until you get to a more specific problem focused on your customer. For example, a problem statement that started as “Our growth is slowing” ended up as “When matched up head to head, our customers are disproportionately choosing competitor X.”

Strategic Planning: How to Get Started, IDEO U Blog

The problem you uncover at this stage will be the focus of the rest of the Strategy Process Map steps, up until your group chooses the go-forward strategy.

Step #2: Frame a Strategic Question

Rather than indulging in open-ended, anything-goes “jam sessions,” we’ve taken the specific problem identified in Step #1 above, and will turn it into a question.

Design Thinking approaches for decades have used one of the most powerful question formats, the “How Might We” question, to unleash innovative approaches to problem-solving.

By taking our client-centric problem, and turning it into a tightly-focused “How Might We” question, we’ve created the foundation for the structured, purposeful ideation to come in the next step.

Step #3: Generate Strategic Possibilities

Constructing strategic possibilities, especially ones that are genuinely new, is the ultimate creative act in business.

Martin, Roger L.. A New Way to Think (p. 67). Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition.

We now work to generate new possibilities to answer the question we framed in Step #2 above.

Building on our consistent logic, these strategic choices are directly focused on opportunities that could solve our “How Might We?” problem.

Focus on Divergent possibility generation

At this stage, the goal will be to challenge the group to come up with as many possibilities as possible. (Anywhere from five to ten could be a good start.) In this “Divergent Thinking” mode, the only criteria is that the strategic possibility could theoretically address our strategic question.

Now that we’ve generated an initial set of possibilities, we’ll start to give them greater clarity and shape by asking the two most important questions in strategy:

  • Where will we Play (WTP)?
  • How will we Win (HTW)?

By working with your group to answer these questions, you begin to submit them to deeper scrutiny from both the strategy working group as well as stakeholders.

But in order to not eliminate potentially breakthrough possibilities with the greatest chance of success, we’ll need to ask the next most important question in strategy.

Step #4: Ask “What Would Have to Be True?”

Now that we’ve identified and started to flesh out a set of strategic possibilities, it’s time to subject them to increased rigor.

But not the rigor we’re used to applying — making a judgment call of whether we “feel” they’re “good” or “bad” based on what we believe to be true.

Instead, another of the “Playing to Win” Strategy Process Map’s most unique contributions is to take each one of our chosen possibilities, and understand under what conditions each opportunity could reasonably be considered a viable strategy.

As noted earlier, no choice is immune from this review, not even our current strategy.

The Three Lenses of WWHTBT

The key to identifying valid “What Would Have To Be True” (WWHTBT) options comes from using three perspectives:

  • Customer — What would have to be true about our clients and how they’ll respond?
  • Company — What would have to be true about our company’s capabilities and systems?
  • Competition — What would have to be true about how our competition would react to our strategy?

Typically, we tend to overly focus on one or the other. At this stage, we need to make sure we’re asking questions across all three areas.

Make sure to ask WWHTBT of your current strategy

It would be naive to assume that “staying the course” with your current strategy will continue to remain the single best course of action. Only by submitting it to this same level of scrutiny as any of your other potential opportunities, and being frank about your customers, your company’s capabilities, your competitors, and the current state of your industry, can you finally put all potential possibilities on a level playing field.

This will help everyone achieve the same level of shared understanding before we subject them to the next level of converging analysis.

Step #5: Identify Barriers

Any of our ideas could potentially hold one or more fatal flaws.

Now that we’ve done a great deal of Divergent thinking to imagine possibilities and how they might play out across the three dimensions of Customer, Company, and Competition, you’re finally ready to apply a deeper level of analysis to Converge your thinking, and raise what your group understands would be the biggest potential barriers to success.

Raising valid barriers across the group

Before you can select one set of choices as your best strategic possibility, you’ll need to bring the full combined power of your group’s knowledge and experience to bear to expose the most worrisome concerns. This is where diversity of perspectives and experience across your strategy group will be your company’s greatest asset, preventing the “groupthink” that can set in and have otherwise extremely intelligent people “rubber stamp” a fundamentally flawed choice.

With each strategic possibility accompanied by a set of potentially troublesome barriers, it’s time to ratchet up the rigor and get truly scientific — through experimentation.

Step #6: Test to Learn

Provided the group otherwise feels optimism about the selected strategic options, it’s time to test the greatest potential barriers to that strategy’s success you identified in Step #5 above.

The goal would be to design and take tests out into the world in varying degrees of fidelity, to decrease the risk that the main assumptions underlying that strategy (“What Would Have To Be True?”) would continue to hold true for the strategy to be proven a good choice.

For example, let’s say you wanted to create a set of retail centers to serve customers in unique and tailored ways, and the biggest barrier your group identified was questioning whether customers would find the centers compelling enough to travel to them and make regular use of them.

Testing Barriers

In what ways could your team test this assumption?

  • At the simplest, most inexpensive, and quickest levels, you could speak with customers
  • At the next level, you could quickly design some landing pages and pay for Google AdWords to set up ads that click through to a landing page touting “a center is coming to your area, sign up for updates,” and set a certain number of signups as your success criteria.
  • At the next highest level, you could actually create a temporary pop-up center and advertise on social media.

The goal at this juncture would be to better understand how much of a fundamental blocking condition the barriers identified in Step #5 above really could be.

Usually after this step, a clearer winning strategy will start to emerge.

Step #7: Make a choice

Now that your group has diverged and converged to come up with a set of choices, it’s time to choose the best strategy to deploy across the organization.

Crucial at this stage is to once again run the remaining strategic possibilities through all five steps in the “Strategy Choice Cascade,” to give them greater clarity and shape, and allow the team to properly evaluate them in context.

A choice emerges

At this point, it should become apparent which set of possibilities the group feels will have the greatest opportunity of success.

The group can choose and move on, aware the Strategy Process Map can be used whenever the “What Would Have To Be True?” conditions start to no longer hold true.

The Strategy Process Map in Summary

If we take the Strategy Process Map’s seven steps, lay them out horizontally, and superimpose the Design Thinking Double Diamond, a picture starts to emerge of the power behind the approach in applying Creativity and Rigor across the Problem and Solution Spaces:

The Strategy Process Map. Adapted from Roger L. Martin “Strategy and Design Thinking” and IDEO U, “An Overview of Our Best Design Thinking & Strategy Frameworks.”

While there are many great ways to do strategy, the “Playing To Win” strategy framework has the advantage of being simple, tested, and flexible enough to be used across a wide range of applications and industries.

Making winning strategy creation available to all

Ultimately, strategy doesn’t have to be limited to Business School MBAs and management consultants — anyone can design winning strategies by following the Strategy Process Map’s seven simple steps:

  1. Identify Your Strategic Problem
  2. Frame a Strategic Question
  3. Generate Strategic Possibilities
  4. Ask “What Would Have to Be True?”
  5. Identify Barriers
  6. Test to Learn
  7. Make a choice

If you’re applying the framework for the first time, realize you’re just getting started.

Notes and Best Practices

A few distinctions I’ve found helpful:

  • Be client-centric — Equally a Design Thinking foundation, any strategy worth doing sets your client up for success so they will gladly hand over their money, resulting equally in a win for your business.
  • Be collaborative — By inviting a diverse group into collaborative, creative, and divergent thinking, and then converging through rigor and testing, you can come up with a strategy that will have a greater chance of success..
  • Keep learning & experimenting — You’ll never be “one and done” with your strategy — there will always be events that could make your “What Would Have To Be True?” conditions invalid. Remember to continue to go back through the Strategy Process Map steps to create new sets of choices that can improve your odds of success.

This is Part II in a series.

The first article introduced the “Playing to Win” strategy framework.

In Part III, we review the “Strategy Choice Cascade,” anchored by the two most important questions in strategy.


Strategy & Design Thinking

Strategy & Design Thinking
This is the eleventh in my series of Playing to Win Practitioner Insights
(PTW/PI). In order, they have been: The Role…

What Would Have to be True? — The Most Valuable Question in Strategy

Strategic Planning: How to Get Started

Designing Strategy Course at IDEO U

An Overview of Our Best Design Thinking & Strategy Frameworks

The Double Diamond: A universally accepted depiction of the design process

Design Thinking Defined

The Design of Business

Roger L. Martin, Harvard Business School Press, 2009

A New Way to Think

Roger L. Martin, Harvard Business Review Press, 2022

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