We examine the present in light of the past
so as to better understand the future.
John Maynard Keynes

* With apologies to Karl von Clausewitz

Winning has no place in business

In my newly finished book, just dispatched to the publisher and out from Bloomsbury next April (see previous blog), I make what I am sure will be a fairly contentious statement: the word ‘winning’ has no place in business.

I was provoked into this statement after reading Playing to Win, by A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin. Mr Lafley is of course the much admired former CEO of Procter & Gamble; Professor Martin is a well-respected business academic who has written a lot of really good things (i.e. things I agree with). But this book appalled me.

Everything in the book is about ‘competition’ and ‘winning’. You can get the impression that the only goal of a business is to ‘win’ over its competitors. The title, Playing to Win, is quite an accurate description of the book. Business is a game, like football or cricket or rugby. The only purpose is to get on top. He, or she, who dies with most market share wins.

Okay, except...what about customers? Don’t they count? Or are they just bystanders in the game, or pawns to be moved around? That’s how it sometimes seems in this book, and to be fair, that is how a good many businesses treat their customers.

In my view, this is entirely the wrong way of looking at business. Business only has one purpose, to serve customers. Peter Drucker made this point too: ‘the only valid purpose of a business is to create a customer.’ Society enables businesses to exist because people have wants and needs. Business serve those wants and needs. Those that fail to do so disappear, often quite quickly. Customers are the basis of income, profits and prosperity; without them, the business dies.

Why, then, is it so difficult to get managers to concentrate on customers? Why this obsession with winning, with competition, with triumphing over others?

Do artists go out and engage in fistfights with other artists in order to include their own painting techniques? Do poets fight duels with other poets to prove the superiority of iambic pentameter over free verse? Do airline pilots play chicken with each other on the approach to runways to see who can get their plane on the ground first? Then why should managers distract themselves from the vital task of serving customers go to and play silly games competing with other companies?

Management is hard enough without this nonsense. Yes, sometimes companies do need to compete, for scarce resources, for talent, for the attention of customers. Even then, though, if they stopped and thought about it they might well find that collaboration might yield better results in the end.

I’m not arguing for the creation of monopolies or oligopolies and I know some degree of competition in a market is healthy. What I object to is treating competition as the end goal. If we all start playing to win, then we will bury ourselves. Business isn’t a game. Take it seriously, and focus on what matters.

Comment made by
Lata Subramanian
14/10/2014 at 15:32
couldnt agree more. What's horrifying is the quest to win is now openly reflecting in business language e.g gamify in Social Media

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Management Consultancy

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Oh, no, not another book on management!

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Another one bites the dust - reflecting on my new book on management failures