Why I Cringe When I Hear the Term “Playbook”

January 10, 2019
4 Minutes
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In SaaS businesses, operating results are earned every single day; and good businesses are made, not found. Writing here about building organizations, learning from the experience, and appreciating the ride.

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I frequently hear people use the term “playbook” when discussing methodologies for building businesses in a rational, replicable, and scalable way. It’s hard to argue with the concept of establishing consistent best practices and optimizing critical success factors; and some investors have leveraged and honed this strategy to deliver absolutely phenomenal returns over many years. I certainly wouldn’t question these results or the benefits of such a scientific approach. Where I get leery is when people describe this kind of a sophisticated blueprint as “having a playbook” or intimating that business-building can somehow be distilled into a straight formula. And I’m definitely not a fan of the notion that a “playbook” alone is the key to assured business success. I acknowledge that the term “playbook” may just be loose shorthand, so perhaps I should chill-out and not take it so literally. But the metaphor of a standalone “playbook” carries a number of counterproductive implications that I consider are worth flagging. These include:

  1. “Playbook” can imply an artifact that represents a fixed level of completeness or totality that is simply non-existent in the business world.
  2. “Playbook” seems to elevate “the plays” as being of utmost criticality, while understating the importance of (metaphorically) reading the game, knowing which plays to call when, or having the confidence to change or modify plays mid-game, based on situational realities or market dynamics.
  3. “Playbook” arguably ignores the hard truth that someone needs to execute those plays. The skills, mindset, and experience of that person(s) greatly impacts the outcome of any given “play.” And the X-factor of how a team functions as a unit may be the greatest success-determiner of all.
  4. “Plays” themselves feel like correlates to “tactics.” And while tactics are critically important, they cannot stand on their own. Per Sun Tzu in The Art of War (with apologies for the mixed metaphor): “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” More to come in a later post on establishing a strategic platform, from which tactics can be leveraged with purpose.

Lew Moorman of Scaleworks said it better still with this 2018 quote: “There’s no playbook on how to build a business. But there is a set of disciplines that can be taught in terms of experimentation. Looking at the data, there are just some patterns.” I really respect what Scaleworks does; and I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment. These “disciplines” feel adaptable, applicable, actionable, and agile…bringing a critically valuable dynamism to the straight X’s and O’s of a static playbook.

In my mind, just a few of those teachable disciplines include:

  • Translating a pressing business problem into a compelling solution vision
  • Executing against that vision to produce a beautiful, problem-solving product
  • Taking a purposeful, rigorous approach to what / how / to whom businesses sell & serve
  • Seeing the world through clients’ eyes and orienting experiences around that vision
  • Establishing fluid, effective communications among aligned and invested team members
  • Orienting and executing around a set of performance goals that benefit a broad range of stakeholders
  • Fostering a deep commitment and competency in constantly changing and improving

While it certainly has a major part to play, a playbook alone cannot be expected to instill these types of disciplines in an organization. Rather, a playbook is but one part of a larger ecosystem that fosters these kinds of disciplines. It goes hand in hand with with engagement models, values that shape organizational behavior and decision-making, strategies to align initiatives, and frameworks / artifacts / systems / processes to facilitate execution. I hope to further examine and unpack all of the above in many future posts.

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