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How to Win the Must-Win Battles

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It is not surprising that senior managers who are unhappy with the current performance of their business find the idea of MWBs intuitively appealing, and it is not difficult to convince them that they ought to take their top teams away for a week to identify their Must-Win Battles and figure out how to win them. Learn about the culture of MWBs and how they affect your business in this chapter.
This chapter is from the book

"Must-win battle" is a phrase that creates energy. The word "battle" suggests that there are competitors to be fought and defeated, and "must-win" implies the battles are urgent and important. So it is not surprising that senior managers who are unhappy with the current performance of their business find the idea of MWBs intuitively appealing, and it is not difficult to convince them that they ought to take their top teams away for a week to identify their MWBs and figure out how to win them.

And that is where we started, five years ago.

Since then, we have learned a lot. About how to choose the battles and how to win them. That reaching consensus and building commitment at the opening offsite event is, indeed, just the beginning of the journey. The bigger challenge is to mobilize the broader organization behind the chosen battles on an ongoing basis. An MWB can require a year or more of sustained effort, as is amply demonstrated in the Unilever Ice Cream journey recounted by its leader, Kees van der Graaf, in Chapter 8. As Kees makes clear, the journey does not get easier as it progresses—at no time can the leader sit back and relax, assuming that the journey will progress on autopilot.

The second thing that we have learned is that the must-win battle (MWB) journey should not be just an intellectual journey–figuring out what to do–it must also be an emotional journey. To win your MWBs you need people at all organizational levels to make an emotional commitment to the chosen battles and to begin to truly work together as members of a single team with shared objectives. The walls of the organizational silos have to be breached–permanently. This will take a shift in mind set, and that will not happen through a solely intellectual journey.

Our final learning is about leadership. We have worked with more than two dozen senior managers leading MWB journeys. Some are CEOs of major corporations, some are divisional managers within very large organizations, some are heads of medium-sized or smaller companies. Whatever their background and position, most find the MWB process becomes a personal leadership journey, as they discover that they cannot rely solely on the power of their position to force the organization forward. The same applies to their leadership teams. The focus has to shift to listening, assessing, persuading, and varying one’s management style as the situation changes. As we will discuss in Chapter 3, "emotional intelligence" helps, but it is usually not sufficient. Sometimes the leader needs to take an unpopular position–disappointing key people–and courage becomes the order of the day. But these are not just isolated acts of bravery, the leader needs stamina, the courage to keep on asking the right questions, to keep pushing the organization toward the chosen goals when energy may be flagging.

As you will see, these three learnings underpin our approach to designing and leading MWB journeys. While none of the elements is new, combining them has proved very useful for leaders who want to cut through an array of uncoordinated initiatives, and bring focus and renewed energy to their organizations.

While winning each individual MWB is vital, the longer-term victory is to transform the organization into a cohesive team that can win these battles again and again.

We have written this book to provide a road map for managers who are sure the MWB approach is just what they need and who want advice on how to lead such a journey. But we have also written it for managers who are less sure of the approach but want to understand more fully what demands it would make on them and their organizations before they make a decision as to whether or not to proceed. So let’s begin.

What Are Must-Win Battles?

The name says it all. MWBs are the 3 to 5 key battles that your organization absolutely must win in order to achieve its key objectives. That is a pretty short list. And while we find that most teams readily agree that focus is a good thing, they invariably find it difficult to agree on such a shortlist. Someone’s priorities will not make the final cut. But avoid the trap of creating a long list of MWBs, because you will need to concentrate all your resources, and all management’s attention, on your chosen MWBs. If the list is too long, both resources and attention will be dissipated, and you will end up with inadequate support for every battle. So be disciplined and be tough.

A well-chosen MWB has five characteristics.

An MWB should:

  1. Make a real difference. The major criterion for determining what is and is not an MWB is impact. The key question is: "If we win this battle, what difference will it make?" The answer has to be that it will make a huge difference–not just to one part of the organization, but to the achievement of the company's overall objectives.

  2. This means, of course, that before you get serious about defining MWBs, your team needs to agree on what its overall objectives are. Most companies have a "mission" or "vision" statement, and these may be useful, but often they are too broad to provide the basis for developing MWBs. So what you need to identify before selecting MWBs are objectives that the management team really feel passionate about, along with the quantitative targets they need to meet to keep corporate office and/or shareholders on board.

    When Unilever in Africa embarked on its MWB journey, the first thing it created was a new vision statement that generated a lot of excitement: "We will touch the lives of all Africans by better anticipating and fulfilling their cleaning, caring, and nutritional needs, everyday, everywhere." "Everyday" was a key word, as it meant that products had to be low priced, in small packages, and distributed widely so they could be purchased on a daily basis. "Everywhere" meant that the parts of Africa where the company was doing less well, such as West Africa, would receive renewed attention. The vision was backed up by an ambitious target: "To double the sales in Africa in five years from i1.8 billion to i3.6 billion and deliver above Unilever average value creation."1 With this agreed vision and targets in place the management team created five MWBs, presented in the box below.

  3. Be market-focused. Managers are often tempted to create MWBs that emphasize winning internal battles. Don't do it. Internal battles too often reflect the passion of executives who are competing among themselves for resources and attention. The point is to win in the marketplace, not get a new transfer price from a sister division. Unilever Africa's management team created five MWBs, and one of those was an internal battle. That proportion is about right.

  4. Specific targets underpinned each of these five battles, and sub-battles were identified that had to be won to support each of the main battles. We will say more about the creation of supporting battles in Chapter 7.

  5. Create excitement. Your MWBs should be exciting–real challenges create real energy. Needless to say, you do not want your people charging off on hopeless quests that are impossible to win, but for maximum impact an MWB should focus on a collective objective that might previously have been thought impossible, such as dethroning a long-standing market leader. If your MWBs are not seen as exciting or meaningful by a large number of people in your organization, it will be difficult to maintain the commitment and resource trade-offs required to win them.

  6. Some of your MWBs may be defensive–winning these battles will avoid calamities. Others will be more offensive in nature–moving into new markets, developing new technologies, taking market share from a larger rival, and so on. Both types of battles can be motivating, and in most organizations the final set of MWBs is a mixture of offensive and defensive challenges. There is no "rule" about this, the proportion of each will depend entirely on the circumstances in which the company finds itself. The Nestlé China example described below illustrates a situation in which defensive and offensive MWBs were under way at the same time. Both battles were won.

  7. Be specific and tangible. MWBs need to be tangible and specific enough to be measured. MWBs that say "we must innovate more!" or "get closer to customers!" or "reduce costs!" are not useful. Your MWBs need to be specific to your business situation, markets, and organization. If you find it difficult to create specific targets and actions required to win your battles, chances are your MWBs are not sufficiently specific or tangible.

  8. Part of making MWBs tangible is to give them a reasonably short time frame. We usually find that more than half of the portfolio have a "time to victory" of two years or less. If the timeframes are too long, the MWBs may not generate much energy, and may be constantly displaced by other things that appear to be more urgent. Kees van der Graaf felt that two years was about right for some of his ice-cream business MWBs (see Chapter 8). But to Joe Mueller in Nestlé China, two years would have seemed much too long. He needed a quick win to boost morale, and he needed immediate action to get milk products flowing out of Nestlé warehouses so that farmers could continue supplying Nestlé with milk on a daily basis. Clearly, both company and industry conditions should have a major impact on the time to victory for your MWBs.

  9. Be winnable. There is often a fine line between creating MWBs that are exciting–both aspirational and inspirational–and just plain impossible. An underperforming European beverage company recently brought in a new CEO whose first job was to convince his best people–who were full of energy and ambition–that their first task was not to overtake the industry leaders but simply to start making promises to stock market analysts that the company could actually meet. In other words, one of their first MWBs was to regain credibility with the financial markets after a stream of broken earnings promises. Later, they would focus on becoming number one in the business.

  10. One reason that management teams sometimes do choose MWBs that prove to be unwinnable is that they assume the competition will not react to what they are doing. The logic is more or less "we will take this action and then that action to win our MWB, and the competition will be so surprised (or asleep) that they will just stand by and watch us do it." Needless to say this is not what usually happens, and one of the exercises that we describe in Chapter 4 is designed to force the management team to get into the hearts and minds of stakeholders and competitors to prevent this "frozen competitors" assumption, which can easily lure the top team into unwinnable battles.

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