Our approach

Gain sustainable advantage using a capabilities-driven strategy

We know why strategies fail: They fail when companies don’t give sufficient attention and weight to their differentiating capabilities and how these capabilities should fit together to form a mutually reinforcing system. Because this blind spot is so common in corporate strategy, the rewards are all the more immense for companies that manage to align their key capabilities.

At Strategy&, we work with our clients to develop a coherent, capabilities-driven strategy that aligns at every level. Only a coherent company — one that pursues a clear strategic direction, builds a system of differentiating capabilities consistent with that direction, and sells products and services that thrive within that system — can reliably and sustainably outpace competitors.

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A company’s way to play is an approach to creating value for its customers. A well-defined way to play is broad enough to allow flexibility and growth, but narrow enough to focus strategy and decision making.

It may involve being an innovator, a value player, or an experience provider. More than any other single factor, the way to play distinguishes a company from its competitors.

Example: Walmart, the largest retail chain in the world, has taken its leading position with a precise and inspiring way to play: being a big-box provider of everything from groceries to electronics to houseplants at “everyday low prices,” without special sales or discounts.

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A company’s primary source of advantage is a system of three to six mutually reinforcing capabilities that together allow it to fulfill its way to play. A capability is a key strength of your business that customers value and competitors can’t beat. It’s not a generic activity, but a specific intersection of people, knowledge, IT, tools, and processes where your organization consistently out-performs competitors and that delivers a central aspect of your way to play.

Example: Walmart’s capabilities system includes:

  • Efficient supply chain management, aggressive vendor management, expert point-of-sale data analytics, superior logistics, and working-capital management
  • Mastery of real estate selection and acquisition
  • Sophisticated retail conception and design

Most companies make the mistake of composing product and service portfolios based on short-term financial performance and shoehorn a strategy to fit around that portfolio, rather than create a portfolio that aligns with their strategy. We help clients succeed over the long term by aligning their products and services with their capabilities as part of a sustainable growth strategy.

Example: Walmart knows the importance of aligning every product and service it sells with its way to play. Walmart does not sell big-ticket items like large furniture and appliances, where it has no cost advantage.

A company’s right to win means its ability to compete in a particular area with the confidence to succeed and create value. It belongs to coherent companies, those that focus on what they do best in making every decision across every business and that align their way to play with their capabilities system and their product and service fit.

Example: Walmart has a well-defined way to play: an unbeatable system of capabilities that reinforce one another, and a portfolio of products and services that thrive within that system. Moreover, its success story is well known: It has been the largest retail chain in the world for many years. It has more than 11,600 stores worldwide, 2.3 million employees and about 260 million customers visits its stores and e-commerce sites each week. This scale famously allows it to dictate terms to just about any of its suppliers.

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Capabilities-driven strategy explained

What is a capability?

Watch Frito-Lay use one of its capabilities, direct store delivery, to provide a defined outcome. By aligning a number of processes, systems and tools, skills, knowledge and behaviors, and organizational structures around direct story delivery, the company connects its firm strategy and execution to create value for customers

What is a capabilities system?

For capabilities to deploy their full potential, they need to work in a reinforcing system. Watch how Frito-Lay combines three of its differentiating capabilities — direct-store delivery, continuous innovation of new products, and consumer marketing — into a successful system.

How does capabilities coherence create value?

Watch how companies succeed by mutually reinforcing the alignment of a deliberate way to play, a supportive capabilities system, and a relevant portfolio of products and services.

Our research

Strategy& has conducted several studies to better understand how companies create sustained value. Many of the most important findings have been expanded and published as popular articles and top business books, including Strategy That Works (Harvard Business Review Press, 2016). Here are a few highlights of our research:

Business strategy is broken in many companies. Almost two in five companies are adrift

According to Strategy&’s survey of more than 6,000 executives from companies of various sizes, geographies, and industries:

  • Most executives don’t feel their company’s strategy will lead to success.
  • In only one in five companies is there agreement on what capabilities are most important to winning.
  • Just over a third of companies provide a unique advantage to customers in most of their businesses.
  • More than a fifth of companies have no list of strategic priorities.

Overall, almost two in five companies are rated as “adrift.”

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Business strategy is broken in many companies

Most companies approach strategy in a way that fits one of six patterns — we call these strategy archetypes

The Strategy Profiler identifies six archetypes, types of companies that face a common set of challenges when it comes to developing and executing a winning strategy.

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Most companies approach strategy in a way that fits one of six patterns—we call these strategy archetypes

Coherent companies outperform others in terms of growth and profitability

Our research has revealed that coherent companies are three times as likely to grow faster than the market compared with incoherent companies. And they’re twice as likely to report above-average profits.

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Coherent companies outperform others

The most successful companies owe their success to their differentiating capabilities and coherence

In another survey of more than 700 executives, Strategy& asked executives to indicate what drives the success of the largest companies in their industry. Is it capabilities or assets, coherence or diverse portfolios? The result: Capabilities-driven companies — those that are seen to owe their success to having a truly distinctive way of providing value, a powerful set of capabilities, and coherence between their strategy and capabilities — on average have higher total shareholder return than others. By contrast, companies that compete on the basis of economies of scale, lucrative assets, or diversification fare less well. The survey also finds that companies with a clear identity — standing for something unique and consistent over time — tend to perform better than others, and that a capabilities-driven approach helps them develop that identity.

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The most successful companies

Capabilities-driven M&A deals generate higher returns than deals with other rationales in mind

In examining 540 major global deals in 9 industries announced between 2001 and 2012, we found that deals that leveraged the buyer’s key capabilities or helped it acquire new ones produced significantly better results, on average, than deals done for other reasons, like diversification deals.

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Capabilities-driven M&A deals

The fear of disruption is often more damaging than disruption itself

In studying changes in total enterprise value of the largest companies in each of 39 key industrial sectors, we found that most industries have not been dramatically disrupted, that the rate of disruption has hardly increased over the course of the past decade, and that the pace of disruption is generally much slower than the conventional wisdom may suggest, and thus easier to deal with.

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The fear of disruption is often more damaging than disruption itself

The power of strategic purpose

In researching how people feel at work and how they could be better engaged and motivated, we found that most people aren’t motivated and don’t feel connected to the organization. But there’s a way out of this crisis of motivation. Indeed, strategic purpose holds great potential to inspire.

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Many strategy teams aren’t fully satisfied with the value they create for their company

In studying the relatively new function of the Chief Strategy Officer (CSO), we found that only 25% of the CSOs we surveyed said they were very successful at creating value for their company. We’ve identified three areas that many strategy teams are struggling with and lessons learnt from the best.

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Research on strategy teams - CSO study

Key publications


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