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Matthew E. May

Quality Insider

Playing to Win

Answering five strategic questions can help lead you to the top

Published: Monday, March 9, 2015 - 16:17

My friend Roger Martin (No. 3 on Thinkers50 ranking in 2013) penned a terrific article in The European Business Review on how Tennis Canada, the national governing body for the sport within that country, rose from recent oblivion to now boasting two young players ranked well inside the top 10 on the professional tennis circuit—in less than ten years. As of this writing, among men, Milos Raonic is ranked as the No. 6 player in the world, and Eugenie Bouchard is ranked No. 7 on the women’s side.

Roger and I share a love of the game, and we trade more emails on tennis than anything else. I used the 2014 Australian Open final as an example of how elements of Roger’s “Play to Win” strategic cascade can be applied not just to business, but to sports, too (see here). The transformation of Tennis Canada is a comprehensive case study of how five key strategic questions, properly and creatively addressed, can change the world:

1. What is your winning aspiration? Playing just to play wasn’t an option—Tennis Canada had to play to win. “We set out with the goal of becoming a leading tennis nation,” writes Roger, who is not only a director, but a strategic advisor for Tennis Canada. “Leading” meant measurable results, such as having players ranked in the top 50 in the men’s and women’s singles world rankings. Given the current rankings, appearances in the top 50 seems to have been a pedestrian goal, but at the time it had been more than 20 years since a Canadian player had appeared inside the top 50.

2. Where will you play? In tennis, there are five basic “spaces” in which to play: singles (men’s and women’s), doubles (men’s and women’s), and mixed doubles (one man, one woman). Tennis Canada chose to focus on men’s singles and women’s singles. “We focused on the very hardest game—singles,” Roger writes. They also focused on early childhood development, kids under 10, whereas in the past they had focused on teenagers with potential.

3. How will you win? Tennis Canada needed a true competitive advantage, and it was one they did not possess: in a word, coaching. Roger writes: “We realized that we needed to go outside Canada to hire a seasoned professional who had coached top 10 players before. So we hired Louis Borfiga, who headed the junior national center in France.”

4. What capabilities must be in place? A capability is what produces the competitive advantage. In its quest to produce a true coaching competitive advantage, Tennis Canada filled its development bench with world-class coaches and built a new national tennis development center. “We opened a national tennis center for full-time residential coaching of our promising juniors,” writes Roger. “We needed a formal training center to simply be in the game.”

5. What management systems are needed? Tennis Canada took a unique approach that blended the U.S. and French player-development systems. “We supervised and funded the development of our high-performance players. But we didn’t control the process or keep it within Canada. When [Milos] Raonic was 16, Tennis Canada organized and funded coaching and training with a former top 50 player at his Spanish tennis academy, where he could further develop his game. A similar approach was taken with Eugenie Bouchard, who did much of her development in Florida, funded and coordinated by Tennis Canada. Their foreign coaches and Tennis Canada managed both players collaboratively. In doing so, we took the best of the ‘free market’ U.S. system and the ‘totalitarian’ French system.”

According to Roger, the pipeline of Canadian tennis talent is flush with potential, and we may not have yet seen the best.

He concludes: “Despite a budget one-tenth the size of key competitors, Tennis Canada has built a sustainable platform for success and, like any organization that effectively competes for success, continues to play to win.”

You can follow Roger on Twitter here, and read the full article online here.

First published Feb. 18, 2015, on Matthew E. May’s Creative Facilitation blog.

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About The Author

Matthew E. May’s picture

Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May counsels executives and teams through custom designed facilitation, coaching, and training using four basic ingredients: strategy, ideation, experimentation, and lean. He’s been counseling for 30 years, a third of it as a full-time advisor to Toyota. He is the author of four books, the latest The Laws of Subtraction (McGraw-Hill, 2013), and is working on his fifth book. His work has been appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and many other publications. May holds an MBA from The Wharton School and a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.