Must-Win Battles

Financial Times
Peter Killing / Thomas Malnight / Tracey Keys  
Total pages
September 2005
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Must-Win Battles


Must-Win Battles is an essential companion for leaders who want to cut through an array of uncoordinated initiatives, and bring focus and renewed energy to their organizations. It  will show you  how to identify and agree on the key critical challenges that will make or break your business, and help you to mobilize people and resources to achieve those goals.



  • The book is structured like the executive programme at IMD upon which it is based, and is full of the real voices of participants who have made theMWB "journey".
  • Reveals a tested framework for deciding what is "must-win," as opposed to merely urgent or everyday.
  • Shows how to focus people, resources and time on the most decisive activities and challenges.
  • Unique, unlike other books, Must-Win Battles bridges the gap between strategy development and implementation by tackling the intellectual and emotional challenges simultaneously. 

Table of Contents




Chapter 1         The Must-Win Battle Journey


This chapter provides a roadmap for the book, introducing and defining must-win battles (MWBs) and what the journey to achieving them involves. 




Section I         Preparing the Journey


Chapter 2         Understanding Your Starting Conditions


Every business embarks on their MWB journey from a different place.  These unique starting conditions will impact the choice of MWBs, the urgency surrounding their execution and the relative emphasis on the emotional versus the intellectual elements of the journey.  This chapter highlights the four critical starting conditions that need to be understood, provides tools to think about each, and translates them into implications for the MWB process.


Chapter 3         What does it take to lead on a MWB journey?


Even if the business conditions point towards a MWB journey, there is one more critical question for the leader before she or he commits to the process: am I capable of leading it?  Leading a MWB journey is a big challenge, requiring skills and capabilities of a leader that go well beyond managing “business as usual”.  Preparing for the journey explores the “leadership imperatives” or challenges inherent in the MWB process.  It offers tools to assess the leader’s readiness to lead the journey, which can entail high personal risk and need to change…as well as approaches to manage these risks and demands.  Because once it starts there really is no opportunity to turn back.   


Section II        Engaging the Team


Chapter 4         Opening Windows: Sharing Perspectives and Realities


Opening windows activities and exercises start the group moving forward on both the emotional and intellectual dimensions in parallel.  The aims are to build a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the business, while at the same time, surfacing the team’s personal feelings about how the top team works together.  Detailed outlines of exercises together with real-world examples illustrate how the transparency of the discussions begins sharing and aligning the team’s perspectives and starting new ways of working together. 


Chapter 5         Defining the Battles: Colliding to Decide


As the team moves into the iterative process that is defining must-win battles, things are starting to get real.  There will be winners and losers as the long list of potential initiatives gets robustly challenged to reach the shortlist of 3 to 5 battles that will receive the lion’s share of management attention and resources in the coming months and years.  The shared understandings and openness built by in the previous stage are the critical background for ensuring productive dialogue at this stage.  The characteristics of well-chosen MWBs are outlined, along with exercises and real-world examples to illustrate how this process works in practice.


Chapter 6         Breaking the Silos: Committing to One Agenda


Even the best-chosen list of MWBs runs the risk of failure if the team is not committed to implementing it back at the office.  The final part of the kick-off process is about making this critical emotional commitment to a collective agenda – moving away from silo-based, individualistic thinking.  Again through exercises and examples, the chapter addresses the tough questions of how the team will work together in future to ensure battles are won, and how each individual within the team will contribute – or, in some cases, choose not to participate.  It also sets the stage for taking the MWB agenda back to the office – to engage the broader organization.



Section III      Making It Happen


Chapter 7         Engaging the Organization


The top team is not going to get far trying to win the MWBs alone – they need to quickly embed the agenda in the broader organization, aligning activities and getting momentum going if they are to win in their marketplace.  But this is easier said than done – and will require energy, tenacity and courage from the organization’s leaders: mobilizing resources and actions against the battles and motivating people to deliver.  Using a series of examples and tools, the chapter discusses the key stages of this process, and the major challenges that need to be overcome including dealing with the “organizational swamp” of daily activities, maintaining energy levels across the company and refocusing battles which are off track. 


Chapter 8         From Tent to Tent: The Unilever Ice-Cream Journey


Kees van der Graaf (President, Europe of Unilever) provides a candid perspective on how the MWB journey unfolds in practice.  The chapter tells the story of the first two years of the Unilever Ice-Cream division’s journey, its ups and downs, achievements and lessons learned, both for the leader and the organization.


Chapter 9         Lessons from MWB Journeys Won and Lost


A final round-up highlights, briefly, the core principles that you can apply to your critical business challenges, whether or not you choose to embark on a MWB journey.


Back Cover


Must-Win Battlesis an essential companion for leaders who want to cut through an array of uncoordinated initiatives, and bring focus and renewed energy to their organizations.


“Moving a company to the next level requires confronting the right challenges, and Peter Killing, Thomas Malnight, and Tracey Keys show how to pick your battles and then how to win them.  Their Must-Win Battles provides a practical playbook for unleashing and aligning the intellectual and emotional energies essential for any business triumph.” 

Michael Useem, Director-Center for Leadership and Change Management, The Wharton School and author of The Leadership Moment


 “In Must-Win Battles Peter Killing and Thomas Malnight have distilled their richly varied experiences drawn from many organizations over many years.  Together they have created a practical handbook for all managers who are interested in re-energizing and improving their business performance.  Must-Win Battles is easy to read and brimful with practical advice; well worth a few hours of your time.”

Iain Ferguson CBE, Chief Executive, Tate & Lyle PLC

Named European Businessman of the Year by Forbes Magazine, 2005


 “Working with must-win battles has fundamentally changed our approach to where we seek growth in the market and the way we engage our people in realizing these goals. Must-win battles are the glue that ties the business together globally, that everyone understands and can contribute to.  The process clarifies for everyone the long-term vision and business direction, where to allocate resources and why it is important to get aligned.” 

Diego Bevilacqua, President, Foodsolutions, Unilever


“Every executive knows that there are certain battles that must be won for the business tobe successful.  This great new book provides a real-world, step-by-step approach to choosing the right battles in a way that helps unleash the organizational will to achieve them.  Must Win Battles is a wonderful contribution to the art and science of management!  So much so that it’s inspired me to launch my own MWB journey.”

Bob Rieder, President & CEO Cardiome Pharma Corp.



Peter Killing and Tom Malnight are Professors of Strategy at IMD. The ideas in this book come directly from their extensive work with management teams across many countries, and in both large and small organizations, who are creating winning strategies using the must-win battle concepts.  From these experiences it is abundantly clear that the "intellectual" approach to strategy is not enough. What Peter, Tom and the managers highlighted in this book believe is that "strategic priorities with heart" will win the day.

At IMD Peter runs company-specific programs for companies such as Nestlé, BMW, PepsiCo International, Scottish & Newcastle, Tetra Laval and Tate & Lyle. Tom’s experience includes work with companies including Unilever, A.P. Moller - Maersk Group, Masterfoods, Firmenich, Carlsberg and Adecco. He also directs IMD's Booster program, an intensive program focusing on accelerating project and team development, while Peter runs the Breakthrough Program for Senior Executives and Mastering New Challenges, a program for managers about to take on new responsibilities.

Both Tom and Peter have written widely on the topics of strategy, change and leadership, in publications ranging from the Harvard Business Review to the Academyof Management Journal. Peter is a co-author of a strategy text, Strategic Analysis and Action, which is currently in its sixth edition.


Tom has a DBA from the HarvardBusinessSchooland was on the faculty of The Wharton School for seven years before joining IMD.  Before his doctorate, he spent ten years with Mitsubishi International Corporation, including two years in Japan.  Peter holds a PhD from the IveyBusinessSchoolin Canada, where he taught for twenty years and was Associate Dean of Executive Education at the time he came to IMD.


Tracey Keys  has twenty years of experience as a consultant and manager, focused on complex strategy and organisational issues.   She has worked with companies in the media, consumer goods, finance and new media sectors across Europe, the USand Africa.  Previously, Tracey has held senior roles at the BBC, where she was Head of Corporate Planning, Booz ½Allen ½Hamilton, and Deloitte & Touche/ Braxton Associates.  She has also been an active advisor to start-ups, several of which have been launched successfully in the technology, publishing, wine and consulting fields.  Tracey is a Fulbright Scholar and holds an MBA from The Wharton School where she was distinguished as a Palmer Scholar.