This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 15: Startup Attitude
Sometime in late 2005 or early 2006, I read a book that blew my mind. It was called Blue Ocean Strategy and it applied a whole new definition to the concept of success in competitive markets, putting the sword to the notion that winning in the industry has to be a zero-sum game.
You may not realize it, but the factors that worry multi-million dollar corporates are quite similar to the challenges you face on a daily basis too. How to stand out from the crowd; How to get the maximum efficiency from your finite budget; How to get your fair share of resources – be they essentials or not-so-essentials – at a reasonable price. Without competition in our lives, there’d be no sweaty-palmed job interviews, no jostling, and jabbing at the “sale rail”, no Employee of the Month.
For generations of businesses, one of the cornerstones of good business was the “Five Forces” model put forward by Michael Porter, in which he proposed a number of influencing factors that determine a company’s economic success in a competitive market. According to Porter, if a business is to thrive it is essential to building “barriers to entry”, to make it as difficult as possible for others to enter your market and compete with you. Porter’s model portrays other providers as a threat, and customers and suppliers as mercenaries focused on squeezing the maximum bang from their buck.
This ideal, translated into our personal lives, paints a stark picture where it’s “every man (or woman) for himself (herself) and where those who succeed should build barriers behind them to prevent others from rising and threatening their position. It’s not difficult to see the danger in this scenario; we create something of a Hunger Games [^1: I was more inclined to use Running Man as an analogy, but realized I’d be showing signs of my age.] the situation, pitting ourselves against each other and seeing fit to throw others onto the fire if it plays out to our personal advantage.
We all compete with each other on some level. For jobs, for housing, for status; Every decision we make and resource we consume puts us at odds with others who crave the same resource and may have more to offer in exchange. Where blue ocean strategy differs from the traditional Porter model is that it suggests instead of a bloody “fight to the death” over a patch of a limited resource, it’s far better (and more lucrative) to strike out into new, unexplored territories and create entirely new markets. For us as individuals, this means we give others space to grow and thrive and instead of attempting to imitate or stifle others. Rather than pour our time and effort into being “better” than others, we should instead look for the ways we can leverage our own individual strengths and unique characteristics to build something that’s new, interesting and valuable to others.
Carve Out Your Own Space and Prioritize What’s Important
In Blue Ocean Strategy terms, creating new markets means looking at those things you can do most effectively and focusing on those, prioritising them and moving away entirely from those things that offer the least value, even if they’re things that some of your customers value (newsflash: those customers aren’t really your customers). “Value Innovation” – driving value on those aspects that are most important whilst driving costs out of those that aren’t – occurs only when you’re clear about your strategic priorities and how they align to the customers you want, not the customers you have.
McDonald’s provides fast, quality food by dispensing with other services such as waiters.
But what does this have to do with you? Value innovation is all about prioritization. Try and imagine your personal value innovation curve – what are those aspects of your life, and your own skill set, where you’re investing time and energy simply to stay on par with everybody else? Could you divert these energies to your unique strengths, those things you do that are most enjoyable, most valuable, to create a set of outcomes that far outstrip those compromises? Or to revert to an old cliche, are you trying to be a jack-of-all-trades and resulting in being a master-of-none?
Creating blue ocean space in your personal life means finding ways to strike out in new directions, to open up new opportunities by investing your time wisely. I accepted a few years ago that I’m never going to play the guitar well, and have since abandoned my half-hearted attempts to learn. My writing, on the other hand, gives me great pleasure and is (to my mind) time well spent. Part of this is about finding opportunities to lead a fulfilling life by doing the things I love, but there’s a synergy to it too: I often find that those characteristics that seem most valued in my professional career – my creativity, my clarity of thought – are those that stem from my interest in creative pursuits like writing and performing on stage.
My personal value innovation curve would definitely emphasise character and personality over precision and completeness of thought; I’m great at getting things mobilized in the early stages but I get tired of the routine in steady-state situations. This bleeds over from my professional life into the personal – you’ll find me charismatic and bubbly, but lacking in the structure of thought and presiding over multiple half-completed errands.
Screw Competition, I’ll Take Collaboration Any Day
I’ve just come back from a session where thought leaders across multiple overlapping industries came together to share thoughts and ideas about the market, about what’s good for customers and what we should be striving to achieve. If you take a literal interpretation of Porter’s model, the atmosphere should have been one of stark suspicion and enmity, each of us looking for an advantage to exploit; But instead we ignored the mundane aspects of the everyday competition such as what’s your next widget going to look like and how far away is your next innovation and instead worked together to consider and understand how to make things better for our customers, and how to look at problems from new angles. This is the very opposite of the anti-competitive, collusive behavior that has the regulators rappelling in from the rooftops; it’s about recognising that for there to be true, healthy competition we shouldn’t be trying to push each other down, we should be trying to lift each other up; to inspire one another to achieve greater things and deliver more for our customers.
Again, to translate this into a more relatable scenario this means not viewing your colleague/neighbor/family member as someone who you have to outwit or outstrip; instead look for the opportunities to strike out in a new direction and consider how those around you could be of help. Of course, this also requires you to be open to those opportunities to help others around you, sometimes for no better reason than it’s a nice thing to do.
Old-school thinking might dismiss this sort of thinking as “naive”, and you’d be foolish to ignore completely the risk that you’ll fall prey to someone whose agenda is to truly take advantage (there are still sharks in blue oceans). But to my mind, the calculated risk of achieving truly remarkable things by working collaboratively with others is one that’s truly worth taking.