Blue Ocean Strategy: It’s really just a cautionary tale in overthinking

iStock_000015163584_MediumBy Mark Schroffel

Forever on the lookout for innovative ways to develop strategy, I decided it was time to read Kim and Mauborgne’s newest edition of Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant – a book lauded for containing proven frameworks “for creating and capturing blue oceans,” or wide open spaces in the marketplace.

And now? I’m disappointed and concerned.

I’m disappointed in myself for believing – for even a brief moment – that this book would reveal something new or revolutionary. It doesn’t. Yes, it reworks old ideas and establishes a few newish concepts like the strategy canvas and the value innovation construct. But its central idea of building a business in uncontested markets is terribly flawed.

While its authors have held senior positions within established organisations and think tanks, it’s clear from their work (and their professional profiles) that neither one has launched or run a business of their own. Their enthusiasm for strategy is purely academic: It’s all theory. No practice involved.

This doesn’t mean they fail to make a contribution. Kim and Mauborgne successfully revive a strategic planning focus and provide yet another set of tools and thought processes which may encourage businesses, in competitive and commoditised markets, to chart paths for repositioning themselves.

So, why am I concerned?

As with all pop-strategy, a rah-rah brigade will surely rise up around the book’s central concepts. Newly converted oceaneers will begin steering their businesses into uncharted waters said to be free of competition. (And customers, I suspect.)

What I fear most are evangelist managers who’ll stride purposefully to work one Monday morning with their new, weekend reads cradled to their breasts like a book of revelations.

Yet, it must be said: Competition is a good thing.

It means the fish are biting. Moving too far outside the contest often means missing out altogether. Yes, there are those one-in-a-billion businesses which strike out and capture the market with a single, genius idea. We all want to be on board when that happens, but chances are we won’t. The system simply can’t sustain an infinite number of profitable businesses across an infinite number of new markets.

We eventually have to find our limits. And then we compete.

The beauty of Blue Ocean Strategy is that its main points have been framed in such a way that any new venture can be tagged a blue ocean success. However, if pressed, I’m sure we could also bestow credit on the likes of Sun Tzu (circa 500 BC) and Clausewitz (1873). By all means, read the book, as it offers a fresh look at the strategic process. But resist overinvesting in the blue ocean dream.

As any sailor can attest, the notion of reaching your destination is an exciting one – but the oceans themselves can be deep, lonely and empty spaces.

Cast me a line if your experience differs from my own. Or confirms it!

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