Book Notes – Blue Ocean Strategy: How Leaders Drive Change

Leadership is about influencing people in a specific direction, but sometimes that direction needs to change.

A book I just read provides a great framework to figure out when you need to change, and what strategic direction to head.

But more importantly, it also provides several effective tools to help us drive change when the time comes, and that’s what made this book a winner for me.  Read on, if you are interested in driving change in your organization.

Book Notes - Blue Ocean Strategy: How Leaders Drive Change

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Blood in the Water

When I picked up Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, I thought it was going to be all about what the title suggests – developing successful business strategies, (possibly with some kind of nautical theme).

It was about strategy.  The authors had a lot to say about the process of identifying where your company stands in the market place and how the struggle for customers can leave the waters bloody from cut-throat competition (the red ocean).

They presented a simple tool for figuring out how to differentiate your offerings so that you can  enter uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant (the blue ocean).

But what I really liked about this book was that the authors didn’t leave you hanging there, with a new strategy and no plan to actually execute it.

They tackled the harder question:  How do you drive change?  How do you get everyone on board so you can effectively implement these great new ideas.

In the second half of the book, Kim and Mauborgne provide lots of great tools and approaches to help us overcome organizational inertia effectively.  Here are two of my favorite examples.

Riding the “Electric Sewer”

New York City in the early 1990s was verging on anarchy.  Crime was rampant.  Murders were at an all-time high.  Muggings, mafia hits and armed robbery were commonplace.

The city hired Bill Bratton as Police Chief to try to turn things around.  The first thing he had to do was to get his other leaders to realize that there was a need for strategic change.

One specific problem had to do with the subway system.  Conditions were so bad underground that New Yorkers had dubbed it the “electric sewer.”  Gangs of youth patrolled the cars, winos languished on the benches, aggressive beggars accosted them.

To the average citizen a simple commute had become fraught with danger.  As a result of their fears, riders were boycotting the subways, and revenues were plummeting.

Yet Transit Police didn’t see the problem.  Their statistics showed that only 3% of the city’s major crimes happened on the subway.  They didn’t believe that the subways were something to be concerned about.

To force a change, Bratton knew he had to break the prevailing police mindset, and it wasn’t going to happen with numbers.  How could he accomplish this?

He began by riding the “electric sewer” himself, both day and night.  And he made his top and middle brass do it, too.

Their up-close and personal experience with the daily risks and fears faced by the average commuter very quickly made the problem real to them, and made them more receptive to a strategic shift.

False Economy

In a second example, when Bratton was still working in Massachusetts, the Transportation Authority had decided to cut costs by buying smaller squad cars.  Smaller cars would be cheaper to purchase and less expensive to maintain.  On paper, the numbers made total sense.

But Bratton disagreed with the plan; his police needed the larger cars in order to do their job effectively.

To fight the initiative, he could have engaged in a battle for a bigger budget.  But the outcome would be uncertain; he might end up with the smaller cars anyway.

Instead, he changed the strategic mind set a different way.  He invited the General Manager to ride with him to see his district.

Bratton picked up the manager in a small car, just like the ones he proposed buying.  Before arriving, he jammed the seats forward the way it would be if there were a criminal in the back seat.  He wore his police belt with cuffs and gun to demonstrate how cramped it would be for the policemen in the front seats.

Then he proceeded to drive over every pothole he could find during the tour.

It only took two hours, and the Manager had seen enough.  Having experienced the ugly reality of what the smaller cars would mean to the police in the streets, he understood  that the numbers on his charts didn’t tell the whole story.

Bratton got the larger cars he always knew his force needed.

How Leaders Drive Change – The Takeaway

The hardest part about driving change can be getting people to understand the need to make a strategic shift in the first place.  Kim and Maugorgne call what Bratton did in these examples a part of “tipping point leadership.”

If you are trying to drive change, numbers alone aren’t compelling enough to make it happen, least not quickly.  Numbers can be manipulated.  They can be misinterpreted.  And they don’t stick:  they aren’t visceral.

Instead of relying on numbers, tipping point leadership looks to a much more persuasive way to get people to see the need for change:  taking them down to the trenches and experiencing harsh reality first hand.  People remember and respond much more strongly to what they have seen and felt for themselves.

Want to drive change? Show leaders the ugly. Click To Tweet

Blue Ocean Strategy has a lot to offer for anyone interested in figuring out what direction to take their team.  It’s a good book about strategy.

But for my money, there’s just as much value in the many practical approaches the authors give us to actually drive change in our organizations.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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