Since 2004, when W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne introduced the concept to mainstream audiences, blue ocean strategy has helped people and organizations develop new products, find new markets, and even get new jobs and opportunities. Which leads you to wonder – can this strategy be used to effectively lead teams?
But, what is this strategy about? According to the authors, all industries exist in red or blue oceans. The red is where all parameters are defined and accepted, with companies trying to outperform each other. But, as it becomes congested, the potential for growth decreases. Blue ocean challenges the view that industry structures are fixed and guides towards untapped opportunities. The approach, which revolves around finding a unique, competition-free, sweet spot in a market, can be modified for effective leadership too. Kim and Mauborgne suggest that blue ocean leadership rests on four pillars that offer key lessons for managers to engage teams:
Lesson 1: Focus on your team’s actions, not personalities.
While traditional leadership development focuses on building traits, values, and behaviors in people, under blue ocean leadership, the highest employee impact comes from actions, not personalities. It is the difference between a motivating pep talk for your team to meet a deadline, versus resolving the bottlenecks that can move them towards the goal. The key idea here: it’s easier to change and measure a person’s activities, than their qualities or values.
Lesson 2: Help confront the challenges your team faces at the ground level.
Senior leadership could often be detached from the market realities their staff confront. The result: general strategies that are disconnected from the context of their people’s work. For example, a QA professional’s turnaround time might be affected by the leadership decision to cut costs. With blue ocean leadership, managers must engage the team to understand their ground realities and put in place best practices to overcome specific concerns.
Lesson 3: Distribute leadership across management levels.
Blue ocean leadership recommends highly differentiated leadership profiles, so all individuals and levels work independently to unlock employee potential. While front-line managers’ primary focus is to serve the customer, middle management’s immediate focus is to support the front-line, and to improve organizational processes. The role of the top management is to plan the organization’s strategic direction. Concentrating all responsibilities within the top management would leave them unable to focus on the big picture. It also undermines the efforts of those in the middle and lower management.
Lesson 4: Delegate low-impact tasks to focus on high impact leadership.
Many managers have project-related tasks – writing reports, checking attendance, etc. – which take up time and energy, leaving little room for people development. Managers must identify which of these tasks they can reduce, automate, or delegate, so they can focus on leadership activities that actually impact business results. This ensures the highest employee engagement with the lowest time investment.
These pillars can be adapted to both the individual and the organizational levels. And just like blue ocean strategy, blue ocean leadership promises win-win outcomes that support employees as well as enable business impact.