Blue Ocean Strategy

Business case studies focus on companies. That’s all wrong. The more effective unit of assessment is the “strategic decision.” Companies change because people and external factors shift. Better to take specific moments to assess who, why and how did leadership get it right.

That’s the foundation of what most interests me about popular business book and concept Blue Ocean Strategy, written by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. The original 2005 book’s origins are with a 1997 article on “value innovation” in Harvard Business Review. I read the updated version published in 2015.

It’s easy to criticize the careerism of business books like these. Smart management researchers uncover some findings, group case studies and give it cute branding to sell books and lead to a career of consulting and public speaking. It all has a very packaged feel. Yet I have gotten genuine value from many such books once they’re put in the proper concept: Pick from them what helps you and don’t feel required to follow it all.

The big headline of the book is that too often when facing a strategic decision, leaders follow the pack because it feels safe. Their assessment says this is all wrong. Rather than a crowded “red ocean;” Distinguish yourself by turning to open “blue ocean.” In some sense, many other business metaphors — such as Jim Collins’s “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG) and the “Queen Bee Role” and “making the donuts” — give similarly productive advice: Fall in love with the problem not the solution, and, rather than following everyone else, uncover what you’re the best in the world at.

The advice is good enough, though, that it can help. A friend advised me it was return to Blue Ocean Strategy. I read it, translated it into a mini-workshop my leadership team, and it helped push us forward at an important juncture.

You might rightly benefit too. Pick up a copy. For my future reference, I’ve shared my notes below.

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Notes from the 2016 book ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth’ by Robert Gordon

The “special century” between 1870 and 1970 was not an economic transformation to repeat. It was an anomalous period of exceptional change super-powered by the remarkable inventions of the Second Industrial Revolution not to be repeated.

So argues Robert Gordon in his influential, academic and deeply researched 2016 book The Rise and Fall of American Growth. It is one of the better respected contributions to the conversation how quickly will quality of life continue to advance. Technological advances tend to not reverse, so his point is not that we’ll regress but that we’re due for a long period of languishing growth and advancement.

For millennia until the 1750s, there was very modest rates of economic growth. Then the First Industrial Revolution ushered in slightly faster growth, which setup the second, which we most commonly call the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century. That spurred the fastest advancement in quality of life in human history. By the 1970s, progress slowed. The third, technological revolution only resulted in a short-lived return to high grow in the decade 1994-2004. That was the lone answer to economist Robert Solow’s famous 1984 quip: “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

In his book, Gordon argues we’re unlikely to repeat the rate of gains of that special century. It’s an interesting addition to the familiar techno-optimist versus techno-pessimist argument. Below I share some of notes from the book. It is dense and thorough, so it’s hardly light reading, but I devoured it. It’s an important addition to the economic literature. I recommend reading it.

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Notes from the classic 2001 business book “Good to Great”

Data can point to commonalities of companies that go from being just good to being really great.

Published in 2001 as the middle in a trio of business books written by Stanford University’s Jim Collins, Good to Great is a classic of the genre. Though I’ve heard it cited many times, I only just read it earlier this year. The concept is a likeable one: Collins and a team of graduate students sorted through lots of data to find very similar peer companies, some of which accelerated into greatness and others which only treaded water. Then they sorted through to find what’s similar. Lots of stuff like this happens today — like this popular Medium post.

Twenty years later, the book still has value, even if many of the companies have faded from their greatness and it’s always easy to tease a business book. At its most simple, Collins introduces a simple framework that I’ve played with for my own company (his “hedgehog concept” is a way to communicate: What is that your company can do better than anyone else in the world that can drive financial success?)

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A respite from Philly Tech Week kickoff rainouts

Those closest to me are familiar with this painfully, long-running inside joke: these elaborate outdoor Philly Tech Week kickoff events I organize always happen with comically poor weather. Philly Tech Week is an annual, open calendar of events on technology, entrepreneurship and innovation that I help curate with my company.

That string of rainouts changed in May 2019, when an afternoon shower gave way to warm sunshine.

A beloved events producer of mine turned to me that afternoon and proclaimed: “We have turned a corner and won’t have any more rained out kickoffs!” Given that that 2019 edition was something of a dry-run for 10th annual Philly Tech Week to take place in May 2020, that seemed like a thrilling prediction. In 2020, we would have the largest, best-planned, most interactive kickoff ever, with the help of perfect weather, as I had always envisioned. This memory made me laugh out loud this week because, last month, I hosted the second consecutive all-virtual Philly Tech Week due to the pandemic. Fatima, you were right, no more rainy outdoor kickoffs!

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A few notes from my conversation with Guy Raz of ‘How I Built This’

For’s postponed, all-virtual Introduced conference, I closed out the day interviewing Guy Raz, the influential podcaster behind ‘How I Build This.’ He has a new book by the same name.

For those interested in economic development and entrepreneurship, the conversation is worth a listen. My colleague Stephen Babcock put together a nice recap, and here are a couple points I took away:

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We lose focus slowly

You’d be tricked into thinking there are most often big, grand moments of obvious distractions that you as a leader can turn down.

We lose focus, in our projects, organizations and efforts, not at once, but by slow trickle. You can’t stay focused with a single no, it takes constant vigilance. Lost focus comes with a 1,000 small questions no reasonable person would say no to.

A leader has to have a clear destination in mind and constantly remind herself of it. Sometimes, it will take grand moments of cleansing to undo many small moments gone unnoticed.

Because it is not something that comes naturally to me, I think often of focus. In 2009, I was thinking about how to fine-tune a focus on this very blog. In 2011, I made a resolution to focus, after a flurry of experiments. I did something similar when I turned 30. Entrepreneurial leaders have always advocated for obsessive focus, to be the absolute best and most powerful in one clear way, to strive for monopoly.

(Photo of Focus by Stefan Cosma via Unsplash)

What question is your work answering?

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Every company is an approach to answering some question. (Every nonprofit might be a policy failure.)

Many mistakes are made in choosing that question: it might be too ambitious, or too unambitious. It could be too niche, or not focused enough. The true addressable market might be too small. The question may not be a lasting one. You can ask a question too early or too late, with the wrong leadership, team or product. Some of that can be changed by a good team, so along the company-building journey, you must change your approach.

But don’t change the question.

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Little ways an organizational leader can show her team she cares about them as people

Pay them a competitive salary. Protect against mission and role creep. Give something clear to work toward and a strategy to employ to get there.

As an organizational leader, these are the foundations of developing a healthy relationship with your workforce. I’ve found there are other signs of an empathetic organizational culture that you can develop, without excessive budget needs.

These are examples of ways to show your team that you actually care about them as people. It goes a long way to develop the relationships you need to take on a big challenge, particularly without a pile of money.

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I changed a lot at my company. Here’s why beating a big Q1 revenue goal meant so much

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Nobody wants to follow someone who made General in peacetime.

I’ve been thinking about that concept a lot lately (Ben Horowitz calls its Peace/War Time CEO). In 2017, after eight years of informally leading the tiny community journalism organization I cofounded, I named myself CEO. Up until that point, my cofounder Brian and I had survived together. We’d always find a way to last a bit longer, growing slowly and thoughtfully as we navigated treacherous waters.

That survival approach was rational for growing a local news company in the early 21st century,  a time in which consumers maintain very high expectations for free and independent journalism but have not yet been fully trained to actually pay or otherwise support its work in a post-advertising world.

But in early 2018, as I was finally feeling the great responsibility of the CEO title, I took stock of where my company was.

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