Monday, September 27, 2010

Blue Ocean Strategy for Scientists

In the previous post, I introduced the Blue Ocean Strategy, a business strategy that creates new market space in which the competition becomes irrelevant. In a red ocean, the competition sharks are circling; when they attack, the water turns bloody. In a blue ocean, you create a space in which you operate with little or no competition.  The sharks don't exist in that world. 

In science, we compete for external funding, for resources within our institutions, and for journal space. In this post, I'll briefly go through some of the steps required to develop a Blue Ocean Strategy.  If you are interested in getting the full story and detailed examples, the book is available on  Even if you are not interested in business books, this one is quite readable due to the many interesting examples that give the background story on some businesses/products that you may have heard of and why they have been so successful (Cirque du Soleil, [yellow tail] wine).

The strategy involves four actions to identify the changes that need to be made to create a blue ocean.  These actions are expressed as questions to get you to begin formulating the necessary changes.

1. Which of the factors that the profession takes for granted should be eliminated?
2. Which factors should be reduced well below the profession's standard?
3. Which factors should be raised well above the profession's standard?
4. Which factors should be created that the profession has never offered?

I'll use one of the examples from the book to illustrate how this works and then see how this idea might apply to science fields.

Casella Wines is an Australian based company that created [yellow tail], which differed from the typical wine profile.  By applying a blue ocean strategy, the company created a wine that became the fastest growing brand in the history of the wine industry in both Australia and the US.  First, they realized that most Americans and Australians rejected wine as their drink of choice because its complex taste was difficult to appreciate (tannins, etc.) and its reputation as an elite drink was unappealing to the masses. Beer and mixed drinks were sweeter and easier to appreciate...and were appealing to the average person. So [yellow tail] was created with a new combination of wine characteristics: uncomplicated in structure, soft in taste, and up-front fruit flavors. Buyers did not have to have years of wine experience to enjoy drinking it. So the company eliminated all the factors that the wine industry typically competes on: tannins, oaks, aging. The company next turned to the bewildering array of wines that customers usually face in the store--an intimidating choice for those unschooled in the complexities of wine.  They reduced the choices to two wines: a white (Chardonnay) and a red (Shiraz).  They removed all the technical jargon from the label, created a bright logo, and put the bottles in a striking but simple display. This move streamlined the business (reduced stocks, manufacturing, selling)--reducing their costs of production. They promoted the wine as a fun drink anyone could enjoy (i.e., you don't have to be a wine snob to drink it).  They priced it above the budget jug wines, but below the bottle wines at $6.99.  By making these moves, they reached a new set of customers that were not typical wine-drinkers.  Bottles literally flew off the shelves.

In science, we are all competing in similar ways for journal space, for funding, and for recognition--all of which have feed-back effects on each other.  Students and very naive junior scientists often seem not to recognize that there is any competition (or behave as if there is no competition).  They think that funding for their research will arrive--all they have to do is write a proposal; their papers will get published--all they have to do is write it up and submit it; they will land a great job and become well-known--all they have to do is work hard.  In other words, they have no strategy.

More savy science practitioners recognize that competition exists and attempt to best others by working harder and spending longer hours in the lab.   For example, some of us spend an enormous amount of time writing proposals (usually for only one or two years of funding).  I know some scientists who routinely submit five to ten proposals per year in order to get one or two funded.  That time could have been spent writing papers, of course.  Is there a blue ocean strategy that reduces or eliminates competition for research funding?  That may seem like a nutty question.  Of course scientists have to compete for funding.  Or do they?

One blue ocean solution that a few scientists have discovered is to self-fund their research.  I wrote about this idea in an earlier post.  These researchers essentially donate a portion of their income to keep their labs running.  Some started doing it when funding temporarily dried up and continued the practice. They set aside some of their income to cover research expenses or did a bit of consulting on the side and used that income to fund their research and that of graduate students.  The advantage is that they no longer compete with other scientists for funding, they don't suffer the indignity of having reviewers and panelists bashing (or stealing) their ideas, they don't give up part of the funds to overhead, and they can research whatever topics they fancy.  The disadvantage, of course, is using personal income and losing the "prestige" that comes with grants.  This would not work for everyone, but could be a blue ocean strategy for some.  It might be a temporary solution to get you through a difficult patch, rather than a long-term strategy.  I offer this example because it's an approach that most scientists never consider and is a perfect example of a blue ocean strategy.

Another idea is to target sources of funding in which you may be more competitive or in which the total competition is small.  This is an obvious suggestion, but one that is sometimes overlooked.  Instead of going after NSF or NIH funding (a red ocean), for example, look for other funding sources with less competition or in which your proposal stands out.  I once got a fellowship by applying to a funding source that did not get many ecologists applying--thus, my application stood out.  Smaller grants, especially those with limited eligibility, are sometimes easier to get than the usual research grant.  Career advancement fellowships for women and minorities, for example, are available from government agencies and private foundations.  To make these decisions, you must have a really good idea of your competitive profile (more about this later). 

These are just a few ideas for creating a blue ocean strategy for a science career.  The point is to create a space for yourself to do science in which you make the competition irrelevant.  You can probably think of other ideas that would work for you and your situation.  In the next posts, we'll look at some other strategies as well as additional criteria that tell you whether your blue ocean ideas are viable.

Image Credit (modified from a still image from the film "Open Water")

1 comment:

Swamp Thing said...

Some great points here that I think you could tease out even more for those who are working in the applied sectors.

My wetland career took off 10 years ago when it became evident that I had built an array of technical skills that others simply did not have (or want, in some cases).

If you really want to focus your research on a singular topic - perhaps find another way to get to it - you make a great example of applying for a "less prestigous" fellowship that perhaps asks you to focus on the social impact of the ecological topic of your interest. When you are in Years 4 - 10 of your career....those are "clutch" decisions!