Friday, September 24, 2010

Swimming in a Blue Ocean

A book that I've found to be helpful in thinking about personal career strategies is called "Blue Ocean Strategy".  It's a business book, but the idea applies to any competitive situation.  The concept that the authors promote is that "companies should break out of the red ocean of bloody competition by creating uncontested market space that makes the competition irrelevant".  Instead of trying to capture an increasingly smaller share of the market space, a company can break away from the competition by creating an entirely new market (in which there is little or no competition, at least for a while).  You can probably think of some research organizations that have done just this.  Instead of trying to compete with other research institutions for limited funding, they've focused on a specific area that other researchers have ignored (or not yet recognized) and/or developed unique expertise. 

The book, Blue Ocean Strategy, is an interesting read, since the authors use some fascinating examples to illustrate their concept.  The information and the strategy they present are based on fifteen years of research.  One of their examples is Cirque du Soleil, which started out in 1984 as a group of street performers.  They created a new market, catering to adults, rather than children (the typical market for circuses).  This group achieved revenues in only 20 years what it took Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey more than 100 years to attain.  The remarkable aspect of this example is that it took place in an industry that was in serious decline.  This latter feature is a repeating theme throughout the book: a company succeeds dramatically despite being in an unpopular or failing industry.  This point is relevant to us as scientists who have invested a great deal in our training in a particular field--changing fields is often out of the question.  However, changing how we approach our work in that field is possible.

An individual can apply the blue ocean strategy to their own career.  In a red ocean, your boundaries and rules of the game are known and accepted by everyone in science.  In this red ocean, each scientist tries to outperform rivals to get a share of the market (funding, space in journals, etc.).  As more people crowd into your specific field, your prospects of getting funding or published in top journals decline, and you have to work harder just to stay even. Weaker competitors become desperate and resort to unscrupulous behavior (stealing ideas, fabricating data, sabotaging colleagues).

In the previous post, I talked about copycat scientists.  What they are doing is the exact opposite of the blue ocean strategy.  Instead of carving out a niche for themselves, they are going head-to-head with someone in their own workplace who is already established.  It's an uphill battle.  Worse, they are duplicating work and approaches that are being used by their rival instead of developing their own.  A really poor strategy all around--but the copycats never seem to recognize this.  

In a blue ocean, the competition is irrelevant because you've gone outside the typical boundaries of your profession and created demand for what you have to offer (that no one else is offering).  At one time, automobiles, aviation, computers, and cell phones did not exist--in fact, had never been heard of.  These are now multi-billion dollar industries.  Although they exist today in a red ocean, they operated in a blue ocean in the beginning, and the innovators who took the initial risks reaped the benefits.  The risks involved in pursuing a blue ocean strategy can be large (although there are ways to minimize risk), and the outcome is not always clear.  Can you predict what products or companies will be the big winners twenty years from now?  So, embarking on a blue ocean strategy is not for the faint-hearted.

How does one apply the blue ocean strategy to a science career?  I imagine you are already thinking of some examples for your particular situation.  I may elaborate in later posts.

But for now, the concept applies to the theme of this series--self-promotion.  Scientists are competing for the most part within a strict set of boundaries.  Most scientists rely on their publication records, their citation rates, their teaching evaluations, etc. to speak for them and their success.  If you take a more active role in developing your reputation, you will be stepping outside the normal boundaries of the red ocean.  I'll give you an example.

Most of us (scientists) are expected to engage in professional service activities such as reviewing, editing, serving as officers in professional societies.  Many of us are evaluated based on service (in addition to science & teaching), but service often gets short-shrift.  I realized that this was one area that I could develop beyond the normal things scientists do--and stand out from the crowd.  There were a number of options, but I decided to focus on science communication.  One of the skills I've developed in this regard is making videos that describe aspects of my research and that of collaborators.  I've gotten some of these published online as audio-visual products of my agency. The reactions I've gotten from the general public (and from colleagues) tell me that these videos are not only providing a service but are getting me noticed in a new way.  I'm now learning animation techniques so that I can better illustrate scientific concepts.  I'm finding this activity fun, challenging, and fulfilling.  It's allowed me to combine my artistic abilities with my science training to come up with a blue ocean strategy.  You may have some particular skill or natural talent that can be tapped in a similar way. 

The above is just one example of how you can self-promote while fulfilling professional goals.  It also works as a blue ocean strategy because it replaces the typical service activity with something few other scientists do.  Service is expected by many science employers, but doesn't seem to get much emphasis during evaluations (unless you don't do it).  If you participate only in the typical service activities, no one is much impressed.  However, if you do something really unique, it can bring you recognition.  Don't think you have time to do something other than the usual?  Instead of spending two hours per week anonymously reviewing papers or sitting on yet another committee, why not invest one of those hours doing something unique that meets your service duties and makes you stand out among your peers?    

If you develop a good blue ocean strategy and apply it consistently, you will likely enjoy swimming a lot more.

Photograph by Paolo Curto

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