Sunday, October 24, 2010

Uncharted Waters

This post continues the discussion of the Blue Ocean Strategy (BOS)--a business concept that strives to make the competition irrelevant by creating new, uncontested market space. I've been attempting to apply some of the strategic moves of this approach to building a science career and dealing with competition.

There are six assumptions underlying the strategies used by businesses.  I've modified them here to apply to the science professional:

1. We define the profession similarly and strive to be the best within it.

2. We view science through the lens of accepted strategic groups (e.g., basic and applied research).

3. We focus on the same user group: other scientists (research), students (teaching), private clients (consulting), or the public (government).

4. We define the scope of science products and services similarly.

5. We accept the scientific profession's functional or emotional orientation.

6. We focus on the same point in time in formulating strategy.

The more you adhere to this conventional wisdom, the greater the overlap with competitors (a red ocean).  BOS says that to break out of this red ocean, you have to look outside the conventional boundaries to create a blue ocean.

BOS suggests several paths that one might take to break free of the red ocean.

In this post, I'll consider one path:  Look across alternative professions for inspiration.  BOS focuses on alternative industries that provide very different services, but provide a similar function.  An example would be restaurants vs. cinemas.  These industries have very few features in common, but serve the same purpose: pleasure and entertainment.  Another example would be in transportation: driving and flying.  Southwest Airlines looked to driving as the alternative to flying (rather than competing with other airlines for customers). Their goal was to provide fast travel by air at the price of car travel.  In one fell swoop, they eliminated the competition (other airlines) and created a blue ocean.

What are the alternatives for science professionals?

First, let's consider what we do as science professionals.  Our ultimate goals are to discover new knowledge and to educate others. We conduct research in a scientific field and publish the findings in a professional journal or government report.  Some of us teach science to students who go on to do research and teaching (academia), take government jobs (science policy, resource management, regulation), or do consulting (private industry).  A few of us participate in "outreach" activities--taking science directly to the public.  Most, however, typically leave the latter to "science writers" and the general media.  Scientists typically feel that it is their job to conduct science, not to translate it for the non-professional.

However, the interface between the scientist and the journalist is a potential blue ocean.  A number of scientists have succeeded as "science popularizers": Carl Sagan, Jared Diamond, Oliver Sacks, David Suzuki, Stephen Jay Gould, etc.  Many have written popular books or articles; some host science shows on TV; a few have written screenplays that were made into movies, some have popular blogs (Pharyngula).  I found it interesting that of the 100 or so science popularizers listed in Wikipedia, only three women were included, of whom only one appeared to have worked as a scientist (Kirsten Sanford).  There seems to be an opportunity here for female scientists who have a talent for explaining science to the public.

I'm not proposing that all scientists should become science popularizers.  I'm simply pointing out a unique niche by looking across alternative professions (science and journalism).  This niche is occupied mostly by non-scientists (with a few notable exceptions as listed above), which creates an opportunity for those with a science background.  The difference is that the role of science reporter is filled by a scientist who is more knowledgeable than a journalist (who may have only a rudimentary understanding of what they write about). If the scientist is an equally good communicator, their science background clearly gives them a decided advantage over the typical journalist (in-depth understanding of science topics, credibility, contacts in the science community).

That's just one example.  Look across other alternative professions: art, architecture, history, horticulture, information technology, law, museums, philanthropy, religion, name a few.  Lots of potential ideas.

The point is that we limit our opportunities by defining our roles as scientists in a restricted way (researcher, professor) and thinking that the only way to succeed is to be the best within that limited definition.  By breaking free of these traditional roles, we can see new ways to succeed and make a contribution--in non-traditional roles that may be better suited to our talents and where we have a competitive edge because of our science background.

As I said in earlier posts, however, striking off on your own into uncharted waters is risky and scary.  But for those who succeed, the payoff can be hugely rewarding.

Image Source:  Modified from the painting "Lewis and Clark at Three Forks" by Edgar S. Paxson. Image courtesy of Lewis and Clark 2001, the Montana Historical Society, NOAA/OER.  Individuals from left are Coulter, guide; York, Clark's servant; Captain Meriwether Lewis; Captain William Clark; Sacagawea; Charbonneau, Sacagawea's husband.

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