The most common pitfall to setting up a project team for your Blue Ocean Strategy project – and how to avoid it

This article is the 2nd in a series of 6 common pitfalls to implementing a Blue Ocean Strategy initiative— and how to avoid them. If you missed the first one, go back and read it here. And don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter so you don’t miss any of them.

Every strategy project needs an effective project team. And when it comes to implementing a Blue Ocean Strategy project, having the right team in place can determine whether the project succeeds or fails.

In their bestselling book Blue Ocean Strategy and the recently launched Blue Ocean Shift, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne encourage companies to use value innovation to create new growth opportunities. While many companies have successfully used this new approach, many others struggle to successfully implement the approach– and often, those struggles start with having the wrong project team in place.

In this article, you’ll learn the most common pitfall companies face when setting up their Blue Ocean Strategy iproject team– and how to avoid it. The insights I share come from 12 years of helping companies implement Blue Ocean strategy– and that includes setting up their project team.

Before we look at the pitfall, let’s start with a case study.

The cost of having the wrong people on a Blue Ocean Strategy project team

In one company I worked with, the project team included the most successful regional heads of business, at the CEO’s request.

One particular member had the best financial results in the group– and had trouble understanding why the “answer” for growing business wasn’t that the other regions should do what he did. It had worked for him, why not just replicate it?

Per Blue Ocean Strategy thinking, other team members wanted to step outside the boundaries of current business, but this member was convinced that his success just needed to be repeated in other regions. He pushed his views on the team, which kept them from fully exploring other solutions.

What’s more, as a busy executive, he delegated the fieldwork that’s essential to value innovation instead of speaking with customers and non-customers himself. His adherence to the status quo and unwillingness to follow the tenets of Blue Ocean Strategy caused the project– and the team tasked with implementing it– to suffer.

Pitfall: Keeping the project team to the “usual suspects”

Many organizations call on the same executives to create or update strategy. It’s common practice to pull together the “usual suspects” for every new project. But for an approach that will actually make a difference, companies need different people in the room.

A successful Blue Ocean Strategy needs a diverse, cross-functional project team with a mix of upper management and lower-level employees with broad backgrounds. Team members should be identified based on their capability to think differently, not just based on their title. They should be chosen on their talent and skills, rather than their function or past business success.

Creating a culture of innovation through diverse thinking

A diverse group creates diverse ideas: Celine from accounting will have a completely different viewpoint than Bill the managing director. Additionally, I have found that less senior employees will more naturally challenge norms than the upper management responsible for keeping those norms in place. Those different views and willingness to question the status quo are where value innovation is born.

Of course, this approach can feel counter-intuitive, even for those within the group. In several projects I’ve led, an HR, IT or accounting manager in the group has taken me aside at the first meeting to express surprise and even concern at being included in a business generating project.  “I am in HR,” they say. “I don’t know the business side that well…”  

Yet, often, their “ignorance” is an asset. They aren’t familiar with the business boundaries that others in the organization have learned to accept. They are therefore the most likely to challenge current thinking and question why things are done the way they’re done.

In the end, I’ve often seen these same people come up with winning ideas at the end of the process, despite their “lack of business knowledge.” It’s highly motivating for them and proves that finding high-growth ideas is not the strict domain of “the usual suspects.” It shows that anyone, really, can do it– which helps create a culture that encourages innovation.

Driving strategy throughout the organization

A diverse project team also helps implement the new strategy from within the organization and across functions, rather than relying on a top-down approach. It creates “idea champions” who can help support implementation from a change management point of view in every area of the company, and in some cases, can even help bridge across differences in the organization.

Consider one of my clients, an IT hardware company, who had acquired a software company. The CEO decided to create several teams with people from both the hardware and the software businesses in each. At our first workshop together, it was quite obvious who was from the hardware side and who was from the software side – each had their own customers they were used to serving, and their products and services were tailored for those customers.  It wasn’t until we started talking more broadly about customers’ end-to-end experiences that the teams started to realize that when a customer has an issue, they don’t think of it as a “hardware” issue or a “software” issue – it is instead a problem that needs solving.

Taking off the “hardware” and “software” hats and focusing instead on the customer and non-customer experiences gave the team members a shared focus. By the following year, when we kicked off another Blue Ocean Strategy project, it was nearly impossible to know whether participants came from the hardware or software side of the business. The team members had shifted their focus to non-customers, and could now think beyond their industry boundaries to create innovative solutions. A number of these team members became “idea champions” and became responsible for new areas of business as a result.

Idea champions are especially important with Blue Ocean Strategy because innovative ideas can receive significant pushback. Creating a diverse, multi-functional team of employees leverages their natural enthusiasm and belief in the strategy to drive implementation throughout the organization. They have skin in the game, so they’ll be more likely to work to make sure the idea takes hold– which is the key to every strategy’s success.

The Bottom Line

When setting up your Blue Ocean Strategy project team, ensure you have a cross-functional mix of employees with broad backgrounds – not just the “usual suspects”. By choosing a project team who will challenge the status quo and think differently, organizations can not only create new value, but can also encourage a culture of innovation.


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