When we think about people as people, not as corporate executives, entrepreneurs, or government officials, and certainly not as human resources, we realize that, behind our titles, all of us are incredibly vulnerable. No matter how tough, confident, or polished we may appear, all of us are tender at our core. We strive to avert reproach. We want to avoid making fools of ourselves. We pretend we know more than we do..
Of course, these very human traits are also factors inside organizations and teams. The fact that most causes and groups fail in addressing these basic parts of our humanness, or assuming that financial incentives simply counteract them, is why so many change efforts and attempts to drive organizations to become more creative and innovative fail. They have not acknowledged and built what we call humanness into the process.
This is enormously costly, just simply because of its effect on morale. Humanness builds psychological understanding into the strategic process so that people are willing to be vulnerable, tap into their inner creativity and engage fully at every step—even when they’re hesitant, may not trust one another, or are skeptical of their ability to succeed on the transformation journey. When we feel genuinely understood and appreciated for who we are as whole people, when we feel respected not because we are brilliant, bold, and perfect, but because we have something to contribute and want to make a difference despite our insecurities and vulnerabilities, we stop feeling like imposters with something to hide. We trust other people. Only then are we capable of conceiving and executing a blue ocean shift—moving beyond competing in existing crowded markets to wide-open blue oceans, or new markets devoid of competition.
Humanness, in short, builds our confidence to act by eliciting our emotional engagement. This is critical for reshaping and reimagining industry boundaries.
How Humanness Is Built
To help people develop the confidence to act, three elements that address different aspects of our humanness are built into the blue ocean process: atomization, firsthand discovery, and the exercise of fair process. Let’s look at each one in turn.
While making a blue ocean shift represents a step-change approach to the market, it is purposely designed not to feel that way inside the organization. The process recognizes that the bigness and newness of the goal can be overwhelming. “You want us to chart a future beyond the existing market? You count on us to think differently and shape industry boundaries? Are we…am I even capable of doing this?” That’s most people’s knee-jerk reaction, and it’s natural.
Then how do you get people to make a blue ocean shift? You don’t. That is, not with one great leap. Instead, you break the challenge down into small, concrete steps that move people forward in increments that inspire and build their confidence. So, for example, people are asked to identify the factors an industry competes on. Or to pinpoint the biggest obstacles to simplicity in an industry. Or to zoom in on buyer groups that could benefit from your industry’s offering but don’t currently purchase it. When framed this way, each step pushes the boundaries of our thinking, but no one step overwhelms us. And, at any one stage, none of us can say that what is being asked of us is too big a leap. Yet, the culmination of these small steps leads to a blue ocean shift.
We call this atomization after Einstein’s reflection that if you deconstruct any challenge into its basic components, or atoms, and focus on solving them one at a time, even the largest challenge shifts from being overwhelming to being intellectually and psychologically solvable.
2. Firsthand discovery
Our ideas about what is possible and what we are capable of are not only a function of the size of the challenge we face. They are also grounded in our past perceptions and experiences. And, in organizations, what most of us see and know to be true is intense competition. This makes it our safe harbor, emotionally and intellectually. So we cling to it, even when we know we shouldn’t. Every time a new person is “shown the ropes,” it reinforces the organization’s existing strategic perspective.
Challenging people’s view of the world by asking how the established strategy may need to change goes against this natural tendency. But natural does not mean inevitable. The question is, if defending the status quo and trying to bend reality to fit within it comprise the organization’s default behavior, what can a leader do?
Creating the conditions that will enable people to discover for themselves, firsthand, the need for change, instead of being told, is the answer that emerges from our research. The blue ocean shift process achieves this in two important ways. First, people are handed no predetermined conclusions. Rather, at each step, people are given tools that allow them to arrive at the answers themselves. The tools show them how to think in new ways and allow them to discover for themselves the need—or the lack of need—to make a blue ocean shift. With no predetermined conclusions, people don’t feel manipulated. And because the process allows them to reach the conclusions themselves, their creativity and understanding of what matters expand, as does their ownership of the results.
Second, the process changes what people see and experience, leading us to open our minds and change our understanding of what we know to be true because we witnessed it ourselves. The process achieves this by creatively putting you and your team face-to-face with the market, instead of praying for insight, or building it and assuming people will come, or relying on third-party market research. It gets you out of the office and into the field to speak with both customers and noncustomers, to act like buyers and experience products and services as they do, to feel buyers’ pain points that were always there but that you’d never seen before, to observe alternative industries and human behavior—in short, to collect visceral insights.
Seeing truly is believing. It moves us from the unsettling, highly vulnerable mindset of “I don’t know” to the quietly confident one of “I know,” not because we have been briefed by a report or told by a third-party focus group, but because we saw and experienced it for ourselves. People start waking up, thinking, “Why didn’t we ever see that before? It’s so obvious!” No matter how stubborn people are, they start to see patterns that had escaped them or that they’d written off as anomalies before.
3. Fair process
Fair process speaks to the fundamental fabric of who we are as people. It confers the gift of trust, enabling us to relax and inspiring our commitment and voluntary cooperation.
What is fair process? Essentially, it comes down to three principles that we have written about and studied for nearly 30 years: engagement, explanation, and clear expectations. The power of these principles cannot be overstated. They are the foundation on which the blue ocean shift process is built. Engagement means actively involving people in strategic decisions that affect them by asking for their input and allowing them to refute and challenge the merits of one another’s ideas and assumptions. When managers do that, they communicate their respect for the people who work for them and for their ideas. It builds collective wisdom. Fostering engagement in this way generates better decisions and greater commitment from those involved in executing them.
Explanation means providing people with a clear account of the thinking that underlies the process and the strategic decisions reached at each step. Explanation reassures people
that their opinions have been considered, and decisions have been made with the company’s overall interests at heart. This fosters people’s trust in managers’ intentions—even if their own ideas were rejected.
Lastly, clear expectations means just that: stating clearly what people can expect, and what their roles and responsibilities are, at each step and in moving forward after the process is complete. Although the expectations may be demanding, when people know what the goals and milestones are, and who is responsible for what, they feel safe and respected.
What makes fair process so powerful is that it communicates through its action how much people are valued as individuals and recognized for their intellectual and emotional worth.
When we feel valued, we feel emotionally secure and are intrinsically motivated to give our all. We trust, we commit, and we move from being self-protecting to being open to sharing, exploring the new, and giving our best ideas even when we are uncertain as to how they will be received. Anyone who has ever worked in an organization understands how important this is.
By weaving fair process together with atomization and first hand discovery into the process, humanness and, hence, confidence to act are instilled and reinforced. By doing so, execution is no longer an afterthought. Rather it is built into the process by creating people’s buy-in to the outcome of the process itself. What’s special about this buy-in is that it persists, even when the resulting decision is at odds with what people had originally hoped for. While we may wish it were otherwise, we also accept that things cannot always go our way, and that short-term personal sacrifices are sometimes needed to advance the success and promote the survival of an organization. This acceptance, however, is conditional on the presence of a humanistic process.
When strategy implementation is internally driven in this way, instead of externally imposed or manipulated through carrots and sticks, people voluntarily support and enact strategies to make a blue ocean shift. The attitude at the end of the blue ocean shift process is palpable. In two words, it’s “We’re launching.”