A blue ocean strategy

May 02, 2021

To be successful, firms must find their “blue ocean” of uncontested market space.

A lot of us have probably read or heard of the celebrated leadership book Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. The tagline reads: “How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant.” A bold statement. If you haven’t read it, the basic premise is that those who succeed will not be the ones battling each other in “red oceans,” but those who find their “blue ocean” of uncontested market space. I was given this book years ago. At the time, I was skeptical; it was incredibly challenging to even conceive of a market or service that had not already been completely overtaken by competitors, and commoditized. The first time I heard a true blue ocean strategy was at a dinner during a leadership academy:

“When I started here, we only had a couple dozen people and we had to go look for our own work. Well, I read about a new law that required testing of underground storage tanks to detect leaks, which would contaminate soil and groundwater. So, I figured out how to do this testing, and I went and found a list of people who had tanks. And I called them. The first week I called four tank owners and asked if they needed their tank tested. So, I came to the next weekly meeting with four jobs. Then I came to the next weekly meeting with eight jobs, then 16, and it continued exponentially from there. Go do that.”

I have never forgotten it. The guy who told this story is now the CEO of a large firm, responsible for thousands of people. There was a problem, he looked objectively at possible solutions, and said, “Who cares if no one’s done this before? This is the solution.”

Here’s our collective problem: We in the AEC industry have more work than we can handle and recruitment and retention is our No. 1 problem. We are competing head to head for the best employees. We are in a red ocean, there’s no doubt about it.

But what does it really mean to be the “best”? Best client service? Most potential longevity? The highest level of innovation? A good head for strategy and planning? I think all of us would say “all of the above.” And many of us would agree that challenges abound in finding the total package. Jamie Claire Kiser, Zweig Group’s Managing Principal and Director of Advisory Services, wrote about the challenges of recruitment and retention in a recent issue of The Zweig Letter, so I won’t belabor those excellent points.

In the struggle for differentiation in our industry, have we overlooked the obvious solution? That uniform thought and perspective throughout our organizations will ultimately result in flattened growth curves for our firm, as well as limitations in our markets, disciplines, and geographies.

Are we in a red ocean because we are possibly limiting ourselves based on our criteria – what we define as non-negotiables to our industry? There is a blue ocean of talent out there that may not quite fit the mold we have established. We aren’t tapping into it. Don’t fix the talent – fix the mold. Or better yet, get rid of the mold. You don’t need it.

Creating this blue ocean for recruitment and retention – again, the No. 1 problem most firms have in the AEC industry – is what Zweig Group’s ElevateHer is bringing awareness to – elevating the industry, by elevating the employee experience. This is a fundamental paradigm shift in the way we view recruitment and retention, and how we not only shape the employee experience, but how we will shape something equally and critically important – our client experience. All it takes is a little creativity, a willingness to look at a different perspective, and, objectively, very little risk. It starts by reimagining hiring practices, and it may require modification to human resources practices, creativity and a little leap of faith with regard to benefits packages for nontraditional employees, modification to the way we evaluate our financial performance, and many other implications. But for the bold, the decisive, the pioneers, it ends in a blue ocean.

Stephanie Warino is a strategic planning advisor with Zweig Group. Contact her at swarino@zweiggroup.com.

Click here to read this week's issue of The Zweig Letter!

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.