Book Review: Blue Ocean Strategy

by Venkat on August 6, 2007

I don’t usually write strongly negative reviews of books, because most of the time, when you encounter a bad book, it is usually obviously bad from page 1 on. Intelligent readers don’t need help figuring that out. Blue Ocean Strategy is a bad book, but it is not your usual bad book. It is a dangerous bad book because it takes some thinking to figure out why it is bad, despite its success, and despite the fact that its key metaphor of blue ocean vs. red ocean has made it into the business lexicon and titles of innovation projects. This means that harried workers and managers, even really smart ones, who digest this on a short plane ride, might very well be led down very dangerous paths by it. So here is the first ever skewering of a book on ribbonfarm. Call it a ritual sacrifice. If you already read the book and didn’t find any serious flaws, read on for a detox course. If you haven’t read it, I hope I am able to turn you off. If you still insist on buying it, please use the affiliate link on this page, so at least some good comes from it. A better use of your hard-earned money might be buying me a cappuccino when you are done reading the review. Or buying one of the alternate recommendations at the end.

Blue Ocean Strategy, by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne

Though I am late to market with my review, it is only now that the book (published in 2005) has seeped into companies to the point where it is influencing strategy, so I might still be in time to save some lives.

Here is a quick summary of the main message of the book: “do something really new.” That’s it. The message is that trite, and it takes the authors 216 pages to deliver it. Wait! You might argue. Doesn’t the book introduce a compelling metaphor and frame a valuable new concept? Isn’t the road map reasonable? Isn’t it at least useful for the collection of anecdotes it contains? No, no, no and no. And I’ll tell you why. Better still, I’ll write this review in the form of a 7 deadly sins list. I’ll tell you why, even if you follow the book’s road map and succeed, that does not validate the book. You succeeded in spite of the book, not because of it. Finally, I’ll point you to some better stuff to read. So here are the sins of the book, in order of increasing seriousness.

Sin #1: The Blue Ocean Squatter Metaphor

The basic metaphor of the book is this: uncontested market space (which of course you can easily get to using the “roadmap” and “tools” prescribed) is like a blue ocean, where other sharks aren’t swimming around competing with you for prey. Regular markets are red oceans, where the water is bloodied by combat with other sharks. The metaphor is incoherent and confusing. Among other things, blue ocean is a naval term to be contrasted with littoral, and if you are a normal person, the term probably conjures up an image of deep oceans, far away from land, not a bloody/non-bloody contrast. Even accepting their framing, the ocean might be blue because there’s no krill out there, as a colleague pointed out (a criticism that is set up in strawman form and peremptorily dismissed in the book), unless you are an oceanic white tip shark (aside: I’ve been watching the Discovery Channel “Shark Week”). But these are not the main problems with the metaphor.

It’s main problem is that it gets you nowhere, and actually needs more explanation than the abstract phrase uncontested market space or even just new market. A good conceptual metaphor should have a lot of implications that really enrich your thinking, highlight the pattern of key features in the domain, and get you farther than the raw abstractions or literal examples would. Hobbes Leviathan, for instance, is a great conceptual metaphor, because it conveys the subsuming organic nature of a complex society. The blue ocean metaphor says nothing more than leave the competition behind.

So what’s so bad about a bad metaphor? Well, it causes a squatting problem. Like somebody squatting on an Internet domain name. The idea that you should try to create and dominate uncontested market space is an obvious one, and every manager in the business world understands it. And yes, they could all use a really good metaphor to understand it better. Now unfortunately, there is an incumbent bad metaphor to displace. I suspect we’ll be using this metaphor for a while, and then throw out the baby (of focusing on uncontested market space) with the bath water of a metaphor that dampens and distracts rather than energizing thinking. I hope somebody comes up with a better metaphor and kicks this squatter off prime intellectual real estate.

Sin #2: Conceptual Emptiness

It is my practice, when reading a business book, to ask, “what would be left of this book if I took all the anecdotes out?” The answer is an assessment of the conceptual framework and model of the book. For this book, the answer is “nothing.” Worse, many of the anecdotes are rehashed, so you probably saw half of them before anyway (like Southwest).

Early in the book, the authors hint at a potentially powerful line of development, when they assert that the strategic move rather than the great company is to be the unit of analysis. I perked up and said, “Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere.” The idea that there are no permanently great companies has been around for a while (for instance, in Clockspeed as pointed out by a comment on my review of Competing on Analytics). But what do we find?

“We studied more than one hundred fifty strategic moves made from 1880 to 2000 in more than thirty industries… we searched for convergence among the group that created blue oceans…we tried to discover the common factors leading to the creation of blue oceans and the key differences separating those winners from the mere survivors and the losers adrift in the red oceans” (page 11)

Hmm… alright, we’re with you so far, though you’d better watch out for the Lincoln-Kennedy-assassination common factors effect. So what did you find?

“The creators of blue oceans, surprisingly, didn’t use the competition as their benchmark. Instead they followed a different strategic logic that we call value innovation. We call it value innovation because instead of focusing on beating the competition, you focus on making the competition irrelevant by creating a leap in value for buyers and your company.” (page 12)

Oh my God! How did we all fail to realize this? This is almost as brilliant as the harried bureaucrat in an R. K. Laxman cartoon in the Times of India decades ago, who is saying to his ministerial boss from behind a huge pile of paper, “Minister, I’ve completed a thorough study of the grave flood situation in Kerala. It shows that the flood situation in Kerala is grave.” It gets worse:

“Value innovation is a new way of thinking about and executing strategy that results in the creation of a blue ocean and a break from the competition.”

That’s it right there. They claim to have the secret sauce, and even give it a name. Hard work, inspired visions, blood and sweat, luck and uncertainty not needed. Follow the cookbook and you’ll get there. There is more gobbledygook that I won’t bother to quote.

The conceptual framework really is that trite. There appears to be more, but as I’ll explain in a minute, the more substantial stuff actually came from elsewhere (from sources like Clayton Christenson and Malcolm Gladwell). If somebody uses the phrase value innovation at me, I will throw a stapler at him/her.

Sin #3: Fooled by Anecdotal Randomness

If the authors couldn’t invent a good theory, maybe they at least did their multiple regressions right? Nope. Think about the hard problem they’ve set themselves: analyzing dramatic (and successful) strategic moves that turned companies around. You’d think that sudden, discontinuous changes in the trajectories of high inertia entities like companies would merit more respectful treatment. You don’t want to pretend you can predict, retrospectively explain, or produce earthquakes when perhaps the best you can do is identify some sort of coarse pattern, like the power law that Gutenberg and Richter found.

The problem with analyzing a set of 150 short-sharp-shock type events is that there are a huge number of variables, and you are almost certain to find commonality patterns (among successes and failures) and discriminating factors (between successes and failures) if you look hard enough at any large enough subset of variables. They do that all the time in the stock market. Tired though the complaint is, people still don’t seem to get it, even sophisticated Minitab users. Correlation ain’t causality.

Given this, we need a whole lot more explanation than we get. Did they think about whether their variables were the right ones? Did they account for randomness and path dependence effects? Did they come up with an explanation and necessity/sufficiency arguments? Sorry, go elsewhere for those.

On second thoughts, don’t bother. Their conclusions about the pattern they found aren’t interesting enough to need explanation: reconstruct market boundaries; focus on the big picture, not the numbers; reach beyond existing demand; overcome key organizational hurdles; get the strategic sequence right.

The only one that is not 120% obvious to most managers I’ve known is the last one, and that’s obvious to about 80%.

Anecdotes are among the most powerful weapons of the business writers. They provide easy wins and easily packaged value. That makes it all the more important that they are analyzed thoughtfully and tastefully. At least hindsight ought to be 20/20.

Sin #4: The Vaguely Plausible Roadmap and Proof Case

Yes, the book does provide a “road map” and a bunch of visualization “tools.” By themselves, the tools are neither brilliant nor particularly bad. You and I could invent similar diagramming techniques. Chances are, since you and I are honest enough to not create pointless fluff, where possible, we’d avoid inventing new “techniques” unless faced with a clear inadequacy in current tools and terminology.

But no, we are subjected to the torture of chapter after chapter of new “tools” and useless conceptual clutter (since, per Sin #2, there are no real concepts in the book). We have, among other profundities, the “Eliminate-Reduce-Raise-Create” grid and the “Strategy Canvas” and the “Six Paths Framework.” Call me Stuart Smalley and give me my daily affirmations please. Excellent for retrospective analysis and grabbing credit. Not much help if you are actually sitting over coffee, nursing a splitting headache from having thought for hours, with reams of crumpled paper and acres of scrawled white boards, about a tricky business situation.

And is there any humility and acknowledgment that other techniques might work as well or (gasp!) better, or that hard creative work can’t be bottled up? No, we are informed that: “Chapter 2 introduces the analytical tools and frameworks that are essential for creating and capturing blue oceans” (emphasis mine). Clearly, the players behind the 150 moves from 1880 to 2000 that they studied just got incredibly lucky, since they lacked these “essential” tools.

What about their proof cases, like the minor leap made by Yellowtail wine (a fairly trivial innovation that the authors glibly classify with major revolutions like the Model T Ford or Southwest Airlines). Here we see confirmation bias and bad experimental design at its worst. It would take too long (and too much work, given their caginess about details) to point out the problems with the way they claim success for their methods. But here’s the honest experiment. Give a bunch of equally creative teams the same clear directive (say, “find us some new billion-dollar nascent growth options where there is no competition”), and send them off on a 2-day retreat, letting them pick their own tools and methods. You’d find, I suspect that the team using the Blue Ocean methods would do no better than the average team using any reasonable method. Quite possibly (see Sin #6), it will do worse. Which would tell you that it is the creativity and chemistry of the team, and the ideas that are already floating around, that matter. Not the diagramming techniques they choose to use. Of course, doing the honest experiment is close to impossible, which makes their theory unfalsifiable. For an honest look that gives credit where credit is due, and honestly admits what cannot be bottled up, take a look at the narratives and analyses in Katzenbach’s The Wisdom of Teams.

The few experiments described in the book scream “staged!” All the more compelling examples are instances of the authors retrofitting their tools and visualizations onto historical examples.

Sin #5: Not Giving Credit Where Due

The normal practice in business books is to cite other authors and books inline, except for academic references. The authors do that liberally — to call out books they think get it wrong (these include “the company is great” premise books like In Search of Excellence and Built to Last). But when it comes to giving credit where credit is due, we get inconspicuous endnote references.

Clayton Christenson’s idea of disruptive innovation, which the authors glibly repurpose and repackage (many of the examples in the book are far better explained by The Innovator’s Dilemma than by Blue Oceans), is not explicitly mentioned or discussed at all (it probably deserves a whole chapter in a book like this). I kept searching for a mention, since the ideas were obviously borrowed from Christenson. Finally I gave up and looked in the bibliography, where I did find it. I never found the place in the text where it was cited. That’s buried for you. In fact, if you take away the stuff explained by disruption, and take the authors at their word (page 13) that they are talking about something other than “technology innovation” and “market pioneering,” you are left with no examples that map to “blue oceans.” Much of what remains is in fact minor differentiation that could rapidly be copied and therefore belongs in the Red Ocean.

Malcolm Gladwell, likewise, is an obscure endnote. At least Gladwell gets indirect credit, since the authors decided to coin the term “tipping point leadership” (thank God for small graces; we aren’t subjected to “Tiger Shark Leadership.”)

If you haven’t read many other business books, you could be forgiven for thinking the authors are geniuses. They invent so many new terms for old ones, and minor tweaks of old definitions, you can easily get awed.

Sin #6: Promoting a False Sense of Security

We’re getting to the last two, most grievous sins. If you read the book, use its tools, its “six paths” and walk its road map, you might very well succeed, sing its praises and recommend it. In that case, congratulations. Luck and your own natural abilities to work with any non-random framework won out.

The problem is that the book might very well give you a false sense of security, and seriously derail you. You’d scuttle your effort and, thanks to survivorship bias, not live to tell your tale.

The book might actually delude you into thinking you are on track dealing with a phenomenally hard problem. The hardest business problem in existence in fact: reinventing the business model of your company. You might well convince yourself that it takes just a couple of weeks worth of drawing “strategy canvas” diagrams. I hope you are smarter than that.

This is serious. An honest business writer acknowledges the risks of the market, the complexity of business models, the true nature of the hard work required, and the limitations of any set of tools. In fact, this sin might well be considered an ethical/moral sin as opposed to sloppy thinking or intellectual sinning. As a colleague who shares my opinion of this book pointed out, it is fundamentally disrespectful to the hard work and dedication of people working diligently to change companies, to reduce their labors to trite retrofitted “strategy canvas” diagrams.

Sin #7: Ignoring the Real Problem

Here is the real problem. How do you reinvent a business? How do you come up with that truly great new idea, that next big thing that will return your company to growth and away from brutal competition? How do you create the passion around great ideas, tempered by a pragmatic acceptance of market uncertainties? How do you create the courage it takes to face them?

Blue Oceans has no answers. The one tiny glimpse of the idea that creativity and courage might be required is reduced to a shoddy discussion of the third of their “three characteristics of a good strategy” – focus, divergence and compelling tag-line. The first two are trite. The last is where the meat is: what they think is just effective advertising is actually the high concept of a clear and elegant value proposition. You don’t just come up with any old idea and look for a “compelling tag-line.” Only truly great ideas will actually admit a powerful “high concept” description. I’ll point out a more modest and more effective book that helps you get there, in a bit.

Unfortunately, there are no complete answers. These questions are as deep as the deepest questions about life, and it is simply dishonest to pretend you know the answer. At best you have some techniques that improve part of the process, reduce some of the uncertainty.

Ultimately, the problem Blue Oceans attempts, and spectacularly fails to address, is the problem of creativity itself. They are not to be blamed for failing. They ARE to be blamed for pretending they know the answer.

What to Buy Instead

  1. Try Katzenbach’s The Wisdom of Teams to see some real stories of looking for uncontested market space.
  2. Try Christenson’s The Innovator’s Dilemma to understand at least one class of such ideas
  3. Try Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future to understand the true creative thought and work that needs to go into powerful new ideas. You’ll see the vast amount of depth behind what Blue Oceans dismisses as “compelling tag-line” and the lumps into the  “create” bucket of its “Eliminate-Reduce-Raise-Create” framework.
  4. And finally, try Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method to understand the intricacies of trying to explain revolutionary change with retrospective models.
Diane August 7, 2007 at 8:05 am

Thank you for a critical and insightful review of this flaccid text. The danger of books, like those of diets, is mitigated by the fact that few people follow them. That’s a good thing.
This book is making the rounds at my company but I haven’t seen any intent to put the so-called tools into practice. Again, a good thing. As it makes the rounds, I’ve noticed something else that may challenge your concept of a first sin. The “Blue Oceans” metaphor appears to be designed to flatter rather than enlighten its audience. This metaphor reinforces the private sector feeling that thier world is engaged in a violent Darwinian struggle. Thus we are “players” and “warriors” but not corporate stooges or desk jockies. This flattering self-concept helps us through the boredom, uncertainty and frustration that are also pat of corporate life. The book is pandering to its audience in the title to get us to read the rest of the stuff. But why? As you point out, there is no content that benefits the reader here so the goal must be to satisfy a yearly publication quota.
Business school professors often seem like particularly niave sociologists or animal behaviorists. In this case, the authors seemed to be studying the behavior of four footed mammals and extracting the survival practices common to lions, giraffes etc. (Run as fast as possible). Again as you point out, grouping Southwest, Yellow Tail Wine and Cirque Du Soleil completely fails to reveal anything that is not painfully obvious. They choose the proof cases to make their point but fail to discuss any others which may be exceptions. Was the popular Nokia case even here?
If one digs a bit deeper, the examples they have chosen do not necessarily illustrate their points. For example, Cirque du Soliel (I am a rabid fan) which started as a group of street artists in Montreal very clearly derives from the long French tradition of Circus. So why did something that existed for a very long time become a global success? And success did not come on a time scale any company I know could tolerate. They largely remained street performers, with the full economic implications of that lifestyle, for about a decade. Once they began to get big, half the original cast left because they felt the troop had sold out. Who in Cirque du Soliel had the tenacity to continue through all this hardship and why? No “process” like the one described in the book fits their history. The Yellow Tail example looks absolutely nothing like Cirque du Soleil- it would seem more like the classic “Un-Cola” marketing play.
Overall, the book left me with the impression that the intent was to offer a prescription for knocking off a certain type of success without revealing any indication of the real work behind it. I imagine the true stories of these companies are far more interesting than what the book portrays.
Couple the flattering metaphor with the easy promise of “you too can be a Hollywood star” and you have the classic American wish fulfillment fantasy.

Venkat August 11, 2007 at 2:56 pm

Hi Diane:

Thanks for the missing details on the Cirque du Soleil story, which I was not aware of. That’s a key problem in using business case histories to illustrate or validate theories. People only dig deep enough to find the details that confirm their analysis, not deep enough to reveal the story in a form where it has full narrative integrity.

Your critique of business-as-war/Darwinian models though, makes me pause, since I frankly like that metaphor a lot, and I think it has value when shorn of its obviously romantic elements.

And I hadn’t thought of the analogy to diets and “you too can be a Hollywood star” types of flattery. Suggests themes to explore in future posts.

Gillette September 13, 2007 at 4:22 am

Venkat, nice review. I havent read the book but one thing you mentioned about using past examples to show off their point is a failing common to almost all business books. I’d like a book that finds some good strategy and makes predictions from it – or at least puts its money where its mouth is and invests in that stock. It’s like the DIY cryptologists who say oh the Bible encodes this and the Vedas encode that… I’d like them to discover an unknown theorem this way. Also these books are rarely honest, I’d like them to pick someone who followed their strategy yet failed, because of course no strategy can be omnipotent. Also one book I think should make your list is Built to Last, which I thought had some really great points about leadership (esp the contrast bet level 4 and level 5 leaders) although it does suffer from the past-only approach.

Bob November 14, 2008 at 7:46 am

Totally agreed. (greed on their part)
My bosses have asked all of us to read the book to discuss(at least they purchased it, and not us)…and where do the authors/publishers get off asking $30 for such trivial tripe? I am hearing a Baaa Baaa out there….the padding of numerous hooves…
One need only count the numerous redundencies in the first two chapters alone to see they are pouring water through a seive and telling you its holding well (while your toes are starting to feel really moist). I took one glance/read at the first 2 pages, and walked over to my co-worker and said “total bullshit”, a weak attempt at repackaging “Postioning” from the eighties. I fail to see how my employers are missing the boat….. perhaps waiting on the wrong side of the ocean? I am certainly not a great mind, but in this case…it is clear….
the emperor is “buck-naked”.


Todd January 1, 2009 at 1:53 pm

And why should we need armchair strategists like you to explain right or wrong. Have you ever managed a company, taken it through the storms, seen what works and doesn’t in the market?

Thank you for your writing, but I find value in hearing others. Ha..

Chris Steele May 18, 2009 at 8:42 am

Great review, thanks for that.
I was at a presentation by ?Whatif! ( a while ago and they held up B.O.S.
“Anyone read this?”
“Well you needn’t have bothered … its all here” he said ripping off the cover.

Jon June 4, 2009 at 8:07 am

Great review. It’s always a relief to see that there are others who aren’t bamboozled by the P.T. Barnum approach to business methodology. In my 30 year career, I’ve seen, and live through, SO many business management “panaceas” touted, and it seems to be an incredibly cynical process after a while.

Thanks for presenting your case so thoughtfully and concisely.

- Jon

Mason Carpenter June 16, 2009 at 9:13 am

Nice review,

Not from the standpoint that your view is right or wrong (meaning, whether I agree with it or not :-), but from the standpoint that the review is well structured and has consistent logic. Not just a rant or stream of consciousness, in other words.

That said, some of the Blue Ocean visualization tools are valuable from the standpoint that they get managers to think about and engage the environment outside of their organization. I don’t care that they seem simple — charting, for instance, gives managers a good sense of common competitor approaches and the ways one firm can become distinct based on distinct choices.

And it does not matter to me that much that the tools identify “the” correct answer (was not your critique but one of others). One of my favorite management and strategy writers is Karl Weick. In a number of his books he recounts the now familiar tale of a army troops lost in the Swiss Alps. In my rough recounting of the tale (apologies to Weick) it goes like this: One of the troops found a map in his pocket and they followed the map to safety. As it turns out, the map was of the Pyrenees (a range between Spain and France, and nowhere near the Swiss Alps). The point of this [strategy] story was not whether the map was right or not, but that the map got the troops moving and based on that movement they could make further progress.

In my world, where I write about, teach, and practice strategy, the moral always is that no amount of strategy and strategic planning are a substitute for action — that is, moving forward (even making mistakes) and taking action counts more than elegant plans and concepts.

For additional interesting (though not necessarily related) reading see:

Finkelstein, S., J. Whitehead, & A. Campbell. 2008. Think again. HBS Press.

Pfeffer, J. & R. Sutton. 2000. The knowing-doing gap. HBS Press.

Weick, K. 1995. Sensemaking in organizations. Sage.

Weick, K. & K. Sutcliffe. 2001. Managing the unexpected. Jossey-Bass.

Venkat June 16, 2009 at 5:36 pm

Mason: thanks for the refs, they sound interesting.

Let me challenge your anecdote a bit though. What if the wrong map had led the group into a crevasse in the dead of the night? People who make fatal mistakes don’t live to tell the tale, leading to a classic case of survivorship bias among those who do. The test is which method causes fewest fatalities really :)

The argument that “anything that gets you out of the armchair and into action is good” is a dangerous one, since it can be used to justify anything from tea-leaf and entrail reading to astrology. It is a good argument, but needs some qualification and quantification. The basic idea that action interleaved with thought is better than analysis paralysis is tautological. The trick is to get to “better than wrong map” approaches to switching between the two, otherwise you as a strategy teacher, are out of a job. You might as well become an astrologer!

My claim is that the methods in this book will do no better than arbitrary and ad hoc (but not random) methods people might come up with in a controlled exercise. But there ARE methods I think do better than “arbitrary and ad hoc,” such as Moore’s approach in “Dealing with Darwin” or Christensen in “Innovator’s Dilemma.”

To justify the tree-killing a biz book had better meet a higher threshold!

Since I see from your back link that you are a professor in the field, you might have an opportunity to test this hypothesis. Divide your strategy class into 10 random groups of 2-3 each. Let 4 of them, randomly chosen, tackle a “strategy move” challenge with ad hoc methods they make up. Let 2 each use blue ocean, disruptive innovation and dealing with darwin as their frameworks. I’d be interested to see the results :) Of course it would take many iterations of the experiment to smooth out the effects of other variables.

Dena Ware September 28, 2009 at 9:24 am

I haven’t read all of your critique, but I already know I agree wholeheartedly. My company is spending $700 per person for a group of us to attend a Blue Ocean Strat training tomorrow. In preparation, I bought the book on CD so I would understand the concepts. I could not even make it through the first CD without succumbing to dry heaves. Without getting past the Yellow Tail example, I already knew that they were assigning BOS to successful strategies in hindsight. My first question to the trainer tomorrow was going to be: please give examples of companies who have succeeded using BOS as their framework, to which I expect there is no answer. I will now go back and read your entire blog, but good for you for debunking the bunk!! I’d write more, but I have to get my scrip for valium filled before tomorrow’s training…

Ted October 2, 2009 at 9:25 am

I’ve lived in Montreal and the thought of some of these street performers sitting back and analyzing the circus market is absolutely hilarious.

I agree that Christensen is a far better read than this, but on a positive note I do think there are some interesting things to think about if you are new to business strategy. I have also found the strategy canvas to be powerful visual tool, whether they invented it or not.

It’s a bit lightweight from a research perspective but I wouldn’t call it dangerous.

William January 27, 2010 at 9:21 am

I just started reading this book and felt a little confused by the continued use of the same information (southwest and such). I thought maybe it was just me, but maybe I am not alone.

I was actually looking for a site for my college class to discuss the book and it looks like I found one. Thanks for the information.

Gene Russell March 11, 2010 at 9:59 pm

Great review of Blue Ocean. This is another one of those troubling books that often is purchased and handed out to management teams with our without discussion. I was working in a Senior Management position with an HK based company and the CEO handed the book out to the USA team telling us to develop Blue Ocean strategies… That was it. The real substance of the discussion – pricing, competition, design strategy, channel management, unified brand language, sales teams, etc. etc. was never, ever brought up. The company continues to churn through senior USA staff as it tries to hit the long ball over the fence with some dream idea / solution / deep big blue Ocean of profits that do not exist. The real problem with the book in this particular instance was that the company kept developing over priced, edgy design product and the book seemed to justify this strategy to the owner / CEO. This is a very popular book in China & I think it does damage to their understanding of the US market and marketing in general.

Abhay July 16, 2010 at 8:21 am

Wow! This is the best review of a strategy book that I’ve read in years. I skimmed Blue Ocean Strategy and found is unsatisfying, but couldn’t quite put my finger on the combination of reasons, and your review gave words to the amorphous objections I had. Sadly, most of your sins could easily be ascribed to 80% of the business strategy books published nowadays. There’s a formula: (1) create a plausible framework based on 4 to 7 components that can be memorized easily, (2) support it with add a bunch of superficial metaphors that are hard to refute, (3) and fill the book with short, easy to digest, compelling examples and anecdotes that serve as proof; and finally (4) get a bunch of executives to compliment the book on the cover. Hmmm…maybe this formula could be converted into a strategy book about writing strategy books!

Venkat July 16, 2010 at 8:57 am

Abhay, I tried: not a ‘how to write’ but a ‘how to read’

How to read business and self-improvement books

You may like 2 books I reviewed more favorably

Lords of Strategy
Strategic Intuition



Chris September 28, 2010 at 11:12 am

There are still a lot of companies out there that engage in excessive benchmarking at the expense of their own human capital and competencies. I’m not worried by any perceived lack of research or rigor in Blue Oceans. The most profound lessons in life are always the simplest. Even if the book has only served to remind us that the most gratifying and durable wins come from creative (rather than competitive) pursuits, it has succeeded.

David Thayer April 24, 2011 at 7:19 am

This blog (review) and comments thread is a “must read” for anyone (like myself) who has sat in a room (actual or virtual) hearing “I recommend that you read Blue Ocean Strategy”.

I am one who believes in strategic planning, strategic marketing, and strategic interaction. No magic potions or elixirs. Strategies work or they don’t. We apply split-testing techniques (as an example) to determine their validity, and have a plan in place ready to be activated when the results are in – for each possible contingency, based on logical and measurable planning, marketing, and interaction results.

Every entrepreneur wants a competitive advantage, and most structure their approach toward that goal instinctively. Contrasting, the millions that are spent in “corporate America” creating image in the marketplace in order to develop brand awareness and loyalty when there is little distinction between them – who wouldn’t want to avoid that? (Pepsi vs Coke)

So, as it was stated earlier in this thread, corporations look for ways to guide the thinking of team leaders without “risking” their jobs on something that hasn’t sold 2 million copies. Why should you buy a BMW? Or an IBM computer (in years past)? Simply because it keeps your decisions under the radar, and you can’t be portrayed as a lose cannon.

The human element of corporate America refuses to look to closely under the hood of what their selling, as long as it is perceived by those in their circle of influence as “good and safe”. Lets play nice – isn’t that what is important? After all, I’ll see you in the office tomorrow, and you can help me get the boss’s job, right?

You all are very refreshing – I love your insights! Thanks for taking the time to express them.

- Dave

Jay September 17, 2011 at 9:53 am

So, this book is on the reading list for a Marketing class at my MBA program. I’m currently reading it and I can’t stand it. I googled “blue ocean strategy review” in hopes that I wasn’t the only one that wasn’t “feeling it”. Found this review. Your review is spot on.

A better strategy book is The Ultimate Question by Fred Reichheld. It was published a year later than BOS. Reichheld discusses the concept of “NPS”, which makes sense and I believe the NPS approach can drive growth, lower costs and increase utility better than any of the approaches in BOS.

Jane Leonard October 9, 2011 at 8:03 am

Harold Jarche, recommended this review and I have just lost 3 hours reading this post.

I agree with Mason and appreciate your structured, organised review,and not just a rant. Your references and in post links were really interesting. I have learned so much from reading this post.
I bought the book, read it on a flight, thought it was brilliant ( might be the altitude).
I am a sole trader without the benefit of group meetings etc and when I tried to apply it to my business, I just couldn’t figure out why it didn’t make sense, I thought I just didn’t get it.

I am blushing as I now realise that, as Diane mentioned I probably fell for the “you too can be a Hollywood star” .

I have learned that I need to be more skeptical about easy fix solutions and as said in an earlier post, examine ” the risks of the market, the complexity of business models, the true nature of the hard work required, and the limitations of any set of tools”

Jonathan November 23, 2011 at 7:53 pm

I took a strategy class at INSEAD taught by Chan Kim during my MBA in the early 90s. I suspected then that he was a charlatan, although a remarkably engaging and charismatic one. I vividly remember him telling us that we would derive more benefit from studying Hamel /Prahalad (core competencies) than Porter (five forces) because no clients were prepared to pay for consultants to tell them about Porter because everyone now understood his concepts.

This book brilliantly demonstrates that you can make a load of money competing in the red ocean of business strategy books and the spin-off consulting business by ruthlessly developing, to mix my metaphors, a better-looking mousetrap. Sadly this mousetrap, whilst perfectly engineered to appeal to customers, actually catches no mice.

Marco Ippolito October 11, 2012 at 11:24 am

I just read your review….and it perfectly matches what I felt when reading the book, and what I didn’t grasp…!!!

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