Why Your Job Search Needs a Blue Ocean Strategy

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

I was recently invited by a friend to read, Blue Ocean Strategy: How To Create Uncontested Market Space And Make The Competition Irrelevant. The title makes the purpose of the book obvious. Rather than entering a market where margins are thin and competition is fierce, it is better to create a new market where you are in control and no competition exists (i.e., Apple could have made a better CD player but instead invented the iPod).

What can you learn from this book that will help you land your next career move, or maybe even your dream job?

As noted on the Blue Ocean Strategy website, the value may be in how you approach your job search:

The aim of Blue Ocean Strategy is not to out-perform the competition in the existing industry, but to create new market space or a blue ocean, thereby making the competition irrelevant.

Following the theme from Blue Ocean Strategy, what if you could position your next job search like this?

I’m not the most qualified candidate for the job. I’m the ONLY person that can solve your unique challenges. Quite frankly, there is no competition.

I’ll admit that sounds arrogant. It’s not meant to be that way. It does, however, represent an attitude shift that could give you a competitive edge in your next job search.

Here is what I mean when I speak of an attitude shift. Instead of preparing your job search application and interview responses to say, “I’m the most qualified candidate,” you should prepare your materials to say that you are “the only candidate” that can solve their unique challenges.

Doing this requires that you understand their unique challenges, of course. There are many ways to do this. You can read the news, study their website, or conduct a series of focused informational interviews before you apply for the job. I recommend the third strategy, as long as you remember to follow this rule and avoid this faux pas.

Example

Let’s imagine that you want to be a legislative analyst for a state agency. You’ve done your homework, applied to a job, and have been called for an interview. During the interview you are asked the following question:

“So, Sally. Please tell us why you feel that you are the most qualified candidate for this position.”

If you follow the traditional advice, you may respond like this:

“I have blah-blah-blah skills, blah-blah-blah knowledge, and blah-blah-blah abilities…” (repeated from your resume, of course).

If you are swimming in a blue ocean, you may respond like this:

“Well, Matt, thank you for asking this question. It may be difficult to answer that question outright because I don’t know all of the candidates. However, I imagine that many of the candidates have similar writing experience that would make them equally qualified for the job. Here is a copy of my writing sample to show you my ability when it comes to writing your average bill analysis.

“I would add one additional comment, but it is a bit outside of the box. Over the past year I’ve conducted several informational interviews with folks in this department, the Governor’s Office, and in other legislative offices. The overwhelming theme I learned from these folks is that writing proficiency isn’t the biggest challenge that managers like yourself face when it comes to supervising a legislative analyst. In fact, most people have the basic writing skills that the job requires.

“What I’ve heard is that it is much more difficult to teach critical thinking skills. If you were to hire an analyst without critical thinking skills, you may find that you are constantly needing to revise their bill analyses in order to make sure they capture the true problem instead of a red herring disguised as the problem. Given that I’m sure you are busy enough with your current work, I would imagine that the need to critically think for the analyst you supervise is something that you would rather not do.

“Knowing this, I took additional steps to improve my critical thinking skills before I applied for this position. I even worked with my mentor, John Doe, to make sure that I was prepared before I began applying for positions like this one. I included John’s contact information as a professional reference if you would like to verify the story that I shared in this response.

“As John mentioned in our mentoring sessions, the ability to critically analyze a problem would help preserve any legislative unit’s most valuable resource: time. If you were to hire me, I would likely require less training than other candidates I’m competing against. As I mentioned before, my analyses would require less revisions than the average candidate, too. Finally, my attention to critical thinking would help create workable alternatives to policies proposed by the Legislature that would advance the department’s goals while still maintaining positive relationships with our legislative colleagues.”

Put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes for a second. If you agree that critical thinking skills are lacking in your average legislative analyst, then Sally’s story would be very compelling. In fact, the hiring manager may have hired someone in the past that lacks critical thinking skills and paid the price (less time to do their own job). Even if the manager is new to the job, the way that Sally painted the “challenge picture” would likely leave the hiring manager saying, “Wow, Sally is right. We don’t need to waste time teaching people to critically think. Instead, we need to spend our time creating viable alternatives to legislation that will help further our outcomes.”

Why This Works

Sally could have easily listed “critical thinking” as one of her main skills when she answered this question. She could have even told a story of when she used her critical thinking skills in a previous position. That would have been better than saying nothing, but it would have kept her in the original frame of being the “most qualified” instead of the “only” candidate.

Sally’s brilliance in this hypothetical situation is that she reframed her skill set as a solution to the hiring manager’s problem. Given all of the feedback that Sally received during her informational interviews, she knows with a fair amount of certainty that “defining the correct problem” is a challenge for most managers in legislative offices.

Here is an added bonus: Even if this wasn’t on the manager’s mind, it is highly likely that “critical thinking” is in the back of his mind when he is making the hiring decisions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that Matt has felt the symptoms of the pain associated with low critical thinking skills in his staff (constant revisions, long training periods, etc). He just may not have connected that the symptoms of his pain are related to critical thinking skills instead of other factors (i.e., not enough staff, too much workload, unclear expectations, etc).

Conclusion

I’ll admit, this is an advanced technique. It requires that you put in an extra amount of effort than everyone else competing for the job. Most importantly, it requires a change in approach. By switching your mindset from “I’m the best person for the job” to “I’m the solution to your problems” in a humble manner, you will likely set yourself so far above the other candidates that the hiring panel leaves thinking that you are the only person that can do the job.

Apply the technique mentioned in this post correctly and you could find yourself swimming in a blue ocean.

PS – I’m currently conducting a pilot program where we apply this technique, among others, to your job search. Here is a quote from one of the participants:

“Also, just had to give you feedback on your tips on informational interviews. I totally used the pain point question and in my shoes question last week in an informational meeting with a lobbyist at the Capitol. He was a completely cold contact. Hands down best meeting I’ve had in Utah so far. His response to the in your shoes question was so helpful!”

If you are interested in joining this program, please add me as a friend on GovLoop, mention “Blue Ocean Strategy” in your message, and I will give you more information about the pilot program.

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6 Comments

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Profile Photo David B. Grinberg

Nice post, Ryan. That’s a very interesting interview strategy and analysis. Good luck with the pilot and please keep us informed of the results.

I would just caution folks who adopt this method to make sure they can excel in “walking the walk” after “talking the talk” and getting the job.

Also, I would suggest that candidates be mindful and vigilant about that fine line separating strong confidence from obvious arrogance.

Thanks for considering this.

DBG

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Profile Photo Ryan Arba

Thank you for your comments, David. I took your second recommendation about “walking the walk” and “talking the talk” and included it the post I submitted today. No one wants to work with a blow-hard!

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Profile Photo Erik G Eitel

Nice post! I actually had to read this book for my capstone class in college. It was definitely an interesting perspective and brings up good points. I like how you applied it to a job search. Fully understanding the job function will obviously be critical in implementing this strategy. You wouldn’t want to mention taking the role in a different direction, if it still leaves a void that the position was created to fill.

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Profile Photo Ryan Arba

Thanks Erik! The big challenge for the job seeker is finding out as much information about the job they are applying for before they step into the interview. I call this the “information asymmetry gap.” While you can’t know everything, you may be able to have enough general knowledge that you can make assumptions that will get you 80% of the way there. This strategy takes courage and could be seen as aggressive if not done with “white gloves.”

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Profile Photo Peter Sperry

A five paragraph answer to a simple question???? As one of the lead interviewers when our agency recently hired a new analyst, I would have (and did) tune out any answer that long. Also, sally’s response exactly the type which put my BS meter on red. My colleague and I who conducted these interviews would laugh afterwards about how easy it was to spot the fad techniques applicants were using.

The successful applicant answered the questions we asked, not the ones he wanted us to ask. His answers were simple, straight forward and concise. He never tried to BS us and was not afraid to respond “I do not know, I’ve never faced that situation before.” He rose head and shoulders above the competition precisely because he was simple, direct, honest and never played any silly interview games.

Applicants whose goal is to gain a great deal of interview experience including extended conversation on the exact nature of a wide variety of jobs should by all means redefine the position description in the interview. It will lead to all sorts of follow-up questions and fascinating conversation. Applicants whose goal is to pay the rent, food bill etc. should answer the questions they are asked honestly and concisely. It will lead to actual job offers.

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Profile Photo Ryan Arba

@Peter – thank you for your comments. In fact, there is someone here in Sacramento that makes a lot of money teaching the techniques you recommend: http://statejobworkshops.com/workshop-getjob.html

He teaches what I call the “resume sprinkler” strategy. He recommends that you apply to as many jobs as possible using a generic resume. Then, like you mention, he coaches his clients to give clear and concise answers during the interview. To him, it’s a numbers game. It seems to work, too. This guy has been in business for many years and even helped a friend of mine transition from being a manager at a local hotel to landing a job with our state version of GSA as a front-line supervisor.

If this technique works for you, great. I tried the resume sprinkler approach several years ago and it got me nowhere. Quite frankly, I wish it had worked. The resume sprinkler is a straight forward, rational, linear process that is easy to comprehend.

Due to my frustration, I changed my approach to adopt a boiled down version of the “blue ocean strategy” I discuss in this post. The people that interviewed me were the no nonsense type (you will have to trust me on this). One was one of the most hardened bureaucrats in CA state government. Somehow, I was offered the position despite feeling like my interview was a complete failure. On my way out of the job a year later (it was limited term), I asked the person why they hired me. They said, “Of all the other candidates, you were the only one that gave me the warm fuzzies.”

After reading the comments to this post, I realize that the message may have been lost in how I portrayed the interview response. The power in the “blue ocean strategy” isn’t BS-ing your way through an interview question. It is more about about applying to fewer jobs and putting in a greater effort to prepare for each one. Then, during the interview, you can use the information you have gained to show how you can solve the problems. If you can turn the interview into a conversation about challenges and solutions, even better. I know this is hard to do in a civil service setting. However, I’m inclined to believe that the more you can connect with people on a genuine level, the better your chances are to get an offer.

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