The Big Issue with narrow focus

I’ve started reading the Peter Senge’s classic tome, The 5th Discipline this week. It’s a book which I have had for about a year, and has been consistently circling my sphere of influence for a while now. The book talks about how we can solve many of the issues we face in business (and thus, by extension, the world) by taking a whole-of-system approach to problem solving. I’m about a quarter of the way through, and loving it so far. But, the book has also come about as I made an observation this week whilst working in the city. As many of you would know, Melbourne is a town that fully supports the concept that is “The Big Issue,” the magazine which is sold by those that are homeless to help them support themselves. The magazine is fantastic, and a great initiative that is now a national initiative. But, it appears it may now be reaching the limits of its own success.

A friend of mine, Nat, was recently in Vanuatu as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development working to help a non-profit organisation develop good business practices to further help lead their clients towards a better living. One of Nat’s pearls from her time in country was how things that we’re successful because they were different and innovative at a point in time, actually became so popular that their returns diminished quickly for the rest of the community, simply because the whole community was doing it. In Nat’s experience, it was goats.

Goats provide enormous relief and opportunity to small communities in developing countries. They provide milk and all of its by-products, as well as other goats and meat when the goat ‘comes of age.’ Unfortunately, as more and more people witness the success had by those people that had goats, more and more people would find a way to secure their own. The result? A community full of goats and an excess of supply of all its products. Because we find it difficult to think beyond our own situations, these examples tend to replicate in society. To me, something similar is now happening with The Big Issue and it’s sale. The program has been enormously successful, but is seemingly (to me) becoming a victim of its own success. There seems to be a Big Issue vendor on the corner of each city block now, including 4 on each corner at the intersection of Elisabeth and Bourke St.

To me, I wonder how sustainable this is for those people selling the magazine. Increasingly, these heroic people have become marginalised by their own relief and are now spending more and more time on the street to sell less and less magazines per person. I ask, have we suffered the same results as those in Vanuatu? Do we have too many goats and not enough of a market? In a more systemic view of the situation, what else could our society’s marginalised people be doing? Will they be able to come to a new conclusion themselves, or will they simply continue to sell less and less magazines until they find it completely unsustainable? What are your thoughts? And how could we find a more systemic solution that solved one of society’s greatest problems?

Your skill set and the Ballet Imperial

I recently was lucky enough to head along to the Australian Ballet Companies latest season, Ballet Imperial, at the State Theatre. The night was fantastic – I am growing an appreciation for some of the finer arts going about, especially from a performers point of view. The ballerinas performing for us that night we the crème-de-le-crème. To be selected to dance for the ABC takes years and years of practice, and even then they only take about 2 from 500 amazingly talented young dancers a year. These guys are best-in-planet.


But what got me thinking during the performance more was not the feats of those people on stage, but the very things they were performing. Ballet Imperial is a work by Russian George Balanchine. It is seen as a classic (I believe, I’m still new at this) and typifies the Russian style of dancing, which is very technical and ‘correct.’ Anyways, the show put on by the ABC was actually a collection of similarity Russian works put together on a bare stage, without costumes. Essentially, it was a best-of album of all the Balanchine style had to offer. Act 1 from this ballet, Act 3 from this one etc etc. The show had a clear focus to show off the best parts of each work, and in doing so, exhibit the dancers as they were – without the distraction of props, costumes and ‘extras’ on stage.

My thinking turned to the whole Brand Me/Professional Service Firm model that I’ve been talking about for a while now. The company packages up a list of its ‘best ofs’ and sells tickets for $100+ a pop and fills the State Theatre for 2 weeks. What can you package up and sell for that relative kind of price? What is in your repertoire, that you are doing right not, which can provide a clear value proposition to someone else?

This is a bit of a riff on Tom Peters thinking in his book, Re-Imagine. If you were fired tomorrow, what would you do once had packed your belongings into a cardboard box? What are you doing, now, that is seriously best-in-planet and how can you sell out the State Theatre for $100+ a pop to demonstrate your wares? What are the ‘wow projects’ that are in your repertoire that can be pieced together to form a seriously cool offering to either a cool niche of people or a broad based market? How do you choose this repertoire?

How to create a Blue Ocean Strategy Canvas

One of the most popular tools in my armament for innovation is the under-utilised Blue Ocean Strategy concept. Because the concept is also a book, most of the stuff you find on the internet only pushes more people to buy a copy rather than how to actually use the ideas encapsulated therein. So, because I reckon it’s one of the best tools there is, I’m gonna explain here how to actually use it in a very practical sense. First – you’ll need to look at this graph, taken from It highlights the Blue Ocean Strategy canvas of the Wii, PS3 and XBox.

This is the most useful tool from the BOS hymn-book. Use it in the following ways.

1) Map out the key factors of the industry you are trying to play in. You can do this via a number of methods, but PEST analysis is probably one of the best ways. Ask yourself, what are the table stakes in this industry? What are the norms for the industry as it currently stands? It always works best if you can ask an old hand in the industry to gain these.

2) Once you have figured out the key factors of the industry, place them on the ‘x axis’ of your blank strategy canvas.

3) Now, place the key competitors on your strategy canvas. If a competitor has a lot of one particular factor, place them quite high on the canvas (and visa-versa.) In the example above, both the PS3 and the XBox had high amounts of Storage, without having as much storage as a normal PC. Thus, the points have been placed mid-‘y-axis.’

4) Once you have mapped your main competitors on the canvas, you can see where the current competition is playing, and which parts of your business you can change to create a really unique value proposition.

In this case, Nintendo went through and created a game con-sol which was 1) lower in cost than the super expensive PS3/XBox 2) had more, simple, games that enabled the whole family to play and 3) have a simple interface which led to simple, unique game-play. You’ll notice that Nintendos Wii has blown PS3 and XBox out of the market. Why? And why haven’t the aforementioned game con-sols been able to take back their market share? Simple – because the Wii sold to people who never would have purchased a PS3/XBox anyways. They created a new market – a Blue Ocean – by simply refusing to play the game of intense, highly complex game play. And that, ultimately, is the strength of the BOS tool.

Why play in a red ocean, full of competition, price wars and continuous improvement when you can create a new, completely profitable blue ocean?You can use the Blue Ocean Strategy Canvas to achieve these same results. It’s a key tool, and helps immensely to play the game of intrapreneurship. Good luck! Flick me and email for a Word Template if you like.