Creating a Blue Ocean of Top-Tier Talent

Geeks Geezers and Googlization Podcast with guest Andi Simon Ph.D, sponsored by Success Performance Solutions

When the SHIFT hits your plan, hire a corporate anthropologist! Whether your business growth is stalled, sales are in a slump, or your talent pool is bone dry, it’s time to do things differently. More and more organizations are relying on Blue Ocean Strategy to help them adapt, stand out, and meet the unmet needs of non-customers. Can this work for Human Resources and talent acquisition too? Listen, fresh opportunities might be standing right in front of you. Our guest today is a corporate anthropologist Andrea (Andi) J Simon,Ph.D, trained practitioner of Blue Ocean Strategy, author of On the Brink and Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business (2021), and host of On the Brink podcast with over 150,000 monthly listeners.

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Welcome back everyone to another episode of Geeks Geezers and Googlization and Googlization Nation. We’ve got a great show today because despite all the uncertainty in the world, there is a lot of opportunities out here, a lot of unrecognizable opportunities and it’s standing right in front of our eyes. This goes not only for HR, small business, large business, but your careers, for all people, for every individual.

We’re going to be talking about something called Blue Ocean Strategy and Blue Ocean Shift.  A lot of us are stuck in this red ocean, basically competing with one another. We put blinders on. We wonder what’s next stage for our business or what’s our next career, what our next job? You’re going to find today’s show really super helpful. Our guest today Andi Simon has a job many of you never heard of: cultural anthropology.

Let’s welcome, Andi Simon to the show.

Andrea Simon, PhD or Andi has written a best business book of 2017 called  “On the Brink, which is also the name of her podcast. We’re envious because she has 150,000 monthly listeners. She’s got a brand new book coming out called  Rethink, Smashing the Myths of Women in Business. I think we’re going to see a lot of smashing of glass ceilings shattered for not only women, but for people of color and other minorities out there.

Andi Simon: It’s such a pleasure to be here. What a treat.

Ira Wolfe: I’m really excited about you being here. Before we jump into the blue ocean,  let’s talk about your job title. It’s a bit unusual. It’s not something that rolls off everybody’s tongue. You didn’t hear a lot of people going into that profession, but, it certainly has become much more popular these days. But there are still a lot of people unfamiliar with it. So what is a corporate anthropologist and then take it one step further into cultural anthropologists.

Andi Simon: Well, I’m fascinated by your question. People typically say like you do, I thought anthropologists study small scale societies, and they do. But isn’t a business, a small scale society as well. Humans have this great affection for living and working in groups. And they have cultures and stories. They have shared beliefs and values and businesses are great places to really step back and use the methodology of anthropology to observe, to see what people are really doing, not just what they say they’re doing; to listen to their stories and begin to capture the essence of their experiences. Tthat’s really important for their customers as well.

And that’s really what we specialize in, companies hire me to help them change. They weren’t necessarily looking for an anthropologist but someone with the expertise to change. In a sense, I created a blue ocean. There was an unmet need. People didn’t know how to change. We had methodologies to help them, but they weren’t aware how to use them. One of the important parts about opening a new market is to create demand for it. And I found that blue ocean strategy was a great way to articulate anthropology in a way people were embracing. So what we do is we help you step out and look at what’s going on in a fresh way. And then we ask: do I want to imitate or create?

Ira Wolfe: We talk about VUCA all the time. You’re probably familiar with it: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Within that context, we’re moving from this linear somewhat binary predictable world, what John Sanei describes as being complicated. No we’re in this complex, random, highly uncertain, highly ambiguous world. Within that, the question is, how do we get people to move from that red to blue ocean. Keith gave us a little bit of an intro into red and blue oceans but how do you describe the red and blue oceans?

Andi Simon: Well, it’s a very important question for today for two levels. I used to tell people, if you want to change, have a crisis. If you look at the way we structure our world, we tend to be imitators, maybe improvers. But we get really comfortable looking like others as if we’re in HVAC business or engineering, coding, building pools. It doesn’t matter. We’ve got all kinds of opportunities to see what others are doing. Maybe we differentiate ourselves a little bit and claim that we’re better than another, but by and large, people have built businesses that are duplicated. They place themselves in a category or a box which was fine when there was an expanding map or market. But then supply builds up and exceeds demand. I met a gentleman recently who was in the health and benefits business. All of a sudden his clients were being all rolled up, merged, and acquired. He was losing his whole market space and that’s not uncommon.

Another client was finding that his buyers were retiring and the new folks didn’t buy through telephonic sales. Next thing we know things are changing and the supply is growing, but the demand is not. And we can have a bloody red ocean, too much competition, imitative, maybe incrementally better, but all of a sudden, there’s a huge opportunity for us to pause step back and rethink, maybe there’s a new way. How can I create a new market? What’s an unmet need?

I had another client who said, well, we don’t sell in the South Or Southwest. It’s a chapter in my book. AWhat Michael discovered was that people needed him in places where he had no distribution. And I said, so why don’t we distribute down there? His first question is, why do they need it? And I said, why aren’t you asking them? They’re finding you. So the difference between a red ocean, where you look like all the other fish compared to a blue ocean opportunity where people have unmet needs or there a lot of non-users who could use you. Think about it. If you don’t have a line out the door of potential ideal clients, what could happen if you could rethink your business in a way that had they were demanding your services?

If you’re not looking for blue ocean, you’re missing the marketplace. It’s important for your listeners to understand that they don’t have to be bloody. They don’t have to be another look-alike. The difference between a bloody red ocean and a wide open blue one, while they’re both scary, is demand. For the HR folks today, we can talk about that too. There are a lot of unmet needs. Everything is going through a great transformation. Look for non-users and unmet needs instead of competing in the red ocean.

It’s interesting. I belong to the women’s business collaborative and yesterday they hosted a great panel. One of the speakers was head of HR for a Deloittem, another for Lowe’s. The research was very compelling. Staff is worried about belonging. They come to work to look at other peers and share a common culture. They want to have lunch with people. They are full of anxiety about the lack of belonging. The second thing is wellbeing. We work with a gentleman and he’s focused on wellness within organizations. But now everybody is furloughed and he doesn’t have the pulse of their wellbeing. How do we restore that in our staff?

Ira Wolfe: In blue ocean strategy, one of the stories that really resonated with me, and I saw how it related to HR and to talent acquisition, was the story about the company who made irons. The iron is small appliance in a very competitive market with nothing necessarily unique about it. They ended up competing with all their competitors on price. Then someone came up with the idea of a steamer. I know every time we travel, my wife packs our steamer. We don’t even own an iron anymore. But when this was first introduced, the marketing department looks at it and sees an iron. So they started to go after the same market – women who iron. But the developers said no, no, no. We’re going after a new customer base. We’re going after men, especially those who either travel or men who live alone, or we’re going after young adults. many of them live in small apartments. They don’t have room for an iron and ironing board. The non-users were the new market. What that did was open my eyes to say, who are the people that could be using your, your device, your services, your products, but aren’t? Maybe you need to package it slightly different, or maybe you need to change it a little bit. Or as we were talking about in the first part of the show, maybe it’s a new product that you just weren’t serving up. So I know you have some other stories, again, that that people can relate to because they’re the recognizable brand names such as Starbucks and Southwest. And if you like wine, Yellow Tail.

Andi Simon: The story is a perfect one that you’re illustrating. I want people who are listening to think about things that are familiar today, but didn’t really start out that way.I always love the Yellow Tail story. The folks from Blue Ocean Strategy worked with the folks from Yellow Tail. It’s an Australian wine. When they came into the U S there were 2,500 competitors and only 15% of Americans drank wine. Seriously. So there’s a whole lot of red ocean competition for one Bordeaux or another Chardonnay. It didn’t much matter what you made. You had the vineyards, you were very prestigious and the market was very nichey. Yellow Tail failed. Nobody drank it. Nobody bought it. It didn’t matter what the price was. So they went back teamed up with the Blue Ocean folks. They went exploring to see what people bought and how they bought it and how they drank it. What they found out was people were walking out of stores with huge boxes. They drank a lot of liquor. They had soda. They had a lot of different things that they could drink besides wine. Unless youhad an educated palate where you really understood what you were drinking, most of these people didn’t care about the prestige. So they went after that non wine drinker. Now think about how bold that is. You know, you’ve got a lot of wine out there competing for a small part of the American audience, and you’re going after 85% of them with a wine, that’s going to be simple, easy to drink.They didn’t create another bottle of Syrah.

They took away all the vineyards and they created a red, a yellow, orange, green wine. They color-coded the bottles. They made the white and the reds with the same shape. They developed lots of efficiencies. And then they built a whole campaign about this: never a bad time for the right wine. They went out there and gave away yellow tail jackets and hats. They had trucks, and all kinds of ways of creating demand to have people taste it. And all of a sudden it took off. I knew a liquor store owner who said he had to pay a premium to bring the wine in because it was bringing non-wine drinkers into his store to buy Yellowtail. He actually had it right by the cash register, $6.99 bottles of wine stacked against $35 and $40 and $50 bottles of wine. They also set it up on a way where you could stack the cases and create your own station.

They created a whole new category. I met a women carrying out a lot of wine. I said to her, “What did you buy?” She answered,”a red, a green, yellow, and orange.” I asked,
“what kind of wine?” She had no idea. ,

Southwest is another Blue Ocean story. So is Hurley Medical Center and Cleveland Clinic. Then there’s the water company. You have seen the water containers that sit on top of the water fountains. This company I met has 80% of the world’s water fountains. Nobody was going to buy more of them. So this company created new water station that would let you put the bottle underneath and fill it automatically. They tried to sell it through the same distribution channel, a little like your iron story. What they found was that nobody wanted to pay the additional cost except for a few universities and colleges. But no one knew why they were buying them. In fact, their marketing person said, “I delete those emails from students who are asking how they can get them on their campus?” So we went out visually exploring to find out what was going on. And what we found out was that the universities wanted to stop the sale of plastic bottles. They wanted to fix the landfill problem. They didn’t want to fill the bottle. They wanted to kill the bottle. When they guys in the room said,”Oh my gosh, they don’t want to fill a bottle. They want to kill the bottle, the whole room lit up.” They now represent 25% of the billion dollar business. It had a whole new purpose for them. So all of this is telling you that sometimes we get stuck in our own assumptions. I push you to go out and see what are people really trying to do with your products and services. Because if you can see that unmet need or the non-user, there’s a blue ocean waiting for you, one that nobody is competing in. Nobody’s even paying attention to it. So those are the kinds of things that get us very excited.

Keith Campagna:

It’s that free flowing idea exchange where there’s no wrong step. There’s no wrong answer. It’s just look at two plus two. Again, we know it’s four, but can it be 2.5 plus 1.5 Can it be 1 + 3? How do you prep your clients or how do you prep people when they might come into the room for the first time and be skeptical of another new idea?

Andi Simon: Interesting question. Great question. Typically how we proceed is we ask them to go out and talk to a customer. Listen to them, talk about pain points or unmet needs and challenges. What are the trends that are upsetting them? Begin to listen,not for what I can do for you, but for what if I couldn’t do that for you? Just listen. And I tell them don’t sell anything, just bring back ideas, open your mind to the unmet needs. It may even be too far to go to non-users right away. I have one client who interviewed 12 of their clients> I took all the recordings back and let them hear them. Oh my gosh, they weren’t very complimentary. It was very interesting. That started with a visual awakening.

There are tools we use. We have a strategic canvas where you map out what the company is investing in now and what your competition is. And then we play a game using the blue ocean strategy methodology. We play a game called reverse every thing, everything you do today, what you’re not going to do tomorrow and things you don’t do today. You’re going to do lots of tomorrow. And then you let the team come up with ideas. And the research is extremely compelling. It becomes really interesting to watch a diverse group of people begin to come up with ideas that simply tells what you did now, you’re not going to do anymore. One thing guy said, I have a million dollar ideas sitting here I’ve spent noodling around and it came together because all of a sudden we saw possibilities.

So to your point, there’s process, you can go wandering, We take observations, turn them into innovations and then help you make it happen. And that’s really the value of a little anthropology. That’s how we can do it. You can do it yourselves.

Ira Wolfe :I know part of what you were talking about, Andi, and I recognize part of the blue ocean strategy. Just to give people a takeawa: Observe, stand in customer or your job seeker’s shoes. It still shocks me how many times I’ll ask how many people applied for a job at your own business to observe the experience. It’s not very often. Right before we went on the air wqe said this will go incredibly fast. It did. You’ve got a new book coming out, Rethink Smashing the Myths of Women in Business. Finally women seem to be cracking the ceiling but it hasn’t fallen down yet. I assume you’re using a similar approach like blue ocean, or maybe that’s a false assumption. So talk a little bit about where you’re headed with that. And again, we have like four or five minutes left.

Andi Simon: Women are creating a new culture. There are 400,000 attorneys now who are women. There are 65% of the accountants are women over half the doctors over half the dentists over half the work. First 40% of the businesses in the U S are run by women. Now, if you just pause and say, there’s something going on here bigger than a bear to transformation happening, it’s opening it up. And that’s what happening: women are helping women, women lead differently. There’s a chapter in there about a woman who led three companies to great growth, she just leads differently. Guys see it differently. There’s a lady lawyer who was extremely successful. She was told “don’t be a lady lawyer. A women in geosciences was told,you never can go in the field. And she was the best at finding oil fields. There’s something in their stories that become role models for other women and for girls. And I’m hoping to take the book down into the teen audience. I have a dozen women already who are helping me develop this program because they are ready to rethink their own journeys. It’s a great time for women now. There’s an opportunity here for something quite remarkable. And women are helping women in ways that are just unheard of and society is going to benefit from it. If you think of the women who run countries, whether it’s Germany or New Zealand or Iceland or Netherlands, all run by women leaders and look at how they handled the coronavirus. They were all very successful. What about the guys? Interesting times.

Can add one thought here. The relationship between men and women is going through its own transformation. And that by itself is really cool.

You guys are terrific and this has been a great time. So I appreciate the opportunity to share. Thank you so much.

Ira Wolfe: How can people get in touch with you, Andi.

Andi Simon: You can look at my website, That’s where you can find my book and my podcast. You can also visit There’s a ton of stuff on blue ocean strategy there too. We make it easy for people to become comfortable with something that they’re uncomfortable with. Thank you!