Blue Ocean Roadblocks: Lack of Clarity

No sooner do I confess to reducing the standard in the hygiene department than several unpleasant consequences and a few accusations come my way.

It’s human nature to see the negative more than the positive, which means people are more likely to notice when we reduce than when we raise, and more likely to say something discouraging.

The negative comments forced me to re-evaluate my decision about hygiene, and I realized I had not properly defined for myself exactly what level I was willing to accept, so each unpleasant consequence that could possibly be related to our family hygiene was a weight on my heart.

As I sat pondering how we might change our lifestyle to include more time for cleaning, my almost five-year-old and nearly two-year-old sat at the keyboard together belting out “Deck the Halls” with gusto. “People are more than a pile of germs!” I shouted to the accusers in my head.

I don’t believe that health is number one. It’s important, but human connectedness and meaningful work is more important for a fulfilled life than perfect health. Maybe it’s a false dichotomy, but I refuse to take too much time from investing in my kids’ growth just to keep a few more germs out of the house. I refuse to stop visiting people or playing in the sandbox because we might get sick.

But truth be told, I really wish my kids would wash their hands after using the bathroom and before eating, and I really, really wish they’d use tissues instead of their T-shirts.

And what I wish for most of all is friends who see the people behind the germs that cover my children and who appreciate them for the wonderful individuals they are.

Wait – I DO have friends like that! The people who matter most, like my husband and my mother, care deeply about the work my kids are doing, and support me self-sacrificially in my work at home. And it doesn’t stop there. There are more supportive friends and family in my life than discouragers, and those who care about me are more positive than negative, so why do I let myself get tied up in knots about a few less-than-glowing comments?

I can’t pretend to understand it all, but certainly one important aspect to being able to handle criticism is clearly defining the areas in which we choose to lower the standard so we can remain at peace even in the face of criticism and negative consequences. It was obvious from my original confession about hygiene that I had not done my homework.

“I could feel guilty about it, or I could decide to focus my energy on building the things I do very much care about, and be at peace with being below industry standard in the hygiene department, at least for now.”

Well, now didn’t last long and it’s time to define just how low I’m willing to go and be happy, and figure out a way to raise the family standard to a level I can be at peace with.

I have the feeling this kind of work will never end, as our families and the world around us are ever-changing. It’s not about making a Blue Ocean once-and-for-all, but about continually being conscious of our choices so we can stay in our Blue Ocean peacefully and not get sucked back into the Red Ocean of guilt.

What roadblocks have you encountered since trying to raise and reduce? Please share!

When We Raise, Everyone Wins

A reader commented on my last post that her tendency to coast on her accomplishments is a form of self-sabotage. It may be difficult to reduce where those around us are strong, but it is equally difficult to continue to raise and improve where others are weak. It’s easy to look left and right and see that we’re doing better than most and feel good about ourselves, and it’s tempting to stay mediocre so we don’t appear “holier than thou,” but our children’s futures are too precious for this kind of foolish reasoning. Just as it’s a waste to keep up with our neighbors in areas that don’t mean so much to us, it is foolish to coast in areas we do care a great deal about simply because we’re doing better than most.

If life were a competition, then the Red Ocean mentality would be correct: if you raise the bar then you win and I lose. But I don’t believe that most of life is a competition. Even in a highly competitive field like music where competitions are extremely important and winning one opens many doors to career advancement, far more of a musician’s time is spent collaborating than competing. Most musicians don’t make music alone, but in small or large groups. When the group dynamic is one of competition and one-upmanship then the whole group suffers, not just emotionally, but musically as well. Neither does a group produce inspiring music when each musician is careful not to display too much of his ability for fear of intimidating others. The magic happens when each musician lets his ideas and talents out as he plays while keeping his ears open to what those around him are doing. This produces a feedback loop where the strengths and ideas of each musician inspire and energize the other musicians and the result is a sublime musical experience. The individual efforts to raise benefit not only the ensemble and its audience, but also competing musicians who listen and get fresh ideas and inspiration for their own work. When we raise, everyone wins.

The Blue Ocean analogy is a great framework for keeping this truth in mind. When others react with a Red Ocean mentality to our choice to raise the standard for our family, we can hopefully stay at peace in our own Blue Ocean, knowing that our raising is not ultimately a threat to them, but an opportunity. We can’t change how others think, but we can react calmly rather than defensively to their insecurities (which is much of what’s behind the discouraging words of those who react negatively to our choices.)

Yes, there will be times when others lose when we raise. Only one athlete comes home with the gold medal, but winner-takes-all competitions are man-made constructions. We create them and choose to participate in them, but we don’t have to. Even if we choose to compete, it’s not just the winners who win. Every athlete benefits from his training and experience: the friendships formed, the discipline learned, and the experience gained. There are many opportunities we can explore after a competition, whether or not we have a gold medal sitting on the shelf.

Do you agree? If we raise, will everyone win? Please share your thoughts!

Blue Ocean Creation Step Three: Raise

Now we get to the fun stuff. Step three of the Four Actions Framework is raise. It may not be possible to keep up with Super Mom in everything, but since we are willing to let her surpass us in areas we don’t care that much about, we can focus on a few areas of personal importance and outperform even Super Mom. How? Because our energies will be focused and Super Mom’s are spread out. Maybe idealized Super Mom can do everything well, but even the most super of humans can’t be the best in everything. We might have less energy and fewer resources, but because of our narrow focus we can be excellent where Super Mom is only good.

Set a timer for two minutes and write down the aspects of raising children and family life that you care about. You can always cross out later, so during this brainstorm session write down everything that comes to mind without judging yourself. Then take a few moments to review your list and pick out one area that you care about the most (at least at the moment – don’t be a perfectionist about this!).

Are you excited? Overwhelmed? I went through this exercise and found that the first thing I wrote down also jumped out as my top choice. The words I spontaneously wrote down, “parent-child relationship – strong and respectful,” fill me with excitement, determination, and a bit of fear. I love those moments when I connect with one of my children and when they say “I love you,” but I look with horror on those moments when I shout or drag a child into a room and close the door in exasperation. At this tender age my kids still love Mommy most of all, but their little hearts seem so fragile and there is no guarantee that they’ll be saying “I love you” in the teen years.

How can I possibly think I can outperform the competition in the parent-child relationship category? It’s far too overwhelming. Yet the very vastness of the topic can be an advantage as I seek to find a way to move forward. I can’t move in every direction at once, but since there are many directions, I can choose the one that seems most doable and find the very next step I can act on today. As I wrote before,

“You don’t have to do it now, just think what would be the very next step necessary to move in the right direction. Could you act on it right now? If not, then you need to burrow down one more level. You might need to find a tool, or ask a person, or find a number.”

It’s still overwhelming to think what my next step should be, so I’ll give myself some time to think and will report in the comments when I’ve decided. I would love for you to do the same! We can all be encouraged to see the small steps others are taking to make their family culture even better!

Learning to Eliminate: Cultural Context

“Aren’t you cold?” a friendly stranger asked me as I straightened up from attending to my toddler while supporting my large baby belly. I sighed and answered with a friendly “no, but thanks” and wiped the sweat from my brow. I knew what this was all about: shoes. I had none. It was a beautiful spring day and my feet were enjoying a bit of freedom after the long winter months, yet no matter the weather I’ve found the Swiss tend to be shocked at the sight of bare feet.

Cultural context is a common barrier we will face when choosing to eliminate – even if that culture is our own. “It’s just not done” is a natural, if not thoughtful, response when we’re faced with something we’ve never seen before. When creating our own Blue Ocean we’ll have to get used to facing the natural, but wearying questions of strangers. We might well want to count the cost before we cut. The Swiss don’t bother me more than saying “Aren’t you cold?” so I’m okay with occasionally eliminating the industry standard of shoe-wearing. I’ve also eliminated make-up yet have never gotten a comment about it. It might be different if I lived in Texas, where make-up is considered an integral part of womanhood. I might choose to start wearing make-up just so I wouldn’t have to explain myself. Consciously deciding to fit in is a valid Blue Ocean choice, too. We need to consider our cultural environment and choose our battles.

On the flip side, knowing other cultures is a great way to get ideas for elimination. When we get out of our own cultural waters we can observe how many people do without something our own culture considers essential. For example, the Swiss don’t expect parents to watch their kids every moment of the day. In fact, it’s considered an important developmental exercise in independence for kindergartners to walk to school without adult supervision. It still may not be wise for an American to let her kindergartner walk to school alone, but knowing that somewhere else in the world young children do, and turn out just fine, can free the imagination to find other ways of helping our children exercise their independence.

What cultural context do you struggle with? Have you adopted a cultural norm from a place you’ve visited or lived? Please share!

Blue Ocean Creation Step One: Eliminate

Let’s go back to step one of the Four Actions Framework for creating a Blue Ocean: Eliminate. It’s hard to expand our thinking enough to identify something we could cut altogether. What part of parenting can we possibly cut? Food? Education? Potty training? It seems at first glance that the jobs that go with parenting are a given and we just have to accept them. I’m sure it looks that way for businesses, too. Who could imagine a circus without animals? Yet Cirque du Soleil eliminated animal performers and I doubt anyone has left a show thinking it was lacking a special something because it didn’t have animals.

Even if we could be imaginative enough to think of a standard part of parenting that we might choose to eliminate, the worst is yet to come. Cutting is even scarier than reducing. If we choose to reduce we might just look like we’re struggling to get it all done. Others might react with pity saying “Aw, that poor Mom, she’s so stressed she can’t manage to pack her kids a lunch.” If we eliminate something it will most likely be apparent to all, and we’ll have to answer the questions and bear up under the disapproving looks. Such social consequences can be especially difficult to take when we ourselves are unsure we have made the right choice. In my short years of parenting I’ve already learned the lesson that there are no guarantees and every choice comes with risk. It’s a scary business, yet there is no safe place of protection. Even if we go along with the norms of our time it will not shelter us from the scorn of the next generation decrying our inhumane practices. Life is risky. Let’s face the fact bravely.

From the book, Blue Ocean Strategy,

“No company . . . can afford to be a riverboat gambler. And no company should.”

They emphasize “creating blue oceans in a smart and responsible way that is both opportunity maximizing and risk minimizing.”

I’m still reading through the book and have lots of work to do to translate how it applies to families, but the warning against gambling is more important for families than for business. Businesses are finite. Every company, every organization, and every country will one day come to an end. The family’s business of making and shaping people is of utmost – and I believe eternal – importance. Even if you don’t believe in the afterlife, clearly raising children well is of great importance to you or you wouldn’t be reading this!

So how do we eliminate a commonly accepted “necessity” of parenting without being fools?

How do we continue to live socially in our communities when our choices set us apart?

There is so much more to explore and discover. Do you have questions or thoughts? Please share in the comments. I’d love to hear your perspective!

Learning to Reduce: The Hidden Cost of Indecision

In college I would get flyers or mail with interesting opportunities but be unsure if that’s where I should invest my already stretched time. I’d read a flyer, find it difficult to decide and then drop it on my desk so I wouldn’t forget I needed to do something about it. Needless to say, this lead to a desk piled with papers and a mind full of unmade decisions.   I was stressed all the time and never had the energy at the end of a long day to sort through the piles of papers that held yet more work for me. This would last for weeks or months until the stress gave me enough reason to summon my courage and clean up my desk and overflow piles. I would pick up those same interesting opportunities and note with relief that the due date had passed so I could trash them without mental energy.

Not to decide is to decide

We can’t get around it. We can’t put off decisions for a magical time “later” when we’ll suddenly have more time. I still think I’ll have more time later even though I always have less time now than I did before! When we delay a decision, we are in fact deciding not to act. Not to decide is to decide – or is it? My college habit of postponing decisions took up an enormous amount of energy and mental space but returned no productivity whatsoever. Not to decide is much worse than deciding not to. If I was so relieved that the opportunity had passed then it probably wasn’t very important in the first place. What if I had had the courage to say “no” when I first got the opportunity? What freedom and peace of mind – not to mention a cleaner desk – I would have experienced!

Deciding to Reduce

Did you think of something you’d rather cut out of your life after reading my last post? Did you decide to reduce the effort you put into it and accept it as an area where you’ll perform below industry standard? Or did you put off deciding?

Front load your “no”

Decisions take energy, but deciding not to decide wastes precious brain space until the question is resolved. Our subconscious will continue to work on the problem when we’re trying to focus on something else. The more unmade decisions we carry around, the harder it is to get anything done. Don’t let my words sit in the back of your head. Decide to decide, even if it is to decide not to. Don’t let that low performance area of family life that you don’t like and wish you could remove sit around and make you feel guilty. Decide. Can you cut it? Can you reduce it to a minimum acceptable level? Can you front load your “no” and be at peace with your lower level rather than carry around guilt that you don’t measure up and more guilt that you haven’t decided whether it’s okay not to measure up?

The Next Action Trick

If you can’t decide to reduce or cut – it’s just too much or you’re too afraid that it’s something you shouldn’t cut, then take a moment to think about what you might do if you were to improve in that area. You don’t have to do it now, just think what would be the very next step necessary to move in the right direction. Could you act on it right now? If not, then you need to burrow down one more level. You might need to find a tool, or ask a person, or find a number, or look inside a box – yes, I’ve made Next Action tasks like “look inside sewing box” because I’m too overwhelmed by the guilt of neglecting to act on “decide what sewing needs to be done.” And I still procrastinate! So this call is for us all:

Decide!

Pick one bothersome area and decide to reduce, cut or think of a next action. Enjoy the peace that comes from deciding. You get extra credit if you decide NOT TO and take it off your to do list and guilty-conscious mental list for good!

I’d love to hear what you decided not to do today! You should be able to see your comment right away and not have to wait for moderation. Please try it so I can see if I set it up right.

Blue Ocean Creation Step Two: Reduce

Let’s take a personal look at the second step of the Four Actions Framework for creating a Blue Ocean: reduce. You might wonder why I’m not starting with step one, but it seems easier to start with reducing than full-out elimination. Decluttering is scary, whether it be stuff or activities!

Is there an element of family life that you try to uphold because the people around you deem it to be important but deep down, you don’t really care about, or you wish you did care about but you can’t make yourself? What if someone gave you permission to quit, or dial back, would you jump at the chance? Don’t feel guilty; this could be your golden opportunity to start carving out your Blue Ocean!

Ask yourself, “Is this really necessary, or is it an area where I can cut back in order to carve out space for more important things?”

What would happen if you chose to perform well below “industry standard”? I’m not talking about low performance by default and feeling guilty about it. I’m proposing you intentionally, and without guilt, choose to focus on things that deliver greater value to you.

Such an area for me is hygiene. I wish I cared more about it, but I just can’t be bothered to make my kids wash their hands before meals and even after they use the bathroom. I dislike bathing them, so it only happens once a week, if that, and even then I delegate it to my (thankfully willing) husband. I could go on, but you get the point. It’s nothing to be proud of. Hygiene is a good thing and there’s nothing noble about being dirtier than others. I could feel guilty about it, or I could decide to focus my energy on building the things I do very much care about, and be at peace with being below industry standard in the hygiene department, at least for now.

What about you? What would you reduce if you had permission?

Blue Ocean Strategy: The Inspiration for Blue Ocean Families

My blue and red ocean visions were inspired by the concept of Blue Ocean Strategy for businesses. I watched a summary created by The Great Courses, and immediately thought of how it could apply to families.

 “Blue ocean strategy challenges companies to break out of the red ocean of bloody competition by creating uncontested market space that makes the competition irrelevant.”

I’m currently reading the book Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space And Make The Competition Irrelevant. Naturally, not everything about how a business is run can or should map to families, but I’ll talk more about the parallels and differences later. For now, I’ll share the four basic steps that lead to creating a blue ocean of market space called the Four Actions Framework.

Eliminate – Which of the factors that the industry takes for granted should be eliminated?

Reduce – Which factors should be reduced well below the industry’s standard?

Raise – Which factors should be raised well above the industry’s standard?

Create – Which factors should be created that the industry has never offered?

An example might be the easiest way to grasp the basic concept. Cirque du Soleil left the bloody red ocean of the circus market and created its own vast and profitable blue ocean as follows:

Eliminate – star performers, animal shows, aisle concession sales, multiple show arenas

Reduce – fun and humor, thrill and danger

Raise – unique venue (vs. the three-ring circus)

Create – theme, refined environment, multiple productions, artistic music and dance

Eliminating animals was a particularly bold and brilliant stroke.   What’s a circus without animals? Clearly essential to the industry, yet expensive to keep and many potential customers have moral objections to keeping trained animals. It was an unthinkable thing to cut, but it worked!

Did you catch that? Success came from cutting what was deemed essential be everyone else.

I believe the same applies to families. It makes no sense to try to do everything. Can we have the strength to cut something others think is essential for the sake of building our own unique family culture?

Little More Than A Vision

Picture two oceans. One is teeming with angry red waves. The other is a vast and peaceful blue. In my vision the Red Ocean represents the competitive and cut-throat world of parenting. It represents all that is nasty about the Mommy Wars. It’s where worn-out parents struggle to keep their heads above (the red) water and constantly worry if they are doing enough for their kids. It’s where everyone is striving to be Super Mom, but it’s not possible, so desperate parents turn and tear down a mom who looks like Super Mom instead.

Now picture the Blue Ocean. This peaceful haven is a place where just one family swims and where each family member can thrive. They have room and laughter, and time to explore and expand. They threaten no one because they chose to leave the Red Ocean and carve out space to make their very own Blue Ocean.

The best thing is, there isn’t just one Blue Ocean for one special family. There isn’t just a hundred Blue Oceans for the elite. Every family can choose to create a Blue Ocean and leave the Red Ocean behind forever.

How do you create a Blue Ocean – a unique family culture – where each member has the freedom to thrive AND where success helps others rather than threatens them?

That’s the question I want to explore in this blog. It’s little more than a vision now, but if you find the idea intriguing, then please join me on my journey!

Next Up: The four basic elements required to create a Blue Ocean for your family. They are deceptively simple!