The environment is one of the crucial issues of our era. Is it time then for coaches to embrace Green Ocean Strategy as an alternative model for business engagement in client work, ask Jonathan Passmore and Kaveh Mir
Pre-pandemic, everywhere you turned the environment seemed to be a central strand of conversation, whether this focused on species extinction, global warming, unusual weather pattern or something else.
The topic may have fallen off the agenda at times, given the prominence of the Covid-19 issue, but let us not forget that the environment is still very much out there, along with digital disruption as one of the four horsemen of the modern apocalypse.
The coaching community has joined the conversation, with explorations of how coaches might contribute, how directive we should be with clients, and how we might bring environmental issues to the table.
In this article, we explore Green Ocean Strategy (GOS), a business strategy which seeks to create opportunities from environmental risks and pressures, environmental awareness among consumers, and environmental design, marketing and technologies. As an alternative model for business engagement it can serve as a useful model to explore clients’ view from the pond across the lagoon.
In the 19th century, when most of the European and North American economies were growing, the belief at the heart of these companies was that competition was all. The focus was on efficiency and developing lower-cost products. The laws of the market mirrored the laws of natural selection, and the fittest would survive and thrive.
This competitive approach to market engagement, known as Red Ocean Strategy, led to firms fighting toe-to-toe for the same territory: Capitalism was truly red in tooth and claw.
During the 1990s, business strategists started to recognise that the race to the bottom served no one well, least of all business. Simply finding more and more ways to cut costs or make slighter better versions, or cheaper versions, of the same product, led to lower and lower returns. In this context, Blue Ocean Strategy was born. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne (2004) argued that red ocean strategies were old-style thinking, but for business success, firms needed to sail off towards blue oceans, to create their own new frontiers of opportunity.
For the leaders of Blue Ocean businesses this meant a change in philosophy. Surviving, or thriving, was no longer about dividing up an existing, shrinking pie, but was based on identifying untapped customer needs where profit could be made through innovation.
Hello ‘iPhone’, ‘Amazon’ and ‘Uber’ – whoever knew we needed to share pictures of our breakfast with our 1,000 best friends, have the book we ordered at dinner delivered to our front door before breakfast or order a cab from a company which does not employ any drivers?
The challenge is that Blue Ocean Strategy still reflects old thinking. Instead of competing on price, the strategy is about creating a new space – geography, customers or a new product. But in a globally connected world, today’s blue ocean is tomorrow’s red ocean. In most sectors, companies have a window of six to 24 months to exploit their ‘blue ocean’ before they see others competing in the same space attracted by the apparently untapped market.
Every ocean ultimately becomes red. The race to the bottom continues, as we fish out the ever-shrinking stock of profit, consuming declining resources as we go.
But what if there were a different philosophy for business? A philosophy not based on win-loss, domination, exploitative, short-term and global. What if we can identify models of working that are win-win, collaborative, participatory, sustainable, local? And what if coaching could play a part in the development of a green business strategy: Green Ocean Strategy (GOS)? A strategy reflecting a more sustainable and locally sourced approach to business, focusing on collaboration networks.
Which mindsets trap us in short-term, competitive and exploitative relationships? How can we as a coaching community facilitate clients to consider the behavioural and cognitive changes which can deliver a fundamental change to business? Can coaching be the boat that can take us from the red ocean of competition, through the blue ocean of innovation to the green ocean of collaboration?
Green ocean in organisations
Adopting a GOS requires a refocusing on ‘we’ rather than ‘me’. The strategy for achieving goals steers towards collaboration over competitive, communicative over confidential and local over global. When we are in the green ocean, we select eudaimonic wellbeing over hedonic happiness; when evaluating the benefits and consequence of our actions, we value long-term, not short-term.
We regularly calibrate our moral sensitivity to ensure our automatic decision-making processes are effectively dealing with rapid change in the world and are not immune to detecting critical data guarding us against environmentally, mentally and physically destructive behaviours.
Roger Steare (2013) argues that most business executives are taught in business schools to ask two key questions when making decisions: first, “is it profitable?”, second,
“is it legal?”
In the green ocean, organisation executives might usefully add a third question: “is it right?”
In the green ocean, organisations do not favour the first two questions over the third one. Each is of importance, each offers a gateway to move onto the next question, starting with ethical (right), moving to compliance (legal) and finally financial (profit).
We suggest six guiding behaviours for green ocean strategy organisational clients (see Green Ocean behaviours, below).
Green Ocean behaviours
- We aim for prizes for everyone
- We collaborate first and compete second
- We share as much as possible, not hide everything we do
- We aim to be ethical, for the highest good (ethical behaviours are behaviours that generally make us feel proud and which we are pleased to see appear in public, as opposed to feeling embarrassed or ashamed)
- We seek to act with sensitivity towards the environment and try to move towards ecological behaviours which are sustainable for an indefinite period through the use of renewable resources and which create minimal or zero consequences for others’ physical or mental health
- We cost in the consequences of our behaviours
What would this look like for coaches?
Coaches have brought the issue of the environment front and central stage. We have seen the rise of the Climate Conscious Coaching movement (CCC, 2020), the launch of Climate Coaching Day (5 March) by Coaching at Work, and the launch of the Climate Coaching Alliance. The British Psychological Society’s Coaching Psychology conference in 2020 (BPS, 2020) adopted sustainability and the environment as its conference theme, and coaching researchers are starting to explore themes such as the role of the green-blue environment in coaching (Watson and Burns, 2020).
We wonder if green ocean can be a new framework in the coaching toolkit to encourage clients to adopt the long view?
As a Green Ocean Coach (GOC), the coach may be continuously calibrating the automatic decision-making process using personal reflection, supervision and journal/diary writing to reflect on how they are acting – from their transport and food choices to their collaborative or competitive practices. A GOC might pose the same three questions: ‘Is it right (R)?’, ‘Is it legal (L)?’ + ‘Is it profitable for all (Pa)?’
When considering the ‘is it right?’ question, the GOC ensures the moral sensitivity is suitability calibrated to the coaching environment, type of clients and style of coaching. Calibration of moral sensitivity ensures sensitivity in recognising a problem exists. As well as adequately tuning the moral sensitivity, the GOC can distinguish among the different courses of action, and has the required motivation to follow through choices and the individual traits necessary to execute the ethical plan in spite
Paying attention to the question, ‘is it right?’ over other questions means the GOC would remove the anxiety, stress with the idea of what happens if our actions become public. When deciding on ‘is it right?’ the GOC considers the needs and voices of other species, generations and other people if they could speak now.
When considering the legal question, the GOC not only considers the national laws as it impacts on them, but also the legal issues facing their clients (recognising that most now coach across national borders), but also the ethical code they’ve pledged to follow and their person moral code.
Third, when considering profitability, the GOC thinks ‘we’ rather than ‘me’. Do these actions add value to all involved? What harm may be caused by these actions? Do benefits outweigh harm? The later is hard to quantify particularly when governments do not always build in the full costs of harm – such as environmental damage from the plastic wrapping around the sandwich we buy from the shop while on a coaching assignment.
Profitability should focus on the long-term costs, as well as recognising the long-term value. Finally, ‘is it profitable for all?’ rather than ‘is it profitable for me?’
Such questions will enhance the chances of win-win outcomes, promote collaboration and encourage transparency. In the box, Green Ocean coaching questions (below), we include six coaching questions that may be useful for the GOC to add to their toolbox.
Green Ocean coaching questions
- In what ways do your proposed actions enhance the chances of win-win outcomes or behaviour?
- How do your behaviours promote collaboration internally in your organisation?
- How do your behaviours promote collaborative working with suppliers, partners and customers?
- How would you feel if your actions became public?
- What would others (other people, other species, other generations) say about how your behaviours/decisions impact on others if they had a voice to speak now?
- How do you seek to set off these environmental and social impacts from your work?
We’ve drawn from business strategy models to craft a new strategic approach which may have value for business, and one which offers some initial steps for coaching practitioners to help all of us re-orientate our own coaching businesses, as well as helping our clients to consider what they can to make cognitive and behavioural change towards more sustainable ways of operating in the best interest of future generations and all species on Planet A.
- Jonathan Passmore is director of the Henley Centre for Coaching, Henley Business School
- Kaveh Mir is a visiting tutor at Henley Business School, and an ICF Global Board member
- Blue Ocean Strategy. Retrieved from: www.blueoceanstrategy.com/what-we-stand-for (20 January 2020)
- BPS (2020) Special Group in Coaching Psychology Conference, June 2020. Retrieved on 1 February 2020 from https://bit.ly/2EHcxqb
- Climate Coaching Alliance (2020). Retrieved on 1 February 2020 from: www.climatecoachingalliance.org
- C Kim and R Mauborgne, Blue Ocean Strategy, Boston: Harvard Business School, 2004
- R Steare, Ethicability, Roger Steare Consulting Limited, 2013
- A M Watson and A Burns, ‘Eco-Coaching’, in J Passmore (ed.), The Coaches’ Handbook, Abingdon: Routledge, 2020