I recently finished reading two books, Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim & Renee Mauborgne, and Zag by Marty Neumeier. The main crux of both books focuses on the fact that for a business to be successful, they must “zag when everyone else zigs,” or in other words, do something unique. If you get caught up in the red 'bloody' ocean of competition, you would not be as successful as someone who creates new and uncontested market space.
I want to briefly outline a few lessons I learned from these books that can be applied to establishing Islamic organizations. Before getting to the points, I think it is best to keep 2 organizations that I think best exemplify these principles in mind to better understand,
AlMaghrib and Bayyinah Institutes. Both organizations created blue oceans of market space. In terms of educational institutes or programs, before AlMaghrib started the only thing available was weekend programs, summer or winter deen intensive programs requiring travel, or correspondence courses such as AOU. By coming up with an innovative new system that involves:
- Top notch instructors who actually travel to you,
- A never-seen-before double weekend format,
- Focus on professionalism in organization/marketing, and
- Creating a qabeelah system for cities
They did things that no other organization was really doing – at least not on that level. This allowed AlMaghrib to grow without any real direct competition. There's other institutes, yes, but none are doing the same things that they are doing.
Bayyinah Institute has also created an unprecedented way of teaching Arabic in the West. They have tailored a system with 10 day programs, and weekend programs where instructors travel and teach you what you need to know. The testament to its success is the fact that even on day 10 of the program, there are still the same amount (usually more) of people in attendance as the first day. Most Arabic classes and programs started in masājid unfortunately fall apart after a few weeks, or lose a significant chunk of students.
The key point here is not to toot the horn of these institutions (may Allāh grant them success), but it is to show that they are succeeding by doing something new instead of trying to compete with existing programs. Even the things that might come close as 'competition' do not preclude one in taking part in these programs. To drive this point home a bit further, consider an example of a 'red' ocean competition between Islamic organizations by looking at the annual conference divide that used to happen quite often – ISNA vs. ICNA, QSS vs. IANA, etc. They are two different things that from a logistical and strategic point of view are doing the same thing. People often would be one or the other. I don't want to rehash any debates or anything between them, but I want to focus strictly on the strategic point of view. Isna and Icna for example, are both annual conferences that don't really do anything that significantly distinguishes one from the other. Instead of being the Gatorade in the marketplace, it is Coke vs. Pepsi.
Islamic organizations need to assess the marketplace when coming up with a plan. An organization is very similar to a business, and we need to instill that ideal of professionalism into our work instead of settling for something that is of lower quality. One of the main indicators of success is the focus an organization has. Bayyinah for example, is focused on teaching Arabic. If they began branching out into say.. teaching Java programming on the side, it would dilute the 'brand' and reputation of Bayyinah. Put it this way – Clorox is a great brand. They make great bleach. What if they started making Clorox brand ketchup? Would you eat it? Even if it tasted better than Heinz? This I believe is one of the reasons that AlMaghrib has many other 'brands' like khutbah.com and EmanRush. If they made AlMaghrib CD's and khutbah's, etc. it would stretch it thin.
If you are starting a project, or organization, and you cannot completely present your idea in say, a couple of power point slides, you probably don't have any focus. It is impossible to make a super organization that can focus on spreading knowledge, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, saving Palestine, saving the whales, and raising funds for copper dome shining for masājid. It's just impossible. It is therefore imperative for people to identify their niche and do their best to fulfill one need of the ummah the best they can.
Another important point of blue ocean strategy is that it is hard to imitate. Inshā'Allāh if you do something that no one is doing, and do it right, no matter how good the competition is, they won't overtake you. Gatorade is still rocking despite the introduction of Powerade. Take the 2 institutes we have been looking at, even if someone was to make another AlMaghrib, or another Bayyinah, why would people go there when they can get the original? The power of your organization is what people perceive it to be.
It's also necessary to not lose hope in the process. CNN was ridiculed by other major networks when it first started. These same networks then scrambled after a couple of years to make their own full time news networks. The Ummah has a need for a lot of organizations. We need humanitarian organizations, we need educational organizations, we need child care organization, social services, welfare services, community services, we need organizations to help battered women, to help people who cannot afford healthcare, to educate people in the Deen, establishing support networks for converts, establishing youth crisis intervention, media representation, political representation… the list could go on forever. Not everyone can become a scholar, and not everyone can be a humanitarian. But this is the beauty of the ummah, Allāh (swt) has given us all skills, skills that if we properly harness them can help make a contribution to society and inshā'Allāh be a sadaqah jariyah for all of us. I hope that this short post will maybe give a few pointers and maybe motivate people to read the books, or at least look at things with a new perspective.
Please see my related post on Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.