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.

blueocean.jpg zag.jpg

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 masajid 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 Allah 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 masajid. 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. Insha'Allah 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, Allah (swt) has given us all skills, skills that if we properly harness them can help make a contribution to society and insha'Allah 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.

21 Responses

  1. Abu Bakr

    This is an excellent post, Ma Sha Allah.

    I think each person should ask himself, “What quality/skill do I bring to the table that I can contribute to the Muslim community?”

    In particular, those in leadership positions or with leadership skills should think about just what needs they see in the community or in our societies that they feel that they can help address.

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  2. Random Muslimah

    Assalamu ‘alaykum

    Mashallah, great post. I agree with Abu Bakr, that everyone (incl. myself) needs to do a personal assessment of their potential, and then try to apply themselves, inshallah.

    One thing i have noticed that is really needed though… a skills broker. We have many skilled individuals in this Ummah, of which many want to give up maybe just an hour or two a week to help in some cause. Unfortunately, they (and i include myself in that “they”) have little idea where to begin, or what cause to join. They may be professionals or students with little time to spare, or just with very busy family lives. There is a temptation to throw oneself into the deep end, and try and save the planet, singlehandedly, and then 3 weeks later, the person burns out. And i think some charities are so understaffed, they tend to lean on new volunteers a little too much, which can also cause high drop put rates.

    It would be great if there was an organization (and if there is, please let me know!) akin to a recruitment agency. Charities, masjids, etc, come to them telling them what help they need, and how p/t, f/t the position is, and maybe what kind of applicant they are looking for, if it is a skilled job, and then the agency matches up potential volunteers to these posts.

    Do you think that is a good idea? Is it already being done? I don’t have time now to implement it, but inshallah, in a few months, that might be something i’d like to do… i’m based in the UK, btw, but this is ideally something that every country, or locality needs.

    Wa’salam

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  3. jr

    A larger issue is identifying unmet needs in a community. Very little top-down, influential strategic thinking takes place in most Muslim communities. The previous comment touches upon aspect of this top-down approach (volunteer skills matching). Unfortunately, most communities are not really ready for sophisticated planning on this level.

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  4. Abu Bakr

    In other words, there’s a lack of constructive leadership

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  5. jr

    I should point out that actions such as this blog post can move us towards more sophisticated strategic planning in our communities. Community change is usually led on a grassroots level. Perhaps this blog can help that grassroots activism by making more posts about how our communities can incorporate strategic planning into their activites.

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  6. AnonyMouse

    Masha’Allah, a great post!

    We’re trying to get more things started (and continued!) in my own community; and the other day a sister proposed an idea for a Muslim mothers’ group that would deal with everything from health and nutrition, parenting issues, to Islamic education and the nurturing of a strong Muslim identity within their kids.

    Insha’Allah, if this idea gets off the ground, I’ll do a write up about it so that others may benefit and so that readers could perhaps make suggestions to help us improve what we’re trying to do.

    May Allah make us succesful in all our efforts, ameen.

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  7. Amad

    While ICNA and ISNA Conferences play out the Pepsi vs. Coke in ‘Islamic conferences’, I think we do have the Gatorade now– in America that would be Texas Dawah Convention.

    In fact, I got to see a sneak preview of the next Convention, “FAMILY IN FOCUS” being put together, not by shoddy volunteers (such as myself) but by motivated technocrats (the MBA types- motivated volunteers PLUS professionals). All speakers would be required, for example, to have power-point presentations, and many other program changes that will make the Convention closer to the program put together for working Professionals. But at the same time, it will maintain its TDC ‘learn it, live it’ flavor. Topics this year will daily with our daily family life as well as difficult familial problems facing Muslims in America, such as what to do about domestic abuse, sex ed., etc. I am afraid I’ll give up too much info… A LOT MORE will be posted on these pages in due time.

    That’s just a quick little teaser for the readers. It starts on Dec. 21 through Dec. 24… START MAKING YOUR PLANS. I promise you that you do NOT want to miss this one.

    Oops, I think I am in the process of hijacking this wonderful thread so I’ll stop right there. By the way, great post as usual bro! Your one post is equal to many on this blog in terms of quality! :)

    w/s

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  8. Mujahideen Ryder

    Regarding Islamic Education:

    Al-Maghrib is successful because of the business endeavor by Muhammad Al-Shareef. If it wasn’t for his education in marketing and business management, Al-Maghrib wouldn’t be where it’s at today.

    I still credit to Darul Ulooms wherever they are. That is a serious institution (regardless of what aqeedah, fiqh, etc. they teach). When you graduate, your not the typical average Muslim anymore. These guys have a curriculum that has been established for years. Once they are done, they are recognized.

    Zaytuna Institute also has there seminary program. None of the students haven’t even graduated yet (not that I know of) and most of them have been there fore years. They also have a set curriculum based on the tradition for years.

    Al-Maghrib is amazing in grabbing the average young Muslim who’s into Islam and wants to learn but also is a student at university/college/grad/med/etc. I haven’t seen anything like a type of graduation from Al-Maghrib Institute and will it be recognized like an Islamic university? Also, I don’t think the students take the exams. From the seminars I took, half the class doesn’t take the exam.

    Basically Darul Uloom and Zaytuna’s seminary program are intense for serious students of knowledge.

    Al-Maghrib is for the average Muslim how just wants to learn but not go deep.

    Regarding ICNA/ISNA/MAS/IANA/etc.

    There conferences are good for family vacations. That’s about it.

    Regarding TDC and RIS

    I haven’t been to TDC, but all I heard were good things. You can see clearly that the speaker line up is pretty dominated on one side. Which is the exact same at RIS. The one thing I like about RIS, is the 1-week retreat after the conference. That’s some hot stuff right there.

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  9. Hassan

    Strangest thing happened to me.

    One of the instructor at Bayinnah institute is Nouman Ali Khan. My friend Adeel at Cincinnati is taking his class and has nothing but praise about Nouman’s knowledge. I tried to read his profile online and it seemed he spent sometime in Riyadh (I was also in Riyadh all my childhood). I asked my friend Adeel if he(Nouman) has green eyes. Adeel said yes, I told Adeel to ask Nouman if his father was diplomat at Pakistan embassy and mother teacher at school. And if he answers yes, tell him about me.

    And it happened, it turned out Nouman Ali Khan was my childhood friend, who left Saudi in 1990-1991. He was my benchmate, I used to play with him soccer etc. We both knew nothing about Arabic then. But masha’Allah he now knows inside out of arabic.

    I got to talk to him today after 16 years and it was so amazing. He was extremely happy and so was I. Subhan-Allah.

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  10. Abu Bakr

    May Allah make you benchmates again… but in a better endeavor this time : )

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  11. Abu Mus'ab

    This post is very insightful.. Masha’Allah. It’s always better to do one thing really really well than do a lotta things in mediocre fashion.

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  12. Munir Ibn Shahid

    Thank you so much for this post…. IT is empowering and reassuring and motivating to see brothers taking there responsibility as believers serious enough to take action…. Masha’Allah Jazak Allah
    ASA

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  13. Muslim Investor

    I’m mentioning this in hopes that other Muslim communities may benefit. Locally here in Chicago, there is an informal group of Muslim volunteers that come together that work on a number of community projects. They call themselves the Volunteer Collective. All initiatives are driven by volunteer members. They include everything from distributing food and clothing to the homeless, fundraising for a local mosque that had burned down, to bringing water to an unincorporated township that does not have running water. People volunteer their time and move in and out as their schedules permit. There is always a core group of people that help organize, but the informal structure has made it flexible in many situations when the numbers soar or dwindle. Further, they have strong relationships with existing organizations and non-profits. They fill in a need when it arises. Sort of like an on-demand group of volunteers for Muslim organizations. Ultimately, the main concern of the group is community action. Hope this may inspire some discussion and copying in many different localities.

    For the sake of full disclosure, I have volunteered with the group.

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