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Pondering my latest summer read, Overfished Ocean Strategy

Two works by Seattle-based photographer Chris Jordan
Two works by Seattle-based artist and activist Chris Jordan

I’ve just finished the business book equivalent of “beach reading”. The book is Overfished Ocean Strategy by Nadya Zhexemmbayeva. It’s highly accessible, not very long (173 pages), and very entertaining. The title of the book is a play on the business bestseller Blue Ocean Strategy, published in 2005 and written by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne. Blue Ocean strategy is the idea that businesses should seek out new market spaces (blue oceans) rather than trying to compete in the crowded waters of existing markets and companies.

Zhexemmbayeva riffs on the ocean analogy with her observation that our oceans and indeed all of the earth’s resources are “overfished”. It is no longer practical or profitable to seek and exploit new waters. Instead we need to face the fact that we are depleting our resources and jeopardizing our survival and then move joyfully into a whole new way of doing business. In her words, “To discover the abundance of the future, we first need to recognize the scarcity of the present.”

In a refreshing and down to earth style, Zhexemmbayeva lays out five principles that can transform our linear throwaway economy into one that relies upon circular flow, imaginative cross-fertilization of ideas, a way of growing that replaces stuff with service, the use of models and iteration in place of formulaic strategic plans, and organizations grounded in common mindsets rather than rigid departmental boundaries.

Zhexemmbayeva is eclectic in her interests and citations. She draws upon the work of highly regarded thinkers, activists and practitioners and weaves them together in a way that I found very pleasing. I read about old friends like The Natural Step and Harry Mintzberg, and enjoyed how they fit into the Overfished Ocean strategy.

For the very reasons that this book is accessible and enjoyable, it also left me pondering the questions that fascinate me: Can we reconcile a circular economy with a linear money system? Is it possible to have economic growth in a circular economy? If we radically move to a circular economy, doesn’t that necessarily (and happily) lead to shrinking material output and shrinking GDP? Or if we monetize everything non-material in an effort to maintain a growth economy in a resource-constrained world, do we really want to live like that?

Zhexemmbayeva does not address these questions. She categorically sets them aside, saying, “…I am not here to debate the philosophy or theory of growth.” This was probably the right decision for her. She wants to motivate business leaders to grow in a better way, a way that she sees as transformative, and nothing is likely to dissuade business action more than the exploration of systemic tensions and contradictions.

Whether you’re seeking inspiration for a new business model or for deeper musings on the nature of business and economy, I highly recommend picking up Overfished Ocean Strategy. It’s a perfect summer read – deceptively simple while tackling very complex and entrenched ideas. And I will continue to work on the puzzling questions of circles and lines and how or whether they can co-exist.

Next up for my summer reading and pondering are Carol Sanford’s The Responsible Entrepreneur and Meg Wheatley’s So Far From Home.

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