01 Sep 2016
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Clay Christensen on Competing Against Luck

Innovation expert discusses his latest book—and the importance of determining customer’s motivations

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Why They Buy

The first big puzzle Professor Clay Christensen tackled when he joined the HBS faculty in 1992 was an elemental one: Why was success so hard for businesses to sustain? The search led to his theory of disruptive innovation, which would eventually result in the much-heralded The Innovator’s Dilemma and make “disruption” a universal buzzword. Christensen’s latest book, Competing Against Luck, drops this month and is an outgrowth of the second puzzle he’s faced: Why is innovation such a gamble? It doesn’t have to be, says Christensen. Here he talks about the alternative the book outlines—the “theory of jobs to be done”—and how that concept might play out in the auto industry.
—Dan Morrell

Your theory essentially reframes how managers think about their products or services—as a sort of job that the customer is trying to fulfill. In those terms, what job is this book fulfilling for readers?

I hope readers will say to themselves, “Oh my gosh, I can predict whether this product is going to be successful in the market. It actually is not a crapshoot.” And if the theory helps you predict with much more clarity that it is not going to work, think about how much cost and time you do not waste. I hope it truly brings predictability to innovation that historically we just have not had before.

Why do managers ignore the motivations of their customers? Is part of it because they are now awash with data and fetishize it to a certain extent?

I am hoping the answer is that we just have not taught managers and marketers we have a problem, and so, if you think that more data will solve the problem of what is not in the data, then we are misleading people in a serious way.

How would cars work as an example of a job that customers need to get done?

Car companies have structured the market so that they think of it as product categories. You have full-size, midsize, compact, subcompact, minivan, SUVs, crossovers—as if categories cause people to buy products.

My calculation is that about 30 percent of all cars sold are sold as an office, because there are people who have to work on the road—there are salespeople, there are service people. They have to have access to data, they have to communicate. When I have that job to be done and I do not have a physical office to go to, what do I do? What can I hire to do the job of an office? When I was a sales guy, I could hire McDonald’s to do the job. I would get a Diet Coke and sit at the back tables and figure out where I was and what I was going to do next and who I needed to call. But sometimes, I have no option. I have to hire my car to be an office. But nobody has designed a car to serve as an office. And so what would you do if Ford said, “Boy, we could take the car as is, but the cockpit would be very different if we conceive of it as a job.” Imagine the differentiation that it would bring to Ford. It is not just a compact anymore.

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Christensen reveals how his theories have shaped his teaching and home life on the new podcast Skydeck at alumni.hbs.edu/podcast

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