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Competing against luck -- Clayton Christensen's book about Jobs To Be Done

Executive summary: Worth a read if you work on the innovation side of your business -- and if you do, be sure to check out our upcoming webinar on customer journey mapping sign up for our CJM webinar on Feb 24 at 12:30PM Eastern.

"Deity does not create data and then bestow it upon mankind. All data is man-made." -- Clayton Christensen, Competing Against Luck, p.189

That succinct defense of qualitative understanding over numerical abstraction -- nestled in a philosophical chapter about how businesses lose their innovative mojo when they begin focusing on the "hard" data of sales -- was worth the whole book.

I'll be honest, I wouldn't have read Competing Against Luck if I hadn't gotten it as a gift. It's not that I'm not interested. Quite the opposite, I'm fascinated by innovation processes and research that drives innovation. Phase 5 has for years worked with the elements of "jobs to be done" (JTBD) theory -- the topic of the book. Heck, I used to teach innovation to MBAs at Peking University in Beijing.

The intellectual lethargy I blame on business book burnout rather than my own laziness. Have you ever read the first chapter of a business book and decided to buy -- only to discover that what was in the first chapter was the whole book?

That experience tends to make Johnny a skeptical boy. So he doesn't buy as many business books as he used to.

But Competing Against Luck is a solid book. I'd recommend it to anyone who is involved in innovation and cares about the core issue of solving customer problems. No time today for a full review, but here's a sampler of what's good about it.

Appeal > Inertia + Anxieties

One thing the book does well is to hammer home the point that a company's products are often competing with nothing, or at least with the status quo. Even if dissatisfied, the prospective customer simply has too much inertia with the current MO, or too much anxiety about changing it, to consider moving to a different way of doing things. Conceptually, the appeal of the new offering must be greater than the inertia of the current (non)solution plus the anxieties of switching. Chief among those anxieties is the question:

What if it's not better?

The mattress story in chapter 5 is a great example. Christensen summarizes an interview with a man about his "impulse" purchase of a mattress at Costco. He was in a Costco with his wife and two young children, buying everyday household supplies. He accidentally passed through the mattress aisle on the way to checkout and ended up buying a $700 foam mattress.

As the interview progressed, it became clear that, from another perspective, the mattress wasn't an impulse purchase at all. The man had been brooding about his expensive, dysfunctional mattress and sleeping badly for months, even researching mattresses at the kitchen table in the middle of the night when he couldn't sleep.

All that time his inertia and anxieties had been greater than the appeal of a new mattress, the benefits he thought it might offer. But the inertia and anxieties were building up, waiting for the right moment. And in that split second in the mattress aisle, Costco was able to overcome his "What if it's not better?" query by (1) making returns dead simple and no-questions-asked, and (2) providing a small sample of the bedding material that he could touch and feel. That's all it took, and the deal was sealed.

How to define "jobs"

If you don't work a lot with JTBD in practice, you'll wish this section had been longer. Christensen creates a two-part definition for what a "Job" is, and the first part is weak.

"If you or a colleague describes a Job to Be Done in adjectives and adverbs, it is not a valid job."

His example is about using "convenience" as part of describing a Job, and as a recovering linguist I can't help pointing out that the word is a noun. Still, I think I still get his point: in defining jobs you have to avoid empty words. Convenience is one of those words whose meaning depends on the circumstances it's used in. Much better, therefore, to describe the circumstances specifically and accurately.

Part 2 of the definition...

"Defining a job at the right level of abstraction is critical to ensuring the theory is useful."

... is better than Part 1, and the examples bring the point home. "I need a new computer" is not a job. It's a product-level requirement. And the makers of "computers" whose stock is declining are keenly aware that the jobs for which computers were once hired still exist -- but they're being filled by smartphones and a slew of other devices.

What could use expansion here, though, is the idea that "level of abstraction" is a continuum and you need both lower and upper bounds to make it useful. The book does well enough with telling you how to avoid getting too specific -- a job cannot be a technical specification. It does less well with the more abstract end of the continuum. The famous example of the failure of railroads is illustrative. Yes, it's true they could have thought of themselves as being in the transportation business instead of the railroad business. But that is a level of abstraction that is only useful at the C-level. It doesn't help an engineer know what to do.

As Christensen says elsewhere in the book, a narrowly defined job can help even low-level employees do their jobs better. In that sense JTBD is very practical. But it would be good to have more discussion of how to navigate up and down the abstraction continuum.

How to do JTBD (not here)

If you read only to page 103, you're likely to leave the book inspired, but ultimately disappointed. Those first hundred pages are filled with the concept of "jobs to be done" and plenty of war stories about businesses that turned themselves around by focusing on customers' jobs. But there's no detail at all about how to get it done. Pretty fluffy.

Chapter 5 includes the concept of storyboarding and a nice illustration of how to get started with it. It's a fantastic interview technique that's also widely used in customer journey mapping. Beyond that there are good examples of using a tightly defined job to innovate: specifically how to raise Appeal so that it is greater than the Inertia + Anxieties formula mentioned above.

There's some interesting discussion of organizational implications, too, but ultimately it's not a How-To. If you're cynical you'd say it's another business book designed to sell consulting services, but I'd say that's not giving it enough credit. For anyone new to an innovation leadership role, it's a great introduction to a very productive form of innovation research.


Written by Steve Hansen

Steve Hansen, MBA, is the President of Phase 5 US and the leader of the firm's Data Analytics practice. With almost 2 decades of experience in client-side marketing strategy, market research, and product management, Steve brings a client’s mindset and drive for actionable results to each project. He has extensive experience in capturing the view “from the outside” with a special focus on product and service innovation. Steve is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.