Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen has written for years about why companies and industries fail. But in a new book released Tuesday, the veteran innovation guru writes about how companies can succeed — or grow new products and services. In "Competing Against Luck," Christensen details his long-standing "jobs theory" or "jobs to be done theory," arguing that companies need to think more about what causes customers to make choices and less about customer demographics or product attributes.
The new book, written with Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon and David S. Duncan, is Christensen's first since his ideas around "disruptive innovation" came under scrutiny in the past couple of years. After articles in the New Yorker and MIT's Sloan Management Review raised questions about his work, he had to defend the influential concepts that helped spawn an empire that includes books and consulting.
In an interview with The Post, Christensen discussed the core idea of his new book — an awkward one to describe, which posits that companies should think about the "job" customers are "hiring" a product or service to do. He also shared what he thinks about Apple's innovation mojo, where he agrees with Steve Jobs and talked about how he deals with the criticism he's received. The conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.
This “jobs to be done” theory is not a new idea for you. It’s something you’ve been talking about for decades. Why write about it now?
[Laughs] Well, it’s a very different type of research. The work that I did for the first book, "The Innovator’s Dilemma," was really driven by data [that] essentially provided a complete census of one industry. The problem with developing products of the sort that we’re looking at is there really is not data you can get, because data is only available about the past. So we really had to crawl inside of people’s minds and their lives and try to figure out what causes them to do what they do. Every day, stuff happens to us: Jobs arise in our lives that we need to get done. What causes us to buy products is not our characteristics or attributes, but rather, we find ourselves needing to resolve problems.
So how is this different from the general idea that companies need to listen to customers’ needs, or do ethnographic research and watch what customers do, even if they can’t articulate it themselves?
We felt the way we historically have taught marketing just didn’t provide us the answers to several things. We need to understand the context in which we live our lives. The context is kind of like a container in which we find ourselves needing to get these things done, and the context doesn't speak loudly at all.
Is it that you’re describing something that’s more complex?
Every job has a functional and emotional and social dimension to it. If you just ask the customer what do you need, what [are they] going to tell [me]? Because people don’t describe the context in which they live their lives. The job becomes apparent to us over time.
Are companies that think about it from this perspective thinking about it more holistically?
That’s right. If I need furniture ... there are retail stores that sell pieces of furniture. But there are other jobs to be done which are more holistic. People who are moving into an apartment find themselves not just needing to buy kitchenware. They need to furnish an apartment. Rather than putting together, piece by piece, what you need over time, Ikea has organized itself so that it can provide all the products and services and experiences needed to nail that job perfectly. They organize the store by bedrooms, then there’s the kitchen, there’s a place where you can have [your kids watched] so they don’t bother you while you’re making these decisions.
Do you think there are potential downsides to our obsessive focus on customers? There was that quote from [former Apple chief executive] Steve Jobs, about how "people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Do you think that’s a wrong way to look at innovation?
It’s the best way to look at innovation. Our experience has been that if somebody organizes and conceives and realizes there’s a job to be done, and there isn’t anything you can hire to do the job, that’s the context in which a company can be successfully launched. Furthermore, if you organize your company around a job to be done, it’s very hard for those companies to be disrupted by somebody who comes in at the bottom of the market with something that is just cheaper. It gives you insurance against disruption.
Speaking of Apple, there have been a lot of questions from people about whether they are innovating like they used to. What advice would you give there?
I do not work for them and I never have. I think it's really important that they follow the pattern Steve Jobs set. ... I worry that they’ve lost that. You look at how the watch struggles to become successful. It’s not clear to me there was a job that underlay [the] decision to make that product. I think their product is a product that’s meant to be better than the competitors, as opposed to something that is supposed to get the job done. As a general rule, in innovation, if the genesis of the idea is "we need to make a better product than the competitors," the probability of success is unpredictable.
There’s been a lot of debate recently about how the theory of your past work on disruptive innovation holds up 20 years later. Are you surprised at the level of criticism in recent years?
There actually hasn't been a lot of criticism. It’s fine when it comes, because you learn a lot. There was the professor in the history department [an article in the New Yorker by Harvard's Jill Lepore]. There was a piece in MIT Sloan Management Review.
At the beginning of every class, I’ve done this now for 15 years, I say: You have three assignments you have to do to prepare for class. One is you need to read the theory that we’re going to study. The second thing you have to do is read the case, because we’re going to put the theory on like a set of lenses and examine what’s going on in the company. And then the third thing you need to do is you need to come prepared every day to tell Clay Christensen what’s wrong with the theory.
The reason that’s so important is a good theory doesn’t ever emerge in perfection. You need to find out what it cannot explain and are their boundaries beyond which it cannot be applied. If you look at what’s happened to the theory [of disruptive innovation] over the 20-plus years since it’s been proposed, [it] has changed a lot. People who have used the theory have been kind enough to call me up or send me an email to say I don’t think it explains this, and I have done my very best to meet with or talk to people who find these things. It’s been very useful when I get those kinds of criticisms.