The Jobs To Be Done Framework and 'Competing Against Luck'

Can Clay Christensen move beyond disruption theory and The Innovators Dilemma?

December 7, 2016

Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice by Clayton M. Christensen and Karen Dillon

Published in October of 2016.

There is a game that higher ed people play at edtech conferences. Every time that someone says “disruption” - we drink. You can imagine the hit on productivity.

For this drinking game we owe thanks to Clay Christensen. Perhaps no business theory has had more impact - both positive and negative - on the thinking of higher ed people than disruption theory and the Innovator’s Dilemma.  

Can Christensen do it again? Will our drinking games extend to every time someone mentions a “Jobs to Be Done” approach to innovation?

Competing Against Luck is - in a sense - all about milkshakes. Christensen developed the Jobs to Be Done framework by considering why people buy milkshakes from fast food restaurants.  His answer is that we “hire” milkshakes to do a “job”. That job for morning commuters is to keep us entertained and stimulated during our drive to work.  The thicker the milkshake and the narrower the straw the longer the milkshake does its job on our morning commute.  

You get the picture.

Competing Against Luck is all about applying milkshake theory to everything else.  

What job do our students hire a university to do?  Or is the question, what job does whoever is paying the tuition hiring the university to do?

Does asking the question this way about the core functions of a college or university change how we think about what we do?  

Most often, when we talk about our institutions we talk about mission. We talk about our larger social mission to create new knowledge (discovery) and to prepare tomorrow’s workers and citizens. 

Christensen might say that we are going about this backwards. He would argue - I think - that we should have a much clearer idea of the job that our students are hiring us to do.  

For Christensen, the best example of a school that is getting this right is Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), and the fast growing non-profit online programs that president Paul LeBlanc brought to SNHU. In Competing Against Luck, Christensen tells the story of how SNHU was able to grow its online programs to meet a need in the marketplace for non-profit career focused degrees, and how the school is relentless in using data to drive continuous improvement. (To do the job that its students are hiring it to do better).

I’m a big fan - a huge fan - of what they are doing at SNHU. And I think that Paul LeBlanc is one of the most important leaders and thinkers in all of higher ed.  

The question I have is how applicable the SNHU experience is specifically, and the Jobs to Be Done theory in general, to the larger world of higher education?

I’m not saying that it the Jobs to Be Done framework is not more widely applicable to innovation in higher ed - I just want to understand more.  

How could we think about our programs and initiatives as jobs that our learners hire us to accomplish?

Who exactly are the people in higher ed who are hiring for these jobs?  Is it the student, the potential student, the faculty, the alumni, the legislature, the granting body - or is it all of them?  

Does the complexity of higher education lend itself to being illuminated by both a disruptive innovation and a Jobs to Be Done framework?

Competing Against Luck is an excellent primer on the both the theory, and on the applications of this theory to many areas of business.  A fun and quick read - and a set of ideas that will be useful when you negotiate with vendors or plan your next program.

My hope is that some of you will read the book - and then we can find each other to chat about the applicability of Jobs to Be Done to innovation in higher education.

What are you reading?



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