Book Review: Competing Against Luck

by Clayton M. Christensen, Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon, and David S. Duncan

Harper, New York

Clayton Christensen, best known for his theory and subsequent book, Disruptive Innovation, has combined his skill, knowledge, and expertise with three of his protégés to produce this new Theory of Jobs to Be Done, which concentrates on understanding customers’ struggles for progress.

Rather than offer ivory tower speculations, they draw illustrations from real-world insights and experiences of people and companies that use Jobs Theory to make innovation a reliable engine of growth.

Christensen explains how innovation transforms an existing market by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability, but cautions that disruptive innovation doesn’t tell one where to look for new opportunities, explain how to innovate, where to create new markets, or how to avoid hit-and-miss innovation that leaves your fate to luck. But the Theory of Jobs to Be Done will. At its core, Jobs Theory explains why customers hire others to resolve unsatisfied jobs that arise in their lives. Ultimately, customers don’t buy products or services; they pull them into their lives to make progress, i.e., the job they are trying to get done. And those jobs have an inherent complexity in that they have not only functional features but also social and emotional dimensions.

The authors offer one particular example that has particular resonance for dentists as people attempt to have a smile that will make a good first impression, and the circumstances, obstacles, and imperfect solutions they face in achieving that goal. For dentists, these three or four pages may make the cost of the book worthwhile.

In a large way, these authors are re-emphasizing profound insights popularized decades ago by Ted Levitt, who said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” The late Peter Drucker also warned that customers rarely buy what the company thinks it sells. Therein lies the messy task of discovering what jobs people want done, and what has to get fired for your products and services to get hired.

They list and explain how several well-known companies whose brands are synonymous with the jobs they do achieve their results, e.g., Uber, TurboTax®, Disney, Toyota®, Amazon, Mayo Clinic, OnStar, IKEA®, Google, Xerox®, and Netflix among many others. Conversely, they also offer examples of companies that by emphasizing processes unaligned with customers’ jobs simply got better and better at doing the wrong things and ultimately failed — some spectacularly like Kodak.

Aside from regressing into needless repetition — a minor failing — this book offers an antidote to relying on luck and serendipity to help entrepreneurs and companies discover what jobs people want done and how they might go about doing them.

Review by Dr. Larry White


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