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Book Review: Competing Against Luck
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Book Revie: Competing Against Luck by Clayton M. Christensen, Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon, and David S. Duncan

Competing Against Luck

Written by: Clayton M. Christensen, Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon, and David S. Duncan. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2016. 262 + xix pages. US$29.99 (hardcover).
Reviewed by: Teresa Jurgens-Kowal, PhD, NPDP, PMP®, Simple-PDH and Global NP Solutions, LLC

Competing Against Luck

Like many new product development professionals (NPDP), I am a big fan of Clayton Christensen’s work. His latest book, Competing Against Luck, with co-authors Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon and David S. Duncan, does not disappoint. Filled with classic stories of innovation success, the text instructs how to drive business growth from a customer-centric viewpoint.

Christensen is perhaps most famous for the “Theory of Disruptive Innovation.” Yet, a gap exists between the idea of disruption and how to implement successful innovations. This divide is crossed when we consider “Jobs Theory” as presented in Competing Against Luck. “Jobs Theory” asserts that customers don’t purchase a product for its features or attributes. Instead, consumers want to solve a problem for which they believe a particular product can do.

The book starts with Christensen’s classic story of the milkshake (Chapter 1). A fast food chain was unable to improve sales of milkshakes by asking customers about thickness, flavors and sizes. A breakthrough insight came when observers noted that people “hired” a milkshake to consume during a long, boring commute to work in the morning. The “job” of a milkshake competes against bagels and bananas, not other ice cream confections.

The word “job” is carefully defined in Competing Against LuckA “job” is “the progress that a person is trying to make in a particular circumstance” (pg. 27). Not only does this definition build in “why” a customer makes a certain choice, but it also indicates movement toward goals or objectives (“progress”). Furthermore, the choice of a product solution that is hired for a certain job depends on the circumstances. For example, the commuter that hires a milkshake to make a long drive more interesting might also hire a milkshake in the afternoon as a reward for their child.

A key idea presented in Competing Against Luck seems to tie to the “Theory of Disruptive Innovation.” Customers often make do with no adequate solution to their problems — there is simply no product that can do the job needing to be done. The authors call this “competing against nothing” (pg. 51) and highlight the richness available for innovation solutions where none presently exists.

Chapters 3 and 4 (“Jobs in the Wild” and “Job Hunting) offer tips on where and how to identify jobs-to-be-done. Innovators need to ask several questions to help understand challenges facing customers (pg. 54-55).

  1. What experiences do customers seek to make progress toward their goals?
  2. What obstacles can be removed?
  3. What are the social, emotional and functional dimensions of the customer’s job-to-be-done?

We can solicit jobs by identifying our own struggles and challenges. These intuitions of problems “close to home” (pg. 74-76) help us to recognize potential jobs that can be solved with innovative products and solutions.

As indicated previously,competing against nothing is another opportunity to identify a job-to-be-done. Workarounds, compensating behaviors, activities people don’t want to do, and unusual jobs also offer insights into customer problems that need solving. Christensen and co-authors give the example of Arm & Hammer baking soda which has expanded into diverse product categories to solve a wide-ranging cast of jobs-to-be-done, far beyond making cookies and cakes to deodorants, carpet cleaners and cat litter.

Chapter 6, “Building Your Resume,” reiterates a common theme found in design thinking. Customers don’t just buy products; they purchase experiences. A company can only be successful if it addresses the entire customer experience from marketing and sales through the use and disposal of the product. The authors refer to the “Big Hire” as a purchase and the “Little Hire” when the product is put to the test in use or when customer service is required.

Finally, Section 3 of Competing Against Luck (Chapter 7 through 10) focuses on the organizational structure and competencies for successful innovation through a jobs lens. Again, “Jobs Theory” intertwines with the “Theory of Disruptive Innovation” in that companies tend to lose sight of the initial reason for going into business as they seek growth. Many start-up ventures are launched to specifically solve a customer problem (the job-to-be-done). Yet, when growth occurs, attention shifts from the customer to “the numbers.” Dominant organizations maintain an intense focus on the customer and his/her needs, allowing growth to follow naturally.

As with any Christensen book, Competing Against Luck is a joy to read. You can almost hear Clay’s voice as your eyes scan the words. New product development practitioners and NPDPs can benefit from reading Competing Against Luck by focusing on customer needs via the job-to-be-done. The stories and narratives reinforce the posited empirical theory.

While many of these example is not new (e.g., milkshakes, IKEA, QuickBooks), we can gain new insights for innovation by consistently considering the customer’s view of value in new product development. I recommend Competing Against Luck for all innovation professionals and especially for those seeking to become more successful in their new product design and development work.

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