Book Review: Competing Against Luck

Clayton Christensen, in his latest book “Competing Against Luck”, puts innovation under the microscope. Like all things under a microscope, minutiae is revealed, studied and made clearer. He frames his book as an answer to below:

Is innovation truly a crapshoot? Or is innovation difficult because we don’t know what causes it to succeed?

You would be interested in reading this book if you:
1) Want to know more about why certain innovations (Air B&B, NetFlix, etc…) were able to succeed, despite competition, and earlier attempts
2) Are looking for new language to talk about innovation, in this case it is “Jobs Theory”
3) Want to see a wider landscape of change and innovation beyond education
4) Want to explore alternatives and intersections of other theories with Design Thinking

Jobs Theory: Taking Luck Out of the Equation

Many times we hear “I was in the right place at the right time”, or “Timing is everything”. Christensen tries to throw out these colloquialisms with “Jobs Theory”.  This theory is providing new language through which to look at innovations because it shifts innovation from making things happen, or adding new value, and positions innovation as a ‘job to be done’.

…customers don’t buy products or services; they pull them into their lives to make progress. We call this progress the “job” they are trying to get done…We define a ‘job’ as the progress that a person is trying to make in a particular circumstance. (pg. 26)

What I like about this theory is that it asks us to truly step back and examine what it is we are trying to accomplish when it comes to innovation implementation. In this way, Christensen is reminding us of the work of Simon Sinek and “Start with Why“, as well as the empathy stage of design thinking. We must, at the heart of what we do, understand what is the ‘progress’ that we are trying to achieve. In this way, it is important to remember that we innovate to add new value to education – these are not ‘one-offs’; rather,  “Jobs to be Done” are ongoing and recurring. They’re seldom discrete events“. (pg. 29)

Jobs to be Done at School

In a previous book, Disrupting Class, Christensen states that going to school is NOT A JOB. Rather:

“The job in every student’s life is “I want to feel successful every day. And frankly, most schools are not designed to that job very well.” (93)

As educators, then, the job to be done is to ascertain what it is that will allow our students to feel successful, every day. Through this lens, and this is powerful, we need to align our resources, human, strategic, data, etc… to support the relationship that our teachers and our organization as a whole has with our individual students and their parents. To feel successful everyday, doesn’t mean avoiding setback, failure and the like. In fact, to feel successful requires learning from setback.

The most recent volume of “Educational Leadership” is entitled “Getting Personalization Right”. It is chalked full of great articles and resources of schools personalizing the learning for students, giving them agency in pace and place. It also contains this great article by Benjamin Riley, who is the founder of Deans for Impact, a national organization dedicated to transforming the way we prepare educators in the US. In this article, he writes

“…nearly everything you will read in this magazine about personalized learning is probably wrong.”

He cites the brain-based research to say that there is little to no data supporting the success of personalized learning. Sure it makes kids feel successful in the immediate; however, are we preparing them for the challenges that lie ahead? In response to ‘Does personalized learning work?’, Benjamin Riley responds,

One remarkable aspect of the personalized-learning craze is how quickly the concept has spread despite the almost total absence of rigorous research in support of it… (Ed. Leadership, March 2017)

So, are we doing the “Job” all wrong?

We Need to Understand Education Differently

By getting to heart of what the parents and students of our schools are asking us to do, we get a better sense of the job we are being hired to do. As such, we have a better sense of the ‘progress’ that they are trying to make. When we focus on this, we have a better sense of what to deliver. As @dbailey wrote recently about his attempts to personalize the learning of his students, some want to be driving the bus, but others need the map, and some just want to be along for the ride – they’ll get a lot out of it!

And when we look at the ‘progress’ our parents want for our students, we need think even more differently. We need to broaden our perspective of the competitive landscape in education beyond other independent schools.

…I would want to have a full understanding of these competitors and explore ways to decrease the friction associated with adopting my solution…The key to getting hired is to understand the narrative of the customer’s life in such rich detail that you are able to design a solution that far exceeds anything the customer themselves could have found words to express.” (pg. 118)

In this way, we need to think tangentially to see that our competitors are the public school system, online learning avenues, tutors, gap years, and the list goes on. If we can see how others are doing it, and being hired by some to make a particular type of progress, it gives us a deeper understanding of where we might support their progress in ways we don’t yet understand. We cannot let the identity of who we are command our understanding of who we can, and maybe should be. Our schools are succeeding not because of the timetable or the calendar; rather, they succeed because of the experiences we create, build and curate. (pg. 123)


Job Designers

The connection to the empathy piece of Design Thinking is actually acknowledged directly by Christensen. “Because Jobs Theory provides a causal explanation for why customers will embrace some innovations and not others, as well as a language for understanding deeply the insights about customers that really matter, it is complementary to, and completely compatible with Design Thinking.” (pg. 122)

I see this as a powerful lens through which we can work closely with through our admissions, advancement and alumni offices. This can provide our faculty and administration with powerful insights that can enhance our lived mission.

Using the Jobs to be Done Theory can allow our faculty and staff to have a shared understanding of the WHY behind what they do. It puts the mission under a microscope, and allows schools to develop specific actions around their mission.

Did You Do Your Job Right?

“What gets measured, gets done.” (208) But how do you measure the ‘progress’ of education? This is an area of innovation that is ripe for growth. Assessment drives the life of the school, from unit design to the calendar to reporting periods and parent-teacher conferences. This is arguably the dominant conversation within the halls of our schools.

What progress do we want to make when it comes to measuring progress?

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Competing Against Luck

  1. Love this combinatory post. Lots of detail here to ponder. I’ve never been a personal fan of the word “jobs” to begin with, but it sounds like the way Clayton unpacks it, with one eye towards humanism, helps to create a less capitalistic tone. I once heard a definition of success as follows: Talent + Skill = Luck. I suppose by taking “luck” out of this equation we are helping to reaffirm the purpose of all innovative ventures, be it business or educational. To paraphrase the musical “Guys and Dolls”, “if luck be a lady tonight”, perhaps we can replace “luck” with “purpose”. Start with the end in mind. Also, make sure the ends justify your means. Also, most people don’t know what they want, until they have it. As an educator, I feel my main job is to create a space where purpose can play.

  2. This is a very interesting notion to me. @gnichols – I feel the combination of the Jobs to be Done Theory with Design Thinking will allow for even greater ‘progress’ in faculty PD sessions – especially those run by faculty; for faculty. While I am thinking specifically of what my own experiences have been regarding altering the PD landscape at my school, I also find your words about identity commanding our understanding of who we can be as a school and/or institution to resonate with me, and I hope I can reflect upon this idea and the current year’s worth of PD so that our committee at Villanova can implement another further-improved iteration of PD at our school for the 2017-18 year.

    Thank you for sharing your insights, and I look forward to reading some of Christensen’s work over the spring/summer months! Fascinating stuff!

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