Competing Against Luck

Lessons from Competing Against Luck for PMs

I recently read “Competing Against Luck” by Clayton Christensen, who is also famous for his theory of “disruptive innovation“, introduced in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma. I enjoyed reading “Competing Against Luck” and found the content pretty relevant for product managers. The Job Theory and its implementation explained in the book could come pretty handy in understanding customers. 

I have tried presenting the summary in the form of a story relevant to product teams based on my interpretation.

Big Picture – How can business innovate?

In order to innovate businesses could adopt multiple approaches –  improve quality, add new features, reduce price, etc. It’s tough to figure out what to do. 

Just asking the customer what they would buy doesn’t help. That’s why innovation is often seen as a hit or miss. You try a bunch of things and some workout. 

Christensen argues that the “Job to be Done” theory can provide a clear framework for firms to grow through innovation. The fundamental question for innovation we try to answer is what causes a customer to purchase and use a particular product or service? Job Theory answers this question by asserting that customers purchase and use (or “hire”) products and services to satisfy jobs that arise in their lives. 

Book suggests a three-step process to rely less on luck and more on skills to build innovative products:

  • Find the job that needs to be done including  the emotional, functional, and social aspects 
  • Document the customer journey –  circumstances, moments of struggle, imperfect solutions, frustrations, and give up
  • Remove the obstacles and remedy the frustrations to create a better experience 

Now let’s understand the “Job to Done Framework” and its implementation in detail. 

What’s a Job?

Customers hire products and services to get a job done. A job is progress that an individual seeks in a given circumstance. 

Jobs exist in specific contexts. When circumstances change, the job changes. For example, a morning commuter buys milkshakes to kill time. When with kids, parents buy milkshakes for kids to have a good time. In the context of the first job, one interesting, research-based solution discussed in the book is making the milkshakes thicker. This product improvement helps commuters indulge in a longer duration. Improving taste or adding a new flavor wouldn’t have helped customers to make the progress they seek. 

That’s why what matters isn’t the product attribute, but experiences you enable to help the customer make progress they want to make. 

Circumstances are defined by contextual factors such as: 

  • Who are you with?
  • When did it happen?
  • The life stage of Consumer: Just out of college, stuck in midlife crisis, nearing retirement
  • Family Status of the Consumer: Single, divorced 
  • Financial Status: Ultra HNI

How to Understand the Complexity of the Job?

Christensen shares an interesting framework to understand the “job to be done” for your customer:

  • What progress is that person trying to achieve: For example, I want to go vegan in order to stay healthy and reduce my carbon footprint. However, I struggle in making the right food choices. Sometimes I don’t find the vegan alternatives of my craving. Other times, I have to make extra effort to cook or even eat vegan meals. (What are the functional, social, and emotional dimensions of the desired progress?)
  • What are the circumstances of the struggle: It’s a constant struggle during times of meal and snacks both at home and office. (Who, when, where, while doing what?)
  • What obstacles are getting in the way of the person making that progress: Finding the vegan alternative or planning ahead for a situation when vegan options wouldn’t be available is the biggest struggle.
  • Are consumers making do with imperfect solutions through some kind of compensating behavior: Currently, I mostly google blogs to find vegan options. Also, I follow the tips and tricks of some diet blogs to meet my protein requirements. (Are they buying and using a product that imperfectly performs the job? Are they cobbling together a workaround solution involving multiple products? Are they doing nothing to solve their dilemma at all?)
  • How would they define what “quality” means for a better solution, and what tradeoffs are they willing to make: For me, a quality product would be that maps my current meals with close vegan alternatives. It’s there for me to ask quick questions and is flexible to allow me to change the plan. It should also understand my dietary requirement in suggesting to me the plan. 

A framework to Document Job to be Done

One way to document “Job to be Done” is Job Spec. Relevant details of the job can be captured in Job Spec that includes:

  • Functional, emotional, and social dimensions that define the desired progress
  • The trade-off customer is willing to make 
  • The full set of competing solutions
  • The obstacles and anxieties that must be overcome 

Also, the book talks about the concept of Purpose Brand – a brand that becomes synonymous with a job for customers. If a firm successfully nails a job, over time it gets transformed into a purpose brand. It’s a tool that helps avoid your product or service vulnerable to customers who hire for wrong reasons.

How not to define a job?

This was an interesting piece of the book, highlighting how to correctly define a job. 

  • Job to be Done can’t be defined in adjectives or adverbs: It might be an experience a customer needs to have in order to do the job, but it’s not the job. For example, “convenience” is not a job to be done. I need to “follow” a vegan diet while avoiding searching on blogs and struggling for answers.
  • Job to be done has to be defined at the right level of abstraction to ensure that theory is useful: “I need a perfect size bottle to last through my run.” isn’t a job. We could go up another level of abstraction in order to discover the job – “I need some way to stay hydrated during my long runs. Also, I don’t want to carry heavy things, as it would drain my energy. Currently, I either use a bottle or run at the courses which have hydration points.”

Customer Journey in the Context of Job to be Done

Finally, the book talks about how the customer journey could be defined to understand the obstacles in the way of customers trying to make progress in order to get the job done. 

The author makes an interesting suggestion for laying out the customer journey in :

  • Firing the Product: Before a customer hires any new product, they need to fire in order to hire yours. Often, firms don’t think about this enough.
  • Big Hire and Little Hire: Objective data mostly focussed on Big Hire (when the customer actually buys a product) and neglects the Little Hire (when the customer actually used it). The Big Hire might suggest that a product has solved the customer’s job, but only a consistent series of Little Hires can confirm it. For companies that prize repeat business and reputation, little hires matter just as much as big ones.
  • In order to understand Little Hire, we have to develop a deep understanding of customers with a beginner’s mindset  – storyboard the job with rich details of circumstances, struggles, current imperfect solutions, and struggles.

Overall, I think Christensen makes a strong case for using Job Theory to grow through innovation. I found this theory to be an effective toolkit for a Product Manager. 

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