Book Review: Competing Against Luck

Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen strives to answer these key business questions:

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

The book is 288 pages so it’s not much of a spoiler to admit the answer to the first question is not “yes”.

In fact, Christensen and his co-authors offer a compelling perspective on how to understand customers better by investigating the progress they’re looking to make in their lives.

So the key question now becomes: Is the book worth reading if you’re a Product Manager?

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If you’re a Product Manager, yes, the book is worth reading.

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What makes the book worthwhile?

Through a series of case studies, the book provides a language and framework for understanding why customers stick with some products and not others. This “jobs to be done” framework can be summarized this way:

“When we buy a product, we essentially ‘hire’ something to get a job done. If it does the job well, when we are confronted with the same job, we hire that same product again. And if the product does a crummy job, we ‘fire’ it and look around for something else we might hire to solve the problem.” – Clayton Christensen

Case studies covered a variety of verticals with spotlights on Southern New Hampshire University, Intuit, Mayo Clinic, and Desert News Publishing Company.

The story of ten-cent diapers and their impact on the love lives of Chinese parents was brief but informative.

My highlights and takeaways

I liked Christensen’ Air Force example because a) I’d never heard it before and b) it illustrates the innovation problem pretty clearly.

The Air Force wanted to reduce pilot error and determined they needed to improve the cockpit. They created a cockpit designed to fit any size pilot, and ended up creating a new seat that fit no one. They stopped designing for the “average” pilot and instead developed an adjustable seat, which solved the issue.

Ideas that stood out to me:

  • Competitors can copy your product but it’s difficult for them to copy experiences that are well integrated into your company’s processes.
  • Innovation doesn’t come from copying competitors, understanding customer traits, or catching trends. Instead you have to understand the underlying causal mechanism — the progress the customer is trying to make in a given circumstance.
  • Processes are invisible from a customer’s standpoint but the results of those processes are not.
  • Processes aligned with customer jobs shift complexity and nuisances FROM the customer TO the vendor, leaving positive customer experiences and valuable progress in their place.
  • To successfully understand the job, you have to account for the functional, emotional, and social dimensions in the customer’s desire for progress.

When trying to understand the job to be done, Christensen provides a series of diagnostic questions:

  • What progress is the client trying to achieve?
  • What are the circumstances of the struggle? Who, when, where, while doing what?
  • What obstacles are getting in the way of the person making the progress?
  • Are consumers making do with imperfect solutions through some kind of compensating behavior?
  • How would they define what ‘quality’ means for a better solution, and what tradeoffs are they willing to make?

Anything frustrating or disappointing in the book?

Yes. One of the stories involved OnStar (page 168) and it posed this scenario: Car dealers were not motivated to promote OnStar to customers because sales received too low a percent of the cut of the monthly service fee.

As I’m reading, I’m waiting for the answer: “How, in that environment, did OnStar overcome this situation?”

And the answer was:

Frustrating.

Also, there is a good deal of repetition, especially towards the closing chapters, which gets a bit irritating.

Who would benefit from reading this book?

If you’re a Product Manager interested in understanding customer behavior and looking for ways to grow your product or business, this is a useful guide. The case studies are clear and the Job To Be Done framework provides a good foundation for solving problems that matter.

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