I recently finished reading Competing against luck by Clayton Christensen, the author behind books such as “Innovators Dilemma”, “The Innovators DNA” and the guy who coined the word “Disruptive Innovation” (thanks for making it such a buzz word, NOT)

(You can find all his books in this Amazon link)

The Milkshake Theory:

The book touches the realms of how the best breakthrough innovations happen when you understand the job the customers are trying to do. The job theory focuses on how customers are trying to reach from point A to B, what the existing alternatives are, the inertia or the habits that they form trying to get their job done.

The author talks about how McDonalds was trying to understand how to make their milkshakes popular. Needless to say they tried the tricks of new flavors, adding them into different screens, doing focus groups and asking customers — but nothing seemed to improve.

They then were trying to understand the job the customer was trying to do. On doing problem interviews, the group realized that one of the jobs the customer who was buying the Milkshake was trying to do was to simply take it away during their long drive to keep them occupied. The milkshake was competing against snickers bars, bananas, donuts, or not having time to buy it in the morning. The other group that was trying to buy the milkshake was dads or mums that was trying to please their children in return for not giving enough time to them earlier to play or that they behaved well. The milkshake here was competing with daddy time to play. You can watch Clayton explaining this in the video below:

The job has emotional, functional and social aspects to it. And in some jobs the emotional aspects are bigger (e.g. picking something for your new born) or social aspects (what would the neighbor think) or functional (e.g. getting a Uber since its convenient).

Clayton argues that the best brands have nailed the jobs that their customers want to do. With this theory, one doesn’t need to do classic customer group segmentation, focus groups or anything to that like. You simply have to design experiments that help you understand what is the job the customer is trying to do.

When you nail the job to be done, you can start thinking about the push (outbound marketing, ads etc) vs. the pull (referrals, word of mouth) effects that you have to design to make this work.

Build progress, not products. Progress helps customers go towards their desired outcome. Products just makes you think about your narrow category.

Big Hire vs. Little Hire

Customers “hire” and “fire” based on the jobs they need to do. No one wakes up in the morning looking for a product, but they think about how can they make progress in the job they want to do. When you think about the word processes, one might think about it being boring, constraining or even beauracratic. But organizations that nail the job to be done emphasis on processes that help the customer make progress. Not around silos that suit their organisation, but anything that helps customers make progress in their job. Think of the 100’s of processes Amazon has in place to make sure based on the choice of delivery, you get your goods exactly when promised.

The big hire happens when customers try you for the first time. Most companies focus on this (Acquisition).

However excellent companies focus equally on the little hires — when customers come back to hire you again and again (Retention).

When you listen carefully enough, you will realize the different jobs the customer is trying to do and design your roadmap, organisation and processes from there.

Evolution from just focusing on the problem

When we work with corporate intrapreneur teams in our innovation labs, we spend a lot of time giving them the mindset to focus on the problem. But my smart colleague Ola once quipped that his entrepreneurial journeys have been focused more on opportunities than finding problems. He mentioned why just focusing on the problem might be too narrow. That got me thinking on if there is a better framing.

As Ash Maurya explains:

Humans are gifted at rationalizing their thoughts. However entrepreneurs are exceptionally gifted at rationalizing their ideas.

Some first Principles then:

  1. Breakthrough innovation happens when there is a clear need or gap
  2. Lots of Entrepreneurs and Innovators focus too much on the solution (the Innovators Bias)
  3. Needs are sometimes hard to be framed as problems alone. May be it is more opportunity focused. May be it is progress the customer wants to make — emotionally, socially, financially or functionally.
  4. Don’t expect customers to innovate solutions for you, but instead listen carefully to understand the progress they are trying to make. As my colleague Edgar says “Do some root cause analysis” by listening and understanding.
  5. Finally, the only way to know if you have nailed the job is by devising experiments and metrics that help you understand the job. I think MVP thinking still makes sense here.

In my sketch below, you have one extreme which is the solution driven innovators bias which you should avoid. The other extreme is just banging your head trying to find a problem through focus groups and interviews that aree poorly designed. Using the sweet spot of jobs to be done and the customer forces canvas (see link below) may help you in your journey to nail the job and find product-market fit or help in scaling faster.


Read this post here by Ash Maurya and check out the customer forces canvas. (Download as PDF)

I am curious to try this new framework on our teams we work with, design more careful experiments that helps nail the job. While some get it intuitively, I believe clearer frameworks makes it accessible to more giving us more progress as consumers.

Who should read this book?

While the book falls under the classic “American Management” literature, I recommend reading the book if you are:

  • An entrepreneur trying to build your product to find product-market fit.
  • A corporate intrapreneur trying to scale your product but seemingly the market is stagnated
  • An advisor that is working with helping teams succeed in their product launches.

Good luck nailing the job.