Are students buying what education innovation is selling?

By Julia Freeland Fisher
October 14th, 2016

Will the new "theory of jobs to be done" prove more powerful for education than the theory of disruptive innovation?

higher education innovation

[Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the Christensen Institute’s Blog here.]

Calls for innovation in education seem to get louder by the day. “Innovation” has become the catchall term for the urge to make up for what our current system lacks; a system that, on balance, is neither delivering an equally high-quality education to all students, nor designed to reliably prepare young people for the modern workforce.

From there, of course, opinions about what sorts of innovations we ought to invest in, and to what end, vary politically and philosophically. At the Christensen Institute, we’ve always divvied up these wide-ranging ideas into two main categories, which Clay Christensen first identified in the 1980s: sustaining and disruptive innovations. Those categories are helpful in identifying the dimensions along which organizations are improving and how new business models can displace existing ones. But disruptive innovation theory has little to tell us about whether a particular innovation will be successful.

The Theory of Jobs to be Done

Enter Clay Christensen’s newest book, Competing Against Luck, out earlier this week. In it, Christensen and his co-authors Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon, and David Duncan chronicle the coming of age of another theory that may prove just as, if not more, powerful than disruptive innovation: the theory of jobs to be done.

Jobs to be done hinges on the fact that consumers “hire” products and services to do a specific job in their lives, and that they are motivated to do so by particular circumstances. For example, in an early study of how to boost milkshake sales, a consulting team found that a fast food chain sold a disproportionate number of milkshakes first thing in the morning to busy commuters. These customers “hired” milkshakes to occupy them while in traffic and to keep their stomachs satisfied until lunch. To get these jobs done, realistically the commuters could have hired all sorts of products: bananas, bagels, or even the radio. To outcompete not only other fast food chains’ milkshakes, but also all of the other foods and experiences that might fulfill commuters’ jobs, the fast food chain needed to design milkshakes that nailed this particular circumstance and job experienced by the commuter. Moreover, this job differed dramatically from the job parents were hiring milkshakes to do in the afterschool rush to provide children with a fun snack.

The take away? Once a business understands the range of jobs that are causing customers to hire solutions, it can redesign its products around those jobs to garner far greater, more predictable returns.

(Next page: How the theory of jobs to be done applies to education)

Add your opinion to the discussion.