In their book Competing Against Luck (HarperCollins, 2016,) Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, along with co-authors Karen Dillon, David S. Duncan, and Taddy Hall propose to explain how innovation can become a less risky endeavor. (Read Inc.'s review.) In the following edited excerpt, they dive into the new concept of identifying consumer jobs and how it can help companies and entrepreneurs more accurately predict which innovations will be successful.

As an innovator, identifying consumers who are struggling to solve a problem or achieve a goal by cobbling together workarounds or compensating behaviors should cause your heart to beat a little faster. You've just spotted an opportunity for innovation.

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There is a simple, but powerful, insight at the core of this idea: 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, and in our metaphor we say that customers "hire" products or services to solve these jobs. When you understand that concept, the idea of uncovering consumer jobs makes intuitive sense.

But finding unfulfilled jobs that represent potential opportunity for an innovator can be tricky. Jobs insights are fragile--they're more like stories than statistics. When we deconstruct coherent customer episodes into binary bits, such as "male/female," "large company/small company," "new customer/existing customer," we destroy meaning in the process. Through the lens of our Theory of Jobs to Be Done, you don't need to care whether a customer is between the ages of forty and forty-five and what flavor choice they made that day. Jobs Theory is not primarily focused on "who" did something, or "what" they did--but on "why."

Imagine you are filming a mini documentary of a person struggling to make progress in a specific context. Your video should capture essential elements:

  1. What progress is that person trying to achieve? What are the functional, social, and emotional dimensions of the desired progress?
  2. What are the circumstances of the struggle? Who, when, where, while doing what?
  3. What obstacles are getting in the way of the person making that progress?
  4. Are consumers making do with imperfect solutions through some kind of compensating behavior?
  5. How would they define what "quality" means for a better solution, and what tradeoffs are they willing to make?

These details are not arbitrary--they're rich in context and meaning--and answering these questions enables you to fully flesh out the complexity of the job. When you identify a struggle to make progress, you can begin to infer not only the practical, but the critical unseen or unspoken social and emotional dimensions of the Job to Be Done.

When you identify people who are so unhappy with the available solutions to a "job" that they're going to great lengths to create their own solution or workaround, you've identified a rich vein of potential opportunity.

Online, real-time restaurant reservation service OpenTable was born out of identifying a common workaround. Who doesn't hate having to figure out how to make dinner reservations at a restaurant? When you have two friends in town, you decide you want to go out. You want to show them your favorite restaurant. Everybody checks their schedule and agrees, so you call the restaurant and find out they don't have capacity at the time you agreed with your friends. Can you come at 9:00 instead? So now you have to call your friends back to see if that works. And it turns out, one of them has a babysitting problem. OK, back to the drawing board. What other restaurant should we go to? We've all been doing this workaround to get restaurant reservations for ages, but OpenTable solved this job. The Priceline Group acquired OpenTable in 2014 at a valuation of $2.6 billion.

Whenever you see compensating behaviors or workarounds, pay very close attention, because it's likely a clue that there is an innovation opportunity waiting to be seized--one on which customers would place a high value.