Remembering the “Disruptive” Work of Clayton Christensen

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The business world lost one of its leading thinkers last month when Clayton Christensen died on January 23, 2020. He was 67.

Professor Christensen joined the faculty of the Harvard Business School in 1992, after working as a consultant at Boston Consulting Group and co-founding an advanced materials company. He achieved management guru status after the success of his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. The Economist magazine called The Innovator’s Dilemma one of the six most important business books ever written.

In his groundbreaking book, Professor Christensen introduced the concept of “disruptive innovation.” He argued that many of the practices that help the best companies succeed can also lead to their ultimate failure. Professor Christensen’s ideas have become so popular that “disruption” is now firmly entrenched in the lexicon of business.

In 2003, Professor Christensen and Michael Raynor co-authored The Innovator’s Solution, which further developed the concept of disruptive innovation and also discussed what we now call the “jobs-to-be-done” framework of buyer decision making. Professor Christensen acknowledged that he did not originate the jobs-to-be-done framework, but his adoption of the idea has helped make it part of mainstream business and marketing thinking.

Like thousands of others, I have been greatly influenced by the thinking and work of Clayton Christensen. When I learned of his death, I looked back at the posts I’ve published here and discovered that I first referred to his work almost eight years ago. To commemorate his life and work, I’ve reproduced that first post below.

Fair winds and following seas, Professor Christensen.

“For Great Marketing Content, Focus on the Jobs Prospects Need to Get Done”
April 14, 2012

The first step to creating compelling marketing content is to understand what your prospects are trying to accomplish when they purchase products or services like those you provide. Most buyers, particularly business buyers, don’t purchase a product or service because they want that product or service itself. Instead, when they become aware of a job that they need to get done, they look for a product or service that they can “hire” to perform the job. Theodore Levitt, the legendary marketing professor at the Harvard Business School, captured this concept in a memorable way when he said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

In The Innovator’s Solution, Clatyon Christensen and Michael Raynor provide an interesting example of hiring a product to get a job done. A fast-food restaurant chain wanted to increase sales of milkshakes, and it commissioned market research to better understand how to accomplish this goal. The most surprising finding of the research was that almost half of all milkshakes were purchased in the early morning. The milkshakes were usually the only item purchased, and they were rarely consumed on the premises.

The researchers found that most of the morning milkshake customers were people on their way to work. They faced a long commute, and they needed something to make the drive more interesting. In addition, while they weren’t necessarily hungry when they bought the shake, they knew if they didn’t eat something, they would be hungry by mid-morning. Most of these customers also faced similar constraints. They were in a hurry, they were usually wearing their business clothes, and they only had one free hand.

These customers sometimes “hired” other foods to fill their morning needs, but most of the alternatives had significant disadvantages. Bagels got crumbs on their clothes, bananas were eaten too quickly to last for the whole commute, and breakfast sandwiches made their hands and the steering wheel greasy. It wasn’t so much that these customers “liked” milkshakes better than bagels or bananas or breakfast sandwiches, but milkshakes were better than these alternatives at performing the job the customers needed to get done.

It’s not hard to find examples of this idea in the business world:

  • No business owner really wants accounting software, but many buy such software because they realize they need to generate invoices faster, know how much they owe to vendors, and understand how well their company is performing financially. Accounting software enables them to perform these jobs more efficiently than a manaul bookkeeping system.
  • No business owner really wants property insurance, but most will purchase insurance because they know they need to protect themselves financially in case of a fire. Insurance is the best-available tool for performing this job.
  • No business owner really wants a company brochure, or a direct mail campaign, or for that matter, a website, but many will invest in those things because they see them as effective tools for performing the job of increasing sales.

As businesspeople and marketers, it’s easy for us to forget that most potential buyers aren’t really interested in our products or services per se. What they are (or can become) interested in is what our products or services can help them accomplish. Our products or services are simply the means to an end, and this fact should determine the primary focus of our marketing content. To use Levitt’s analogy, our marketing content needs to be more about quarter-inch holes than about quarter-inch drills.

To create such content, you have to know what jobs your prospects are trying to get done, why those jobs are important, what happens if those jobs don’t get done, and what issues or problems can prevent prospects from performing those jobs. The answers to these questions will provide the basis for your marketing content.

Image courtesy of Betsy Weber via Flickr CC.


Republished with author's permission from original post.

David Dodd
David Dodd is a B2B business and marketing strategist, author, and marketing content developer. He works with companies to develop and implement marketing strategies and programs that use compelling content to convert prospects into buyers.

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