Are students buying what schools are selling?

By Julia Freeland Fisher
October 14th, 2016

A new theory suggests that innovation hinges on whether schools tap into new and unmet student needs


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.

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.

Competing Against Luck touches on a few examples in education that follow the same pattern. For example, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) President Paul LeBlanc features heavily into the book’s discussion of a leader willing to rethink higher education admissions and learning experiences beyond the “average” 18-year-old customer that his university had traditionally targeted. Instead, LeBlanc architected online-learning experiences designed to optimize for demand among nontraditional students facing a variety of circumstances: working adults, students far beyond the boarders of New Hampshire, and late-stage career changers. By understanding the range of jobs that adults in particular circumstances might be trying to get done, SNHU incorporated new designs into its burgeoning online program: reconfiguring wait times for financial aid advice, implementing high-touch guidance models, and launching advertising campaigns that catered to adults who were considering going back to school to better themselves or make a better life for their loved ones.

At the Institute, we believe that jobs-to-be-done theory will prove a crucial tool to getting innovation right on behalf of students. We’ve spent the better half of the past year conducting in-depth research on why students “hire” college (the results of our surveys will be published next year). And over the years, we’ve also made our best guesses at some of K–12 students’ key jobs, particularly drawing on research on what motivates younger students. We’ve noted that many of those jobs—such as “make me feel successful” and “let me have fun with friends”—figure only marginally into traditional school design. It’s hardly surprising, then, that students don’t actually appear to be “hiring” school at the rates we’d hope; survey after survey show that student engagement is low and drops off precipitously in high school. If we truly want students to buy into new learning models, then we will have to optimize for the things students themselves are trying to get done. Such models will have to compete with all of the other things students are willing to hire in their lives, like the latest social networking sites, tantalizing gossip, or mobile games that can make them feel equally, if not more, successful and social than school manages to.

As Competing Against Luck’s title suggests, jobs to be done is a theory of competition. Like disruptive innovation theory, it helps us to analyze whom or what is likely to win out and why. That competitive framing can feel crude when we think about a public good like education. But the power of jobs to be done is that it can help reformers, school leaders, and education entrepreneurs alike bridge the frequently gaping chasm between need and demand in education.

Over the years, reformers have tirelessly tried to innovate to tackle chronic deficits (not just in learning experiences, but also in paltry data collection tools, teacher shortages, and limited community engagement, to name a few) with sleek, well-designed solutions. But failures to make progress against these “needs”—from the demise of promising personalized learning platforms like inBloom, to countless failed efforts to shift instructional practice, to lackluster results in parent engagement—can teach us a lesson: efforts to “fill” perceived gaps in the education ecosystem do not always result in solutions that end users—be those teachers, students, or their parents—are willing to hire.

Squaring the difference between systemic needs and stakeholder demand may be a hard but important pill for champions of education innovation to swallow. To that end, I hope—and expect—that budding entrepreneurs in education will pick up the book to think about their customers differently. But I’m also holding out hope that leaders, reformers, and advocates without any profit motives whatsoever, but who are deeply invested in changing the education system, can likewise take a page from Competing Against Luck. It offers a critical chance to consider the actual motivations of the entire constellation of actors in the education system in a new light; and in particular, what compels—or doesn’t compel—our students to buy what we’re selling.

This piece originally appeared on the Christensen Institute’s blog.

About the Author:

Julia Freeland Fisher is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

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