The Job of Innovation

Spring 2017

By Michael B. Horn

Innovation is all the rage.

Corporations boast chief innovation officers, innovation training, and fancy slogans that appear in TV ads.

In the field of education, innovation is quite the fad, too. School heads, edtech vendors, conference attendees, and others proclaim their innovation strategies or fret about the innovation around them — or do both simultaneously. All too often, educators seem to think they should be innovating for its own sake or out of a sense of obligation.

“Disruptive innovation” — a form of innovation that brings significant change to long-held cultural and organizational practices and assumptions — has its own overexposure problem within the broader innovation meme. As its architect, Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, points out, the phrase is often misused — which has the effect of reducing it to a trendy buzzword that loses its practical and predictive meaning. When almost every school initiative is described as “disruptive,” we have a real problem.

In such a landscape, how should educators think about innovation? What does true disruptive innovation look like? More important, why should we care?

Behind the Buzz

Essentially, anything that introduces something new, is economically sustainable, and allows people to make progress in their lives is an innovation.

Within that broad definition, there are different kinds of innovations and different taxonomies to categorize them. Some innovations are derivative, whereas others can be considered a breakthrough innovation or an innovation that introduces a whole new platform. Other types of innovations range from ones that create new markets to those that wring efficiencies out of an existing system.

The theory of disruptive innovation offers its own categories of innovation alongside a predictive theory of the impact of these different types of innovation. That predictive theory has had a powerful impact on explaining the success and failure of many organizations — and has helped many leaders create their strategies with considerably more success, which is why it has grown so popular.

Disruptive innovation is really a theory of competitive response. The theory helps an upstart player successfully challenge an established one by predicting what action the established player will take — or be capable of taking — in response to something the upstart does with a given technology. It is also a theory that helps predict how to bring about a transformation in a given sector — by replacing the old way of doing things with a new one that initially appears to be quite primitive but improves reliably over time. In either case, disruption is a relative phenomenon. Something can only be disruptive relative to something else. And given their deceptive transformational quality, disruptive innovations don’t occur all that frequently. In education, before the advent of online learning, the last disruptive innovation was arguably the creation of the printing press, which enabled many more people to learn even if they did not have access to one of the best scholars in the world.

Disruption’s counterpart is “sustaining innovation.” Sustaining innovations get a bad rap sometimes, but they are critical to organizational growth. Sustaining innovations help make good services better. Airplanes that fly farther, computers that process faster, cellular phone batteries that last longer, and televisions with clearer images are all sustaining innovations. A sector without sustaining innovations — whether of the routine or breakthrough variety — becomes stagnant.

What we’ve found in our research at the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit think tank dedicated to improving the world through innovation, is that it is almost impossible for an existing organization to disrupt itself. It almost always has to create a separate team with a new business model that allows it to profitably deploy a technology in a new way that serves either a new set of customers or customers who are over-served by the existing offering.

On the other hand, organizations engage routinely in sustaining innovation. In fact, most innovations that independent schools attempt fit within the sustaining category. It’s what happens when educators try to improve their programs by introducing new offerings designed to help students make greater progress in their learning and their lives — from the introduction of coding to new athletic teams, from interdisciplinary projects to new academic facilities that help schools compete with their peer institutions.

The First Potential Disruption

Over the past few decades, challengers to the independent school model have arisen. Of them, the schools that are harnessing the enabling technology of online learning in a blended-learning setting have disruptive potential. Schools that fall into this category range from certain public charter schools to certain low-cost private schools, such as micro-schools. The emergence of micro-schools provides a useful case study.

A micro-school serves a very small student population typically using some variation on blended learning. I’ve described them elsewhere as the one-room schoolhouse meets blended learning or the homeschool meets private school. Micro-schools are classically disruptive because they offer a new way for children to learn in a lower-cost model than most independent schools. This is a stripped down, no-frills model. Many of them are also proving to be popular and successful.

With their enabling technology, micro-schools are able to offer similar or even higher levels of personalization than traditional independent schools. These schools lack the wide expanse of programs and extracurricular activities, reputations, and deep histories that traditional independent schools on the high end have. Instead, they offer greater affordability and accessibility.

Given that many students and their families in the independent school world are struggling with ever-rising tuition prices even as their incomes remain stagnant, and that many independent schools are fighting to rein in their expenditures, micro-schools may pose an existential challenge for a broad segment of the independent school world.

As a result, independent schools may need to figure out ways to combat this disruptive innovation. One approach is to reframe micro-schools as an opportunity, not a threat — in which case, schools may innovate by creating separate organizations and launching their own micro-schools. They may also focus on creating more à la carte options that can serve populations of students who might otherwise opt for a micro-school. Others may decide they can combat the rise of micro-schools by focusing on what they do uniquely well for students and families and innovating accordingly.

Either way, the rise of micro-schools is pushing the conversation of innovation in education, not for its own sake, but for concrete reasons: to serve students who couldn’t otherwise be served, or for institutional survival, to better serve existing students, or for other reasons.

All innovation should start with the central questions: What are you trying to accomplish by innovating, and why is it important?

What Job Are You Trying to Do?

Schools often struggle to design offerings that excite their end users (parents and students) such that their end users willingly show up to devour.

What’s notable from our research in innovation is that schools are not alone. Companies struggle desperately to predict whether a customer in a given demographic category will buy a new product. The main reason for this struggle is that companies tend to miss the fact that, from the customer’s perspective, the market is not structured by customer or product category. Surveying along demographic and product categories — for example, why millennial parents send their children to independent schools on average compared with baby-boomer parents— tends to mislead.

Instead, people have jobs to be done in their lives — the progress that a person is trying to make in a particular circumstance. Understanding the job helps us understand why people do the things they do and what their underlying motivation is. Every job has functional, social, and emotional dimensions to it; oftentimes the social and emotional dimensions of a job are more important to understand than the functional ones.

A job is critically different from the traditional marketing concept of “needs.” Needs always exist in someone’s life, but they fail to capture what someone is prioritizing in a particular circumstance and, thus, what will motivate them to take action.

Just as many people deprioritize the job of “maintain my physical health” — even though it is something they should pay attention to and need to do — many students grow bored in school because education isn’t a job they are trying to do. Education is something they might choose to “hire” to do that job — evidenced in how they use their time — but it isn’t the job. Teachers can work extraordinarily hard to improve the features of their products in the hope that more engaging lessons, media, and student-response clickers, for example, will improve student motivation. But their efforts are in vain if they are aimed at providing an even better way for students to do something that the students were never trying to do in the first place.

This is not to say that a school should not educate the whole child by helping students develop certain core knowledge, skills, and dispositions; rather, that in order to accomplish these objectives, the school must create an experience that is intrinsically motivating for students. Most of the “home runs” in innovation have occurred when people sensed the fundamental job that customers were trying to do— and then found a way to help more people do it more effectively, conveniently, and affordably. The strikeouts and singles, in contrast, generally have been the result of developing services with better features and functions than other services in the same category, or of attempting to decipher what the average customer in a demographic wants.

School can be a place where students find joy in learning. The key is to crawl into the learners’ skin and see their circumstances — including their anxieties, immediate problems, and innate motivations — from their point of view.

At a high level, we have observed that there are two core jobs that most students have:

  1. They want to feel successful. They want to know they are making progress and accomplishing something, rather than experiencing nothing but repeated failure or running up against walls.
  2. They want to have fun with friends. They want positive, rewarding social experiences with others, including with peers, teachers, coaches, advisors, and other potential friends.

As a result, schools compete with activities such as playing video games, playing pickup basketball, and any number of other nonacademic options as something that students can hire to experience success and have fun with friends. Too often, schools are not great competitors for these alternatives.

Similarly, schools must understand what parents’ and caretakers’ true jobs are and create an experience that helps get those done. Our early research on why students and families hire postsecondary education suggests that the reasons may not be as straightforward as we might imagine.

Starting with and understanding the job creates the basis for innovating successfully. As Christensen says in his new book, Competing Against Luck, disruption is a theory that helps explain why successful and well-run organizations fail. “Jobs to Be Done” is a theory about why and how organizations succeed — and it’s where we should start when we seek to innovate, not with trying to do something “disruptive” or trying to innovate for its own sake.

How Getting the Job Done Guides Innovation

There are three levels in the architecture of a job. At the foundational level is the job itself. The second level is composed of all the experiences that you have to provide to get the job done perfectly. Once you understand all those experiences, you can implement the third level: integrate properly by knitting together the right assets that are required to provide each of the experiences necessary to do the job perfectly.

The retail giant IKEA presents a case study in understanding the job and organizing successfully to deliver a solution for that job. The job that IKEA has focused on is to help someone furnish his or her apartment today.

Understanding this, IKEA engages its own designers to create furniture kits that customers can retrieve from the warehouse, take home, and assemble themselves, without having to wait for delivery. IKEA designs furniture that is explicitly meant to be temporary, not to become heirlooms. IKEA offers child care because unfettered concentration on furniture purchases is an important experience; and it positions an affordable cafeteria in the store so customers can refuel.

What’s so interesting is that by understanding the job it does so well, IKEA has remained impervious to disruption. No one has copied it. And it understands acutely what improvements will help it do the job better and what will prove to be distractions.

As a result, IKEA still sells low-cost furniture today, a half century after its founding. It has not gone “upmarket,” as most businesses and independent schools seeking to be “better” do naturally. Nor has someone come underneath IKEA to push it upmarket, despite all the disruptions in retail, from discount to online to low-cost providers in China (where, incidentally, understanding customers’ particular circumstance has led IKEA to integrate forward to help deliver and assemble the furniture as well).

IKEA’s story offers a powerful lesson for independent school leaders considering innovating. Figure out why people are hiring you — what their real job to be done is — and then move accordingly. This may mean that trying to be all things to all people isn’t necessary. It may mean that playing the prestige game is not what’s required to succeed. On the other hand, a deeper understanding of the job might reveal that both are quite critical. What we know for sure is that focusing on innovation for its own sake isn’t going to help.

Focusing on the job, in all of its dimensions, is vital. Start there — and then innovate accordingly.

Michael B. Horn

Michael B. Horn is cofounder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute and serves as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions, which offers innovation services to higher education institutions.