Product Strategy and Innovation Blog

Using Spotify To Spot Bad Innovation Theory


HBR has published a number of articles about jobs-to-be-done theory written by Clay Christensen, who popularized the theory, and his followers. But here is the problem: because Clay and his followers have little experience applying it in practice, the innovation theory is being misused in ways that really astound us.

As the actual pioneers of this theory 21 years ago, (we have five patents on its application), we were quite disturbed by a recent blog from Maxwell Wessel, a Christensen follower, on the HBR blog network. In the blog, he gets it all wrong. Here are just three of his mistakes:

Mistake 1: Max offers an incorrect example of what a job-to-be-done is.
Sure, people hire products to get a job done – that is the theory. But the reason this theory is meaningful is because it offers a new way to define a market that is worth pursuing with a product or service innovation. We define a market as a job executor and by the job they are trying to get done. If a lot of people struggle to get a job done, then an opportunity exists to create a product that helps get the job done better.

Wessel says that workers have a job they want to get done each day. The job is “to break up the afternoon” with a “wake-me-up, mid-afternoon break in my workday.” He asserts that people hire a Coke to get that job done.

But workers don’t hire a Coke “to break up the afternoon”. That is not a function a Coke provides. Max is confusing the circumstance with the job. Sure, workers find themselves in a situation where it is time to take a break. Then workers must decide how to spend that time. They may decide to run an errand or improve mental clarity – both of which are a unique job-to-be-done. They may seek out a product to assist in getting these jobs done.

We call these jobs “outcome-driven” jobs because they represent possible opportunities for new product creation, innovation and growth. These jobs are markets that can be analyzed and addressed with products, while “breaking up the afternoon” is a circumstance that people find themselves in. Trying to create a product for “breaking up the afternoon” is risky and unwise, as it is not an outcome-driven job. It is not a task or goal that will likely lead to accelerated revenue and profitability growth.

Mistake 2: Max confuses functional and consumption jobs.
Max says, “Spotify completes the job of delivering music in much the same way as iTunes does”. Here is the problem: “delivering music” is not a job that consumers are trying to get done. They are trying to listen to music – that is the functional job-to-be-done. To listen to music, people have to find music they like, organize it for listening and then execute, monitor and modify the listening process. The companies (Apple and Spotify) are executing the job of “delivering music”. We call this a consumption chain job. Products have to be acquired, set-up, installed, stored, maintained and upgraded. These are all consumption chain jobs. But people don’t buy products so they can install, maintain and upgrade them. They buy them to get a functional job done.

In our view, the success of iTunes and Spotify is not due to “delivering music”. It is because they are superior solutions to the job the customer is trying to get done: the job of listening to music.

Mistake 3: Max tries to use the theory of disruption to predict Spotify’s success
As Max states in his blog, “a disruptive product fails to deliver a superior offering to the incumbent technology in one or more characteristics of the job-to-be-done.” He goes on to assert that Spotify is a disruptor because it “holds a systemic advantage over iTunes in one particular job characteristic of delivering music: relative pricing.”

Sorry, this is just wrong on so many fronts: (1) A market can only be disrupted if it is overserved, and the market for listening to music is not overserved; (2) Spotify, arguably, gets the job done better than iTunes, not worse, again violating the theory of disruption; (3) Relative pricing is not a job characteristic of “delivering music”, it has nothing to do with the functional job; and (4) Delivering music is not the job-to-be-done, as explained earlier.

Maxwell Wessel writes, “We’ve seen the future, because that’s what disruptive theory lets us do.” Disruption is only one phenomena in a market. And it happens rarely. Using disruptive innovation theory to predict the future can be dangerous. We shouldn’t forget that Clay Christensen, the pioneer of disruptive theory, predicted the failure, yes failure, of the iPhone. So maybe disruptive theory should be put back into its place: as only one strategy that should rarely be used.

If Spotify wins, it is because it helps consumers get the job of “listening to music” done better and successfully addresses the consumption chain jobs. This is the purpose of innovation and why the best products win.


Started by Tony Ulwick, Strategyn has generated billions of dollars in equity value for its clients and has achieved the highest innovation success rate of any firm. Whether your goal is to protect, grow or disrupt existing markets, successfully enter new markets or to optimize your customer’s product/service experience, Strategyn will help you achieve your growth objectives.

More PostsWebsite