The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Clay Christensen on Politics and the Jobs-To-Be-Done Concept


In a fascinating interview with Josh Benton focused primarily on how traditional news organizations should think about disruptive innovation, Clay Christensen has a brief riff on political campaigns. To understand Christensen’s riff, however, you first have to understand the concept of “jobs-to-be-done.” Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life?, co-authored with James Allworth and Karen Dillon, offers a summary:

We don’t go through life conforming to particular demographic segments: nobody buys a product because he is an eighteen- to thirty-five-year-old white male getting a college degree. That may be correlated with a decision to buy this product instead of that one, but it doesn’t cause us to buy anything. Instead, periodically we find that some job has arisen in our lives that we need to do, and we then find some way to get it done. If a company has developed a product or service to do the job well, we buy, or “hire” it, to do the job. If there isn’t an existing product that does the job well, however, then we typically make something we already have, get it done as best we can, or develop a work-around. The mechanism that causes us to buy a product is “I have a job I need to get done, and this is going to help me do it.”

With this in mind, consider Christensen’s observation on how we tend to approach political campaigns:

To all of us, there is a really interesting piece of ongoing work to do that has emerged from the election for presidency in America. As a result of a polling exercise, it looks like Mitt Romney is losing by about 20 percent amongst voters who are women aged 35 to 55. Everybody starts to make the gears in their heads go: “Well, how does Romney get a larger portion of the vote from voters 35 to 55?” Well, if you think that what causes people to vote or buy something is the characteristics that they have in common — what they’re doing is the very sin that the jobs-to-be-done theory is trying to absolve. If you think that the market is created by these demographic segments, the way to get more of the votes from women aged 35 to 55 is to offer all of them everything, because they have nothing in common other than that particular demographic characteristic.

And so you do that, demographic by demographic. And the only way that you can ever win, if you think that’s the way the market is structured, is to keep offering everything to everybody, which then causes you to lie, which then causes you to pick apart your opponent. Every election — it just is an awful experience for everybody.

I wondered how interesting it would be to organize a campaign around “there are different jobs to be done out there, amongst the voters.” What would happen to the election if the combatants understand the theory of jobs to be done? The reason I say that is, (a) it’s just interesting to us, as we are trying to understand it, but (b) we see most newspapers doing the very same thing, thinking about how they can arrest the decline of membership amongst the younger people and professional people and so on.

This led me to think about what different constituencies “hire” a president to do.

(1) Chrystia Freeland’s reporting has found that many affluent professionals are offended by what they perceive as President Obama’s hostility to the rich, despite the fact that they have fared well under his administration. And so some hope to hire Mitt Romney to treat them with more respect. One implication is that these voters might not expect very much in the way of substance. Rather, they want a president who won’t use them as a rhetorical foil. 

(2) In a similar vein, many socially conservative voters saw George W. Bush as a Christian leader who reflected their deeply-held values. Even if President Bush failed to advance socially conservative objectives, his job was to affirm an ecumenical Judeo-Christian worldview.

(3) Public union households might in a similar vein hire President Obama to champion their interests, even though his ability to influence the actions of state and local governments are limited. 

These are relatively crude examples. But I think it is important to think beyond discrete policy positions when we think of the jobs that elected officials are hired to do. Symbolism counts for a great deal. The difficulty lies in finding ways to reconcile symbolic stances that might be in tension. 


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