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Here's what Clayton Christensen said about business and innovation at Qualtrics Insights Summit

Business leader and Harvard professor Clayton Christensen came back to his hometown of Salt Lake City on Thursday to talk at the Qualtrics Insights Summit.
Business leader and Harvard professor Clayton Christensen came back to his hometown of Salt Lake City on Thursday to talk at the Qualtrics Insights Summit.
Herb Scribner, Deseret News

Business expert and Harvard professor Clayton Christensen said there's a lot to learn about business from milkshakes.

Christensen spoke at the Qualtrics Insights Summit on Thursday, spending the bulk of his speech talking about how markets influence business and products and innovation. He even used McDonald's milkshakes to explain how all companies can figure out their purpose.

Christensen also talked about the importance of companies sustaining innovation. He said disruptive innovation helps companies expand their consumer market, helping them grow.

“By making products affordable and accessible, many more people have access to it and can use it,” he said.

Christensen layered his talk with real-world examples of innovation, focusing on how old computers dominated the market before they decided to make better products to reach new audiences.

He called this “the innovator’s dilemma” — getting stuck between making a new product or continuing to make the product you’re know for, he said.

Christensen said most people buy products to help their lives. Stuff happens that require people to find solutions.

“Whenever we feel like we have a job to do, we feel like we have to find something to hire to get the job done,” he said. “… We feel like there’s a job to be done, and it compels us to buy.”

An example: Christensen said he and fellow researchers looked into McDonald’s and the buyer habits concerning milkshakes. He said buyers, mostly male, bought them before 8:30 a.m. in the morning. Thinking how weird it was, he and the team spoke with the buyers to figure out why, hoping their answers would offer clues to the job to be done.

“They all had the same job to do — that they have a long and boring drive to work." He said they bought the milkshakes because it gave them something to eat on the drive to work.

The buyers said they tried filling that void with donuts, bagels, Snickers and a number of other food. But it was the milkshake, above all else, that worked best for them in the morning commute.

“It turns out that milkshake does the job better than any of the competitors,” he said.

He said McDonald’s took that idea and created an even better milkshake, one that was thicker or bigger because there’s a job to be done.

He said other business leaders can take this example and figure out how big their market really is. Figure out what job needs to be done and improve products to help fill that void, he said.

“The job to be done is very stable. They don’t change much over time,” he said, adding that technology only helps complete the job better and better with each development.

Christensen said that’s why it’s important to ask the right questions.

He said figuring out the jobs to be done makes everything better.

"Understanding the job to be done is critical to develop new products or new services successfully," he said.

Christensen spoke after Olympian Michael Phelps, who focused his talk on his family and the end of his career.

Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith tweeted out a picture of Christensen and Phelps together:

Christensen received praise from other tweeters, too.