Book Review: Competing Against Luck

  |   Books Print Friendly and PDF

Most observers agree that the percentage of new products that succeed is small and that the percentage of products that succeed extravagantly is vanishingly small. Among those same observers, there are two theories about to come up with successful products.

One theory holds that new product success is a matter of luck. The way you beat it is you up your number of tries. In other words, the more you throw against the wall, the more likely it is that something will stick. The other theory is that you find a genius. For a genius, you can substitute the names of Steve Jobs or Akio Morita.

Either way, you must be lucky. You either have to be lucky to throw a lot of stuff that sticks against the wall. Or, you must be lucky to find someone who is a product development genius. But what if you didn’t have to depend on luck? What if you could increase your new product success rate with technique instead? Well, here’s a book to help.

If you want to do product innovation better, grab a copy of Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice, read it, and put it to work.

The Basic Problem

Peter Drucker said it decades ago: the customer rarely buys what the company thinks it’s selling. Now, you may be thinking that this is a lot like Theodore Levitt, who shared the insight of one Leo McGivena that people don’t buy ¼-inch drill bits because they want ¼-inch drill bits, they buy them because they want quarter-inch holes. Yes, this is the same basic principle, but taken to a new level.

This book is about a theory called Jobs to Be Done. The theory says that people buy things (or “hire” them, in the jargon of the theory) to get something done. If you understand why and how they buy, you can create products with something more than a gambler’s chance of success.

When you start viewing things through the Jobs to Be Done lens, you see some interesting things. One thing you notice is that there are competing “products” that you weren’t aware of before. Let’s say you want to sell something to a person to help them deal with a mid-afternoon energy dip. Obviously, there are energy drinks and coffee. Candy bars can provide a quick energy boost. There’s also a walk around the office to talk to friends. In some offices, you can take a nap, so the nap competes with the energy drink and the candy bars and the walk.

Who Should Read This Book?

If you are interested in or responsible for new product development, put this book on your must-read list.

If your job is marketing or promoting your company, your products, or your services, then you’ll find lots of useful stuff in this book.

If you’re a general business book reader, you’ll probably enjoy the book, too. One of the things that I enjoyed most about Competing Against Luck was the number of stories and examples that I never read about anywhere else. There are good descriptions of the stories of Southern New Hampshire University, OnStar, Depends, QuickBooks, and IKEA.


What’s the fastest way to learn the big ideas from a great business book? Book summaries. Check out summaries from The Business Source, where you can watch, read, or listen to the big ideas from a great book in under 20 minutes.

Join The Conversation

What People Are Saying

Alskar   |   24 Jul 2019   |   Reply

Basically, companies compete on added value. It is not necessarily about the product itself, but the value people perceive to get from it.

Sander Alskar