Originally published: Sandbox ColLABorative | By Michael B. Horn and Michelle Weise | Apr 12, 2017

Higher education is awash with new and interesting teaching and business model innovations. But frameworks for incubating these innovations—let alone implementing them—are still in short supply. One approach being applied by Entangled Ventures, which brands itself as an “innovation agency for education,” is the “jobs to be done theory” (JTBD). In this episode, Executive Director Michelle Weise sits down with Michael Horn, Chief Strategy Officer and Principal Consultant at Entangled Ventures and Co-founder and Distinguished Fellow of the Clayton Christensen Institute, to discuss JTBD as well as the ever-expanding role of technology in teaching and learning.

Michael B. Horn, Chief Strategy Officer and Principal Consultant, Entangled Ventures
Michelle Weise, Executive Director, Sandbox ColLABorative

Michelle: Welcome, Michael.

Michael: Thanks, it’s great to be actually here in your Sandbox.

Michelle: We’re so glad to have you. Starting off, how did you get into what you do currently and what is it that you do?

Michael: Great question, that I think my wife asks me every night. How I got into it was by accident, if I’m being totally honest. I had a public policy and writing background, had worked for David Gergen for a few years, knew some things about education, certainly, but it wasn’t a specialty of mine. Went to business school, quite frankly, to get away from it all, and then, second year, took Clay Christensen’s class on the theories of disruptive innovation and innovating inside a big organization.

He said, “Anyone interested in writing a book with me applying these ideas to public K-12 education, stop by.” I stopped by. He thought about it for a while, and, after a point, he brought me on. He basically said, it will take us a year to write the book, and then you can do whatever you actually want to do. The book took two years to write. We started the Christensen Institute midway through. I became so wed to what we were trying to do and such a believer in it, the notion of doing something else was just foreign to me by the end of the process. To build an organization whose mission was to transform the education system so that every single student could fulfill their potential, that was as rewarding a thing as I could imagine.

Now that I’ve left the Christensen Institute full time, what do I do? The way I think about myself is, that mission has stayed the same, at all levels of education from when you’re born all the way through career, trying to create a system that allows every single individual to fulfill their human potential, dare to dream, and then be able to realize those dreams. That’s what I wake up every moment thinking. Now it takes the shape of a mix of activities.

Entangled Ventures is an ed-tech studio business. We incubate education technologies that we see missing from the marketplace that are preventing universities and others from getting things done on behalf of students. One of those companies we’ve incubated is Entangled Solutions, which is an innovation services firm, so consulting but with a builder mindset, it’s not building strategy decks. Often that leads to the next thing that we incubate. Then I continue to write and speak about the future of education and work with a lot of organizations helping advance that cause.

Michelle: That’s really interesting. You do that kind of builder/consulting work with universities and that is the fodder for you guys to think about what sort of solutions you want to incubate as, almost like an accelerator for start-ups, right?

Michael: That’s exactly right.

Michelle: Can you talk about that a little bit, because it’s interesting seeing the different models that are out there today with higher education institutions partnering with different kinds of venture capital firms. We’re doing something similar. We’re starting a seed fund. There’s all these opportunities out there, so talk a little bit more about that.

Michael: I think one of the things you see is co-developed ventures with universities that are in the leading edge and innovating, they often understand students’ needs and marketplace needs much, much better than does something standing in an office or scatter shot away from the action of higher ed.

Our view is by working with universities that are trying to innovate, that’s why they hire solutions in the first place, you’re getting great intel into what those ideas are. You’re actually doing the projects themselves that they need help with and you’re actually seeing the gaps when we actually have to fill it in. If you have one, two, three customers in a row, all struggling with the exact same problem, there’s no solution out there that solves it for them. All of a sudden, we’ve built tremendous capacity know-how, and we basically put that into our company and we have our first three customers, also.

It’s really that co-develop model, though. It’s not this belief that we can just look out at the landscape and understand exactly what people need. We can point to what we wish were there if the world were perfect, but understanding what universities actually want to prioritize and use, and how they’re trying to accomplish innovations for students is a very different matter. Having that intel on the ground, paid R & D as we think of it, really informs that cycle.

Michelle: You and I kind of both come from the theories of disruptive innovation. We find them compelling, it’s why we did our work. I was the same way in terms of feeling so mission-driven by how compelling these theories were to make higher education more affordable, more accessible to more people.

I’m curious how disruption plays a role in your current work with Entangled Solutions and Entangled Ventures. Do you guys approach your work with universities in terms of thinking about it more on the sustaining innovation side or are these things that you’re incubating really things that you’re imagining as potentially disruptive solutions?

Michael: That’s a great question. I think the way we think about it is we start with actually a different theory, the jobs to be done theory. We try to figure out, what are you actually trying to make progress on in your life right now or, in the case of the university, against your mission, and trying to understand deeply what success looks like. We call it future state design. We really try to get very crisp and short on what success looks like and then understand that job in very great depth and then design according to that.

The way I think about it is disruption is a theory of competition, but jobs is a theory of success, because you’re really meeting actual progress in problems that people are actually trying to solve. That’s really where we start, at the question. Disruption is then how we sort of frame it from a competitive perspective as we’re trying to go out into the marketplace, where do we position ourselves relative to other solutions out there, and there, disruption can play a role.

The other place disruption comes in is, as you all know very well in Southern New Hampshire, the power of autonomy to allow you to actually disrupt yourself. I think when we work with universities, we’ve learned that lesson a lot already. If you’re building a new program unencumbered by existing processes, resources, priorities, your ability to create from scratch, something that’s actually going to get the job done, is tremendously more than if you’re building from within an existing structure that has operated the same way for the last, 20, 30, 40, 50 years. I think we’ve learned that, eyes wide open, in some projects where we went in and said this is going to be tough work, trying to change acts within the heart of the university, but we get reminded that over and over again, where we see our successful projects and where we don’t see success.

Michelle: Tell us what you’re most excited about as you kind of think about the future of higher education.

Michael: I think the unleashing of competency-based is still something that I would like to see happen more. I think there’s been a tremendous churn of questions around how do we know it’s real, how do we know it’s rigorous, what does assessment mean, and so government is sort of paralyzed on this question and let whatever it is, seven institutions, be experimenting with competency-based and 600 want to, apparently, if you believe reports. I would like to see us more aggressively pushing this. My feeling is that it’s not going to come from some sort of government all of a sudden seeing the light and that it’s going to be much more employers and universities connecting much more tightly the education to employment gap. Anything that is lessening that gap, I’m really excited about right now. A lot of those are competency-based. Some of them aren’t, but as long as you’re tackling that part of the marketplace, I think it’s huge.

The other thing I’m really excited about is mobile learning. I think there’s some really interesting companies and innovations coming up in that space right now that are further democratizing education in really exciting ways, taking us beyond what I think of as the flat and somewhat lame video format of filming a professor and just thinking that now we’ve delivered education online, making much more active learning experiences through the mobile devices that we all carry around. I’m really excited about that.

Then the last thing I’d say is internationally, we’re really excited about some of the activity we’re seeing in Africa and places like that around taking what we’re learning from Southern New Hampshire and College for America, Western Governors and some of the other leaders, with competency-based learning, totally novel blended environments where you give deep scaffolding and support around students and really radically changing price points and futures.

Michelle: You’re writing a book right now, right?

Michael: I allegedly am.

Michelle: Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re writing?

Michael: It’s a book taking the jobs to be done methodology. Several institutions were very kind to give us access to students where we could talk to well over 100 students, well over 100 hours of recorded information, where we basically created mini documentaries for each of them about why they went to college, understanding the true motivations and the circumstances. Out of that data, it’s about 30,000 data points, have emerged five clear job clusters around why people hire higher education.

The book is really to help explain what these jobs are that people are hiring higher education for and then really be a self-help guide in many ways to the students to help them make better decisions, pick educational opportunities that are better fits for where they are in their lives, and for institutions as well, to be able to design experiences that better match the jobs that these students are trying to do and, I would actually say, help move students to more productive jobs on occasion.

I’ll give you an example. One of the jobs that came through really loudly and clearly in the research is, I hire college to help me escape. No notion of future, no notion of job — maybe at the borderline because college is something productive, so in a UCLA survey, they’ll say to get a job — but it’s really just help me escape my community, my stepfather, my dead-end job, whatever it might be. They go to college running from something, but very unclear idea of what they’re running toward.

As a college that’s about to take someone in for two, four years, that would not make me feel comfortable at all and, indeed, you see huge drop-out rates and dissatisfaction among this group. How do you move that student to a much more productive place much quicker? Can you move them into a gap year experience that’s much shorter, gives them a lot of exposure, finds a passion, and moves them into something they’re excited about? Things like that, that I think universities should start thinking about such that they’re not serving a student who’s never going to succeed there no matter how hard you push them.

Michelle: The jobs to be done theory there is so interesting because, even though you frame jobs to be done theory as a theory of success, it is also about competition, right? The universities that are in that pool, who are providing that escape for students, are institutions that would not see themselves normally as peer competitors.

Michael: Yeah, that’s right.

Michelle: It’s interesting, I was just talking to some folks at the Harvard Divinity School who have realized that the competitor to religion, one of the major competitors to religion, is CrossFit.

Michael: It’s CrossFit, yeah. No surprise to CrossFitters like me, but yes.

Michelle: I’m just looking forward to seeing what the research holds and it’s really exciting work that you’re working on.

Michael: Thank you. It’s one of the things that’s really getting me excited each day. It’s made me realize how much writing is really important to me as a day-to-day part of my life.

Michelle: Thank you so much for joining us and we wish you all the best.

Michael: Thank you.