How Choosing a College Is Like Buying a Milkshake

EdSurge Podcast

How Choosing a College Is Like Buying a Milkshake

By Jeffrey R. Young     Sep 19, 2019

How Choosing a College Is Like Buying a Milkshake

This article is part of the guide The EdSurge Podcast.

What if colleges applied the same kind of market research techniques that fast-food giants like McDonald’s use to improve their offerings? What might they learn about what students really want that could help university officials improve the experience? And could it help students themselves better understand what they want out of higher ed?

Those are the questions guiding a new book by Michael Horn, called “Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life.” He starts with a framework popularized by a famous Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen, that was used by McDonald’s to help improve its milkshakes (for one thing, they made them thicker, to last longer, after they found that one reason people bought milkshakes was to kill time on a daily commute). And Horn applies that theory to the process of selecting a college to see what happens.

This might seem like a strange mix, but it flows pretty naturally from Horn’s own career journey. He spent part of his career as a director for the Clayton Christensen Institute, where this framework emerged. One of his many roles today is serving as chief strategy officer for Entangled Solutions, a consulting and investing firm in the college sector. So he’s steeped in business language and theory.

EdSurge sat down with Horn last week at a summit for college innovation leaders called HAIL, or Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners, where Horn was a keynote speaker. While his presentation about the book won some fans, others at the meeting were skeptical about the idea of bringing this kind of corporate thinking to the academy. Some even suggested there might be a downside to comparing a college education to a milkshake.

Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: Your new book takes the “jobs to be done” framework that has typically been used in the development of consumer products, and applies it to selecting a college. Can you quickly lay out what that framework is for those who aren’t familiar with it?

Michael Horn: Totally. So the “jobs to be done” framework is built out by a Harvard professor, Clayton Christensen, and my co-author Bob Moesta, who developed this in the mid ’90s to explain why people do not adhere to what they’re supposed to buy, or don’t do things that they’re supposed to do, when companies create products and services that the market research shows that everyone will want.

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Their basic conclusion was that companies and institutions ... tend to segment by demographic type or product category. But really, we as individuals are just trying to make progress in our lives in a given circumstance. And [by looking at what job a product is doing, it lets us better see how people actually make decisions about what to consume or use.]

I heard a talk by Clayton Christensen once, and he explained this framework by giving the example of how it was used by a fast-food company to improve their milkshakes. Can you talk about this milkshake example?

The milkshake story is the classic story of “jobs to be done.” And interestingly enough, Bob Moesta is the milkshake man in the story. But essentially in the mid ‘90s, this fast-food company wanted to improve the sale of milkshakes. They knew the exact market share they had relative to Burger King and Wendy’s and so forth. And so they called in the average demographic who were most likely to buy a milkshake into focus groups, and they basically said, “How should we improve this thing?” And they got clear feedback. And they made changes. And sales didn’t budge one bit.

So they called Bob in. And rather than ask people how to improve the milkshake, [Bob] stood in the back of the restaurant for several weeks for 18 hours a day, taking copious notes of any time someone came in and bought a milkshake. And he observed: What time of day was it? What else did they buy? Were they with anyone else? Did they buy anything else? Did they drink the milkshake in the restaurant or do they run off to their car and slurp it down as they were driving out? On and on.

And the end of the day, he saw a few interesting things. Eighty percent of milkshakes were sold at two times during the day—50 percent during the early morning rush hour commute and 30 percent in the late afternoon. Of the 50 percent in the early morning rush hour commute, every single one of them came in by themselves. They bought nothing but the milkshake, and every single one of them went off to their car and drove out off slurping down the milkshake.

So finally, after watching this for weeks on end, Bob had to know what they were doing, and so he confronted them this time as they were walking outside the restaurant. And he said, “Could you tell me, what are you trying to do right now with this milkshake in your hand? What’s going on in your life?” And they sort of stared at him puzzled. And he said, “Well, tell me the last time you were in this situation. What else have you bought to do whatever you’re doing right now?”

And they said, “Oh, I think I understand what you’re saying. You see, I have this 30-minute drive to work. I’m not starving right now—it’s early morning. But I know if I don’t put something in my stomach, I’ll be starving by, say, 8:00 a.m. or 8:30 a.m. or 9:00 a.m. Last week I hired bagels to do this job, and take it from me, bagels don’t do it well at all because they’re dry and tasteless. You’ve got to spread cream cheese and jam on them to make them taste good. I’ve hired donuts, but that was terrible because I had to lie to my wife about it. I hired bananas once, but that was actually the worst of all things because the stupid banana was gone in 30 seconds and I was starving by 9:30 a.m.”

“But it turns out when I come in here and buy the milkshake, it just does the job perfectly, because I have no idea what they put in that thing, if it’s healthy or not. But it’s so thick and viscous, it sinks to the bottom of my stomach and easily keeps me full until about 11:30 a.m. It’s so thick and viscous it takes me forever to suck up that tiny little straw, so it easily lasts through my 30-minute drive. It keeps me occupied while I’m driving."

And so it turns out that the milkshake did this morning rush hour commute job better than its competitors, which weren’t just milkshakes, but the bagels, donuts, coffee, Snickers bars, bananas—you name it. And that was sort of how the fruit smoothies, Jamba Juice and so forth got invented out of that process.

So why apply this to something as big and life-changing and expensive as college choice? Wasn’t the model meant for dollar-menu items?

Yeah. It’s funny. When people say, “Does the ’jobs to be done’ framework work with a big decision?” I always say it absolutely works with a big decision because you spend so much time thinking about it. With college, it’s actually enormously rich with detail. As we looked at these mini documentaries of a couple hundred students making the choice about whether and where to go to college, they all have different jobs to be done, different progress that they’re trying to make in their lives.

In the book you’ve boiled it down to five jobs to be done by college. What are they?

The first one is, “Help me get into my best school.” These are students who are looking to get into their best school because they’ve done their work, they want the best. It’s not necessarily the ranking’s best, but it’s as they define the best.

The second one is, “Help me do what’s expected of me.” These are students who are looking to do what someone else expects them to do, go to college. To please a parent, to please an educator, to do what their peers are doing just to go along with the flow.

The third one is, “Help me get away.” These are students who are running away from something—an abusive stepfather, a bad family situation, town, bad job, whatever it might be. Very little of why they are going to school is for the school or the education itself, but because societally or socially, they can say, “I’m going to college,” and that’s a socially acceptable answer. And so it’s a good answer to getting out of a really bad situation.

The fourth one we found, we’re calling, “Help me step it up.” These are students who are looking around [at their lives] and they’re like, “I like large parts of my life, but this, what I’m doing here right now, this job or whatever it might be, this isn’t who I am and it’s now or never. I’ve got to step it up and be someone better.” And so they’re very clear that they want a direct path to improve their lives in this way.

And then the fifth one is what we’re calling, “Help me extend myself.” These are people who are saying, “I now will make the time and money to tackle something that I’ve always wanted to learn. I’ve been yearning to do this and see if I can do it. And you know what, if it doesn’t work out, it’s okay also.” They’re at a place in their life generally where this is a relatively lower risk decision.

The one thing [that was absent] were people saying, “Help me launch my career,” or “Help me get my first job,” which [is what we had long guessed]. But that’s just not how real people actually live life or talk about the decision, which was fascinating.

But isn’t getting a job still important to people going to college?

Yeah. I would say a job to be done is made up of lots of different forces. So it’s not as simplistic as “Gee, if I get a job, I get more money, and boom.” We’re complicated human beings. We make decisions not just for functional reasons like that, but also social and emotional ones. And a job encapsulates all of those different forces that are going in. When you talk to students, what’s so interesting, particularly of the 17-, 18- and 19 year-old variety, they might check off on a survey that they want to work at a job out of college. They have no idea what work or job or career is. I mean, the teen labor force participation rate is the lowest it’s ever been really in the nation’s history right now.

Why would this framework help a student?

A lot of the jobs to be done that we have, we can’t see ourselves, and we can’t articulate it. And so what I hope this does is to make the unconscious [parts] of what’s going on in the background of your mind conscious for you, so that you can actually recognize where you are in life and not make some big missteps. If your job is “Help me get away,” you shouldn’t be choosing a four-year experience that costs a lot of money.


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