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Disruptive Innovation And The Secret Lives Of Customers, With David Duncan

Companies, as they become large and successful, often find themselves stuck in doing things a certain way. They subscribe to certain success formulas and cultures that keep them from evolving. This is what Clayton Christensen calls the Innovation Dilemma, which inspired the creation of the consulting firm, Innosight. In this episode, J.R. Lowry sits down with its Senior Partner, David Duncan, who shares how Innosight is helping businesses through Disruptive Innovation, developing customer-centric teams, strategies, and organizations. How do businesses create the next version of themselves, where they are not only evolving but also expanding at the same time? What does it mean to be customer-centric and why is it important to innovation? David answers these questions and more. So tune in to find out how you can escape the innovation dilemma and learn the secret lives of customers in this conversation.


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Disruptive Innovation And The Secret Lives Of Customers, With David Duncan

Senior Partner at Innosight and Bestselling Author

My guest is Dave Duncan. Dave is a Senior Partner at Innosight, which focuses on helping leaders develop customer-centric teams, strategies, and organizations. He’s advised and written extensively on how organizations can build systematic capabilities for innovation and is a leading authority on the theory and application of jobs to be done.

Dave is a featured speaker and author on topics of innovation and growth. His latest book, The Secret Lives of Customers, uses a unique approach to solve the mystery of customer behavior. He co-authored two books and a number of articles in Harvard Business Review, including the Wall Street Journal bestseller, Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice, written with the late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen.

Prior to Innosight, Dave worked as a management consultant at McKinsey and Company, and he earned a PhD in Physics from Harvard and a Bachelor’s degree from Duke. He and his family live in Rhode Island. Dave, welcome. I appreciate you spending time with me. It’s great to have you on the show.

Thanks. It’s great to see you again. I appreciate the opportunity to be on your show.

It’s always good to catch up with people that I have worked with in the past. You and I worked together at McKinsey. We’ve gone on to different things since then. You are now a senior partner at Innosight. Tell our audience a little bit about the firm and about your role specifically.

Innosight is a boutique consulting firm. It’s been around for several years. It was started back in 2000 by Clayton Christensen, who I’m sure many people reading this will know is a very famous business guru at the Harvard Business School. He is well-known for his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, and the Theory of Disruptive Innovation, which was an idea and a model that he developed.

A little background on that because it sets up what our firm does. The dilemma of which he wrote about in The Innovator’s Dilemma is this idea that every organization, a company, as it becomes large and successful, almost in proportion to how large and successful it becomes, gets locked into a certain way of doing things, a certain success formula, and a certain culture.

For whatever reason it might need to pursue things that look very different than that model, that success formula, it struggles to do that. Whether it needs to find new sources of growth. It might look very different or some startup comes along and starts competing in a different way, and it needs to adapt to that. It’s very hard for large successful companies to evolve and adapt in fundamental ways.

He wrote about that in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, which was this very eloquent problem statement, but it didn’t say, “What do you do? We are all in this dilemma. How do we get out of it?” Innosight was a firm that he co-founded with another guy named Mark Johnson to have a consulting vehicle to figure out solutions to that problem.

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I got involved there and it was about five years in, so I’d say it was in its late adolescence, and have been there for years now. All of our clients are large organizations, Fortune 100. We try to help them with this universal challenge of how do you create the next version of yourself and how do you evolve into that while at the same time expanding and strengthening your core business, which is what’s gotten you to this point. It’s a dual challenge and we help him figure out how to do that.

Clay, as we knew him then was one of my first-year professors at school. We were his first class right after he finished his PhD. You know this as well as I do that he had an unbelievably captivating way of speaking. He drew you in right from the beginning. In that first class, he talked about his research on disc drive generations and how one generation planted the next. There was always a new generation of winners, and the prior generation lost out over time. It was fascinating and obviously, it was work that became the foundation for what you guys are doing at Innosight.

One of the reasons he became so renowned is not that his ideas were very powerful and relevant to so many organizations, but that he was such a great marketer of ideas. He was an incredible storyteller. You read his books and they are not dry business books, but he teaches through stories and he was a very compelling speaker. He was great at that.

How is Innosight different? You worked at McKinsey. We worked there together. How would you describe it as similar and different at Innosight relative to a more classic consulting firm that McKinsey would represent?

In some ways, they are more alike than they are different in the sense that we work with big organizations on big tough problems that benefit from having an outsider come in, either to drive a process to solve the problem that’s hard to drive from inside, or to bring an experience set on certain types of problems that maybe a typical organization wouldn’t have.

In the case of McKinsey, an example is they do a lot of post-merger integration, and that’s a problem that maybe a company is encountering for the first time or if something doesn’t happen very often. It’s useful to have somebody come in who has seen 100 of them to help you navigate through that. We don’t do that type of problem at all, but that’s the same type of work we do.

It differs from McKinsey in a couple of ways. One is we have a narrower focus in terms of the scope of problems that we tackle. McKinsey has been around for hundreds of years and has thousands of people. They do everything from that strategy to all kinds of operational effectiveness, cost cutting, and all of that type of stuff. We are focused on this one problem of how you evolve into the next version of yourself, and then there are sub-problems around that we focus on. We do a lot of strategy work and we might compete with McKinsey for that type of work.

Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose. I’d say a distinction at least when I was at McKinsey, a lot of the strategy work I was involved in was more of a present forward like, “How do we continue to grow this thing?” It was mostly focused on the core. When we get involved in strategy, we tend to take a longer-term time perspective and think about, “Who do you want to be 10 or 15 years from now? Let’s work backwards from there and figure out what that means we have to do next year and the year after.” In most big companies, as you know very well, strategy is an annual budgeting exercise where you are saying, “What do we need to do over the next year?” Maybe it looks out a couple of years.

Because of that, it tends to perpetuate the success formulas of assumptions about the world from the past. If you are trying to drive something more transformative, maybe the world’s changing fast and those business models are breaking down. There often isn’t a way. There isn’t a mechanism in a company for a leadership team to step back and think about what we think that future environment’s going to look like. Let’s develop a shared point of view based on assumptions about the world 5 or 10 years from now. Within that frame of reference, let’s think expansively about what we might become, and then again, work back.

We call that a future-back approach to strategy as opposed to the present forward. It involves taking a long-term perspective, but it also involves facilitating a different type of conversation with leadership. When I was at McKinsey, I sat in a conference room for three months. I made models. We made presentations. Someone went and presented those to the client and said, “Here’s your strategy.”

If you are trying to do a more transformative play, you need the leadership team to be aligned around that and to get their hands dirty and arrive at that together. As much as it is an analytical exercise, it’s also an alignment and commitment, conviction exercise of a leadership team. When we do strategy, there is analysis, but there’s a lot of leadership dialogue and facilitation, narrower problem space, still problem-solving, a little bit different approach to how we tackle some of the same problems where we overlap.

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David Duncan: If you are trying to do a more transformative play, you need the leadership team to be aligned around that and get their hands dirty and arrive at that together.


You personally do a mix of client work. You do some research, you write, and you speak. How does your time get allocated across those different activities and anything else that you are involved in?

Most of my time is spent on client work. We are also the people that develop new relationships and look for new opportunities to help clients. I call that 80% of my time. I’m interested in doing writing and more thought leadership-related things. I’m a wannabe half-academic mindset. I enjoy doing that. Maybe I spend about 20% of my time on that stuff.

You have written a lot about customer centricity and innovation. If you had to sum up your overall thesis on these topics, what would they be?

I will take him maybe in turn. In that problem space, I mentioned that a big area focuses on how you enable innovation in a large operation like a large company, particularly innovation that is looking more to the future. I’m sure you remember Clay’s book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. He talked about a couple of different types of innovation any company needs to worry about. There’s what he called sustaining innovation, which is the innovation of whatever we are selling now to the customers we are selling to. How do we make that better and better day in and day out and stay competitive? That’s where most of the innovation dollars go because your lifeblood is continuing to serve your customers or products.

Your lifeblood is continuing to serve your current customers or current products. Click To Tweet

There are other types of innovation that are about finding new sources of growth. The trick of breaking out of the innovator’s dilemma is you have to be able to do both of those things at the same time. Be good at sustaining innovation, but at the same time, discover opportunities to innovate outside your core and then manage all of that as a portfolio.

I’d say the thesis around that from an organizational capability perspective is that you need to think about innovation as a system design challenge. Every company will say innovation is important. A lot of companies will launch things to try to get better at innovation or spark more innovation, particularly of the type that’s outside the core.

They might set up a new team that’s focused on finding disruptive ideas or set up a venture capital fund, a corporate VC fund to invest in things. I remember at a bank that we have some familiarity with. There was a big company-wide idea jam where they hired IBM to come in and do an idea competition with thousands of employees participating.

Those are all reasonable things to do, but most of them fail in very predictable ways over and over again, because they’re point solutions to what’s a systems challenge. If you want to crack the problem of how do you enable innovation, you can’t give it to some group or initiative and have it have any prayer of success because you have to think about broader things beyond it like how does that connect to your strategic intent as an organization?

How does it connect to your resource allocation mechanisms? If you are going to explore and scale something outside the core, you have to take money from something in the core, and that means you have to stop doing something. There usually isn’t even a way to think about how to do that. If you want to enable innovation and organization, we think about it from a systems perspective and how other things need to change beyond that.

What about customer centricity, the other big topic that you focus on?

The main idea there is that all innovation starts with discovering a deep need that a customer has, and figuring out how to solve that need. It’s the heart of any great innovation. We have a whole methodology around how you go about doing that, which we will probably talk a little bit about. That’s all I’d say about that.

It’s been years since The Innovator’s Dilemma was published. Have companies learned the lessons from that book? You have been doing this for years working at Innosight. Over the course of that time, do you feel like companies have gotten better about this? Are they still struggling with the same things that they were struggling with at the time the book was written and at the time that you first got involved at Innosight?

They have made some progress. We know a lot about what works and what doesn’t work, what the components of the system are, and how you would put in place a strategy that is broader than a typical strategy that enables you to drive this type of innovation. A lot of that stuff is known where the frontier of where organizations struggle.

These are things that are still being worked out. I don’t think I have all the answers to this. They have to do with how you drive culture change, how you drive the change management associated with getting to this state to this end state that we understand, and how you manage from evolving from where you are right now with all the constraints associated with it to this new model where you have got this portfolio approach and these new capabilities.

It goes back to what you said. This is true of many things in a company. It’s like you can talk about innovation. You can make innovation the responsibility of a few people, but if you want innovation, everybody has to think that way all the time. It’s the same thing with customer centricity. It’s like you have to make it part of your ethos, and that’s hard. Very few companies are able to establish that and sustain it. They get too addicted to the new state, which is ultimately what The Innovator’s Dilemma was all about.

What made it so brilliant as a book, among other things, was it’s for good reasons that they are doing those things. Clay used to say, “It’s not that managers are dumb or something. They are doing all the things we teach them to do at Harvard Business School and behaving very rationally with respect to running their core business.” It’s because all of the incentives and goals are aligned around that it becomes so hard to do this other stuff.

You wrote a book with Clayton. One of the several books that you have written, Competing Against Luck. What was it like to write a book with him?

That was great. I was lucky to be able to do that. There was a team working on it. I and a couple of other folks and Clay were the co-authors on that. We would meet probably for the better part of a year. We’d go meet in Clay’s office a couple of times a week, usually for a couple of hours. Clay had a bunch of health challenges over the years. He would often spend all of that time walking around. He would be in motion, partly because he felt more comfortable that way, but also because he had this energy around ideas. He had a real delight and excitement about talking about ideas and trying to solve puzzles that he’d been thinking about for many years.

It was quite fun. He would consistently say, “This is the funnest thing I’m going to do,” because he enjoyed bouncing ideas around. He loved the idea that that book was entirely about this concept of jobs to be done. He was a big believer in the profundity of that idea and that it was an important thing to write about. He was excited that we were all working on a book together on it.

For people who aren’t familiar with the idea of jobs to be done, can you explain the premise of it?

It’s a strange phrase. You never heard it before. It comes from the world of marketing. The simplest way to explain it is it’s a very simple model for explaining why customers make the choices that they make. Why do we buy some products and services and reject others? What causes us to do that? The model asserts that the reason we pull certain things into our lives is that we have jobs that we want to get done. We have problems we want to solve or goals that we want to achieve. You can think about those as jobs we are trying to get done.

The appearance of one of those jobs that give us the energy and motivation to do something other than nothing, which is our default, is our inertia or status quo. It takes some effort to go explore and look for a new solution, learn about it, trade all your time and money for it, and then adapt your life around it. What is it that gives us that spark? It’s the existence of what Clay called an important unsatisfied job we want to get done. It’s a very simple idea and we use it as a metaphor and say that you don’t buy products. You hire them to get jobs done in your life just like you might hire a person to do a job like babysitting your kids or fixing a leaky pipe in your home.

You don't buy products. You hire them to get jobs done in your life. Click To Tweet

When I first heard him talk about it and he would say, “This is an important idea,” I didn’t believe him because I was like, “It seems commonsensical to me.” At first, he was right. The reason it’s so useful is that part of the driver of The Innovator’s Dilemma is that as companies become large and more successful and they are selling something that people want, they start to organize themselves around product lines and product categories so that they can make more and more of that thing and sell it to more and more people with more and more efficiency.

They evolve into thinking about themselves from a product perspective as opposed to the problems or the jobs that they are getting done. Instead of saying, “I’m a car company, insurance company, or coffee company.” Instead of, “I’m a company that happens to be in the business of helping people get from one place to another.”

The only reason they get traction in the first place is that maybe when they were a startup, they discovered some job that some customer needed and they figured out some solution that was compelling enough and somebody would buy it. They then set up to scale that thing. They even start to evaluate themselves like, “What’s our share of the market of sales of that product?” Analysts evaluate them that way. They set goals that way.

It leads to them not focusing on what’s driving that, which is the job people are trying to get done for which they might happen to be hiring your product, and that’s what sets you up to be disrupted. Someone else comes along and says, “You think you have got this one solution your anchor to it, and that’s all you care about.” We see that there’s this segment that they are not very satisfied with their job and we will innovate something better. It was very connected to his theory of disruptive innovation that part of what sets you up to be disrupted is your lo your loss of focus on the job.

How would you compare jobs to be done with customer journey mapping and other customer-centric user experience types of approaches that people use?

They are all compatible and complimentary. Meaning, customer journey mapping, for example, there are different ways that people use. Let’s say I have a job to be done, which is a good one. I want to live in a house or something. There are many journeys associated with that depending on where I am in my life. You can define the goal of a journey in terms of jobs to be done and then use it as a complement to that framework. What is useful about jobs is that people can say, “Are you using a different word for needs?”

Something like that, which is what I thought. When I first heard Clay talk about it, is that in some ways they are the same thing, but jobs as a language have a sharpness to them. If you ask somebody, “What do you need?” the answer could be a product to solve a problem. If you ask somebody, “What job are you trying to get done?” you are focused on the customer and the type of progress they are trying to make in their life. That’s helpful.

There’s a whole method related to it that we have developed. What it all has in common is that whatever business problem you are trying to solve, whether it’s innovation or strategy, it tries to anchor you in the customer’s perspective independent of anything that you are doing or think you want to do, and what they are trying to get done in their lives.

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David Duncan: Whatever business problem you’re trying to solve, whether it’s innovation or strategy, it tries to anchor you in the customer’s perspective independent of anything you’re doing or think you want to do and what they’re trying to get done in their lives.


In practice, how do companies employ the jobs-to-be-done framework?

I can tell you a story because we wrote about this. The company LinkedIn was a client of ours over the past years. The person that engaged us was the Chief Product Officer who’s on the executive committee there, and they are an incredibly high-performing company. They are growing like crazy. They have an amazing business and they have super smart people and they are great at product development.

Just for reference in terms of LinkedIn, they think about themselves as having three marketplaces that they facilitate. There’s a talent marketplace where people and companies that are recruiting and have jobs can be connected with people that are looking for work. There’s a product and services marketplace where people that want to sell stuff can be connected with people that might want to buy stuff. Also, a knowledge marketplace where people that might want to teach something can meet people that want to learn stuff.

They have those three areas primarily, and then all of those are enabled by the flywheel or product, which is the LinkedIn profile that you and I probably have. They have over 900 million people on that now. It’s incredible. They are on track to cross 1 billion and not too distant future. Despite all of that, they reached out because this guy, Tomer Cohen, was intrigued by this idea of jobs to be done. He thought there was something there that we need or that we think we could continuous improvement culture. It could be helpful. For them, there were a couple of ways that they wanted to use it, and ultimately, they did.

One was around having a shared language that everybody could use to describe what it is they were trying to understand and solve for customers. There were lots of different frameworks. There were different words and methods. It’s a sticky and easy way to get everybody talking about what you are trying to accomplish for the customer in the same way.

It has a benefit in building a culture of customer centricity. There was an interest in finding ways to ensure they were reflecting an articulation of the customer problem in product development all the time because they have got all these super brilliant product developers evolving our profile experience. If you are on the site, one of the metrics that they care about is how long you spend on the site when you log in.

They want you to log in and then spend as much time as possible, reading stuff and interacting with people. They have this metric called time on site or something like that. If you are a product developer and you have Idea A and Idea B, you might test them. You are going to go with the one that has a longer time on site where JR sticks around longer.

That’s an internal performance metric. You can see it’s directly related to revenues, profits, and everything. It doesn’t say anything about why JR is staying on the site. You could optimize your product based on that metric, but you wouldn’t necessarily know how good of a job you are doing solving JR’s problem. If you then layer onto that important metric, don’t ignore that.

The need to understand, “Why is JR there in the first place?” In the job’s language, “What are you hiring your profile for? Are you looking for a new role? Are you trying to learn? Are you trying to project something about yourself? Are you trying to get people to sign up for your podcast?” If we have that level of insight about you, well then, it innovates in much more interesting ways. Maybe we will drive even greater time on-site because we are connecting it to something that you value. They are using it that way.

The final way, which is super interesting is they have reframed how they articulate their strategic priorities from the perspective of the jobs they exist to solve at a higher level. The reason that was easier for them to do it than other companies is they had a construct that was similar before, but they pivoted to jobs to be done.

Now, if you ask what their strategy is, among other things, it’s about solving certain priority jobs for certain groups of audiences. People who want to do projects, product development, or allocate resources, have to align with those. If they don’t, they don’t do it. Coincidentally, I did another show where I was the guest host. I don’t have a podcast, but there’s this one called The Disruptive Voice, which is a Clay-inspired podcast at HBS. I interviewed the LinkedIn guy about all of this stuff, so he describes all of this much better than I do on how they implemented it.

You wrote a book, The Secret Lives of Customers. Let’s talk about that one a little bit. What are some of the mysteries of customer behavior that you unlock in that book?

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This is another book. It’s about this idea of jobs to be done. The book with Clay, he’s a big idea guy. He explicitly didn’t want to get into tools and applications. He wanted to do his wonderful thing of making these different aspects of this idea and telling stories and so on to get people interested in it. I wanted to write one that connected it more to, “How do you apply it?” It started off as a personal passion project because I had a chance to co-author two books before that but I always wanted to try to write one on my own just to see if I could.

I didn’t go into it thinking it would turn out well enough that anyone would ever want to read it, but I wanted to try it to see. I don’t know if you have come across a guy named Patrick Lencioni. He has written a bunch of wonderful books. The most famous one is called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. They are all in this format of what he calls parables or fables where most of the book will be a short novel or a story about some company or team having a problem. They then work out the solution and the story through whatever these frameworks he is trying to teach. He will step out of the book and explain the frameworks directly.

I wrote my book in that format because I thought that it’s such a broadly accessible idea and it would be more fun to write it that way and maybe more accessible to more people. It’s a story that has loosely the format of a mystery where there’s a company. In this case, it’s a chain of coffee shops that are losing customers and hire someone who bills himself as a market detective to come in and try to understand, “Why are we losing these customers? How can we turn things around?” He teaches all of these concepts and tools through the narrative.

Let’s switch gears a little bit. I can’t imagine that you necessarily envisioned yourself writing books, speaking, guest-hosting podcasts, and doing consulting projects back in your undergraduate days at Duke. What did you see yourself doing when you were an undergrad?

I wish I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do when I was coming out of undergrad. I ended up going to graduate school and doing graduate work in Physics. When I was an undergrad at Duke, I studied Philosophy and Literature. If I had to create a common thread between them, I have always been interested in trying to understand things at a deep level. That’s what led me to philosophy, and then it evolved into Physics. While I was in graduate school, I realized that there was a difference between being interested in Physics and being interested in being a physicist. You tend to get channeled into very narrow esoteric questions.

If you want to build a career doing that, then that’s the game you have to play unless you are a genius or very lucky. I’m neither of those things. While I was in graduate school, my interests evolved again and I was getting interested in the business world and the world at large and economics. I was saying, “Maybe I should go into industry.” I had never in my life heard of McKinsey or even anything about that. There were some alums that came back from my group that had gone in that direction and I liked them. I thought it seemed like a cool way to pivot into the business world and get business learning and experience.

I got lucky that I got a job there. There are probably twenty times as many people who are qualified as they have spots. I spent four years there and that was great. That’s where I met you, JR. That’s where I learned enough to be dangerous to get into the business world. It was more at each transitional stage thinking about the opportunities set in front of me and taking the best one.

That’s the way most people do it. I had the benefit perhaps of doing ROTC in college, and so I knew initially that I was going to be an Air Force officer. I had no idea what I wanted to do after that. I went to business school primarily. I used to call it a halfway house into the private sector and into the real world because I needed to learn about the business world.

I didn’t have much experience in it, and I’d never heard of McKinsey either. I’d heard of Bain because I was at Duke a few years ahead of you, and a lot of people went from Duke to Bain, but I had never heard of McKinsey until I was at school and they came on campus, and I ended up there too. How did you end up at Innosight? How did you make that transition?

That was serendipitous. I left McKinsey by choice because I got burnt out. I was like, “I can’t keep living this way.” It’s a fantastic learning experience, but it is very intense in terms of the number of hours, travels, and demands. I was going to explore other things. I had a vague idea that I might go into finance. I ended up meeting a guy named Scott Anthony who was one of the early people at Innosight. We met for coffee down on Newbury Street in Boston because someone said, “You should meet Scott. He is working with Clay in this company Innosight.”

I didn’t know anything about it, but he said, “We could use somebody that has your experience.” I started as a contractor just to make some extra cash while I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. It seemed fun and interesting. They didn’t have a lot of people with consulting backgrounds, and they were trying to build this consulting business. I’d say I had one foot out the door for the first year I was there. Something clicked and I thought, “Maybe this is a place I could hang around for a while because I like the work that we are doing.”

I’m sure you would agree that the work that McKinsey does is interesting. One of the reasons I left is it’s such a big machine. I’m probably not going to change it much if I stay here for twenty years. Whereas at Innosight, we were working on the most interesting problems, but we were also building a firm. It felt like a startup and we were building a firm, and so it had that fun, business-building aspect to it too. I was maybe 30. I don’t remember how old I was. I felt like I was at the point where I needed to commit to something and not be keeping my options open. I end up sticking around for a long time.

Now you are one of the senior people in the firm. Having grown up there, while the firm itself was growing up, how do you and your fellow senior partners think about the culture that you are trying to create that makes Innosight unique?

They have been around several years. We have a very explicit set of values that put a lot of thought into. They are up on the wall and we think about them and reference them all the time. There are things like having an impact on clients, but also intellectual curiosity, humility, and collaboration. Some things may sound like motherhood and apple pie when you put them on a wall. We have thought about how they manifest. It is a conscious choice of the values you want to instill.

We were acquired by a larger firm called Huron Consulting Group. When we were going through the process of entertaining the idea that we might do that, we met a lot of firms. Cultural fit was very strong from the day we met the team there. The values that they have are very consistent with the values we have. They talk about them all the time. They have been a wonderful place to grow from there.

Those professional services acquisitions are hard. I’m sure we have both seen our share of them in the industry. McKinsey struggled with some of them that they made in the time that I was there, and most of the other big firms did as well. It’s a testament years later that there’s still that core team from Innosight involved in a firm still working as a division of Huron. It says a lot about how that cultural fit worked out for all of you.

I do think it was a rare good fit. Some people have migrated to other roles. Now, half of Scott’s time, he’s teaching at Dartmouth, but the team is largely still intact and extremely highly of Huron. They are a very well-run company. I’m not saying we had the option, but if we had gone to a place like McKinsey or a big four firm, we probably would have evaporated. Whereas Huron was at a nice scale where they are a lot bigger than us, but they treated us well and kept us independent, and gave us a role in helping to shape where they wanted to go. It’s been great.

I’m glad it’s worked out. When you think about the different things that you have done and continue to do, what are the strengths that have fueled your success over the years, and what are the areas that you have had to work on developing?

I’d say that curiosity is a strength. It’s fun for me to go deep in learning something new and it almost doesn’t matter what it is. I can get interested in it. One of the maybe somewhat surprising things I found at McKinsey was that you could every business is super interesting once you start learning about it. I did a thing where I had to learn a lot about cranberry farming. I don’t know if we ever worked on anything together, JR, but maybe more in the high-tech space. If you love learning, that’s one thing that’s been helpful, particularly in this type of work.

Every business is super interesting once you start learning about it in every industry. Click To Tweet

They say your strengths and also your weaknesses. My challenge has always been to be more practical rather than theoretical and interested in understanding things in an academic way, but to learn both in terms of what I do day to day, and how I help our clients be more pragmatic. It’s not natural. I’d be happy to sit around talking about ideas and that’s not what companies need. They need help with very urgent and practical things. I have to focus on that to do a good job there.

Is there a particular way that you worked on getting better at that over the years?

Part of it is assembling teams with people that complement you. There are some people who are very good at that. I tend to work well with people that are very good at that, and then recognize that it’s practicing what it means to come up with an actionable recommendation. Getting deeper into the operational side of how companies get stuff done, and focusing on that in terms of the output of our work is the main thing. I don’t think I have gotten any better in terms of my natural abilities, but you focus on learning what you need to learn and go from there. I’m sure you have seen the power of a team with complementary skillsets. I’d be curious how you would answer that question and what you have seen works.

I would describe being a more empathetic leader as something that I have had to work on over the years. I’m certainly not natural at it. For me, it was recognizing in myself that was not something that I was particularly strong at, observing others, paying attention to people who were very good at it and what they did, and figuring out a way to make that work for me because you can’t be empathetic in somebody else’s way.

In particular, you have to be empathetic in your own way. That’s where being authentic, especially matters. I have worked and practiced and seen how people have reacted to things and the positive and negative feedback that I have gotten. Over time, you get better just from that triangulation. It sounds like it started for you with an element of realizing that this is not your natural tendency, but committing to learn it well enough to at least build it into your repertoire.

That’s very well said. That’s a very good and succinct way of saying it.

Conscious of time, if you were thinking back to your 22-year-old self graduating from Duke and heading off into the world, what career advice would you have given yourself back then?

I would advise myself to worry less about having everything mapped out. Find a place where you believe in what you are doing and you are working with good people, but beyond that, it’s about learning, growth, development, and having experiences that help broaden what you can do. At that time in your life, you don’t know what it is you are going to want to do or what you are good at, what you like and what you don’t like.

As I described my path, I took quite a few turns along the way. I was always worried about what’s my plan. Where is this going? How is this going to evolve into some career over time? I would look at it differently now. I would think about the learning and the growth and development opportunities more because you don’t know what’s going to come up. It’s hard to plan out especially when you are young and maybe you don’t know what it is you are going to like.

You don’t know what you are going to like and you didn’t know about McKinsey. I didn’t know about McKinsey. We both had memorable, positive experiences working there despite the fact that the hours were long. That shaped your direction. It shaped my direction and that was something neither one of us knew about when we were graduating from college.

I’m curious, what advice would you give your 22-year-old self?

The advice I would probably give to my younger self is to focus on being more open. I’m a very strong J if you are familiar with Myers-Briggs, as I’m sure you are. I’m rushing to a conclusion and I have had to learn over the years also to be a bit more open to opportunity and serendipity. In some ways, the empathy is a bit about getting to be more open to how others think about things and see the world. Those two things go together for me, but that’s what I would describe. Any final thoughts you want to share before we break?

No. That was a good discussion. I appreciate you having me on and interesting questions to talk about. It’s fun to reminisce a little bit about some of our shared experiences.

It’s fun to reminisce as well. Thanks, Dave. I appreciate it. Have a good rest of your day.

Thanks. You too.

It was great catching up with Dave to discuss his work at Innosight. The broader research he’s done into innovation and customer centricity, and his own career journey as well. If you want to learn more, you can certainly pick up one of Dave’s books at your favorite bookseller. If you are ready to take control of your career, you can visit If you’d like more regular career insights, you can become a PathWise member. It’s free. You can also sign up on the website for the PathWise newsletter and follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and YouTube. Thanks, and have a great day.


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About Dave Duncan

CSCL 59 | Disruptive InnovationDave Duncan is a Senior Partner at Innosight, which focuses on helping leaders to develop customer-centric teams, strategies, and organizations. He has advised and written extensively on how organizations can build systematic capabilities for innovation and is a leading authority on the theory and application of “jobs to be done.”

Dave is a featured speaker and author on topics of innovation and growth. His latest book “The Secret Lives of Customers,” uses a unique approach to “solve the mystery of customer behavior.” Previously he co-authored two books and a number of articles in the Harvard Business Review, including the Wall Street Journal bestseller Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice, written with the late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen.

Prior to Innosight, David worked as a consultant at McKinsey & Company and earned a PhD in physics from Harvard and a Bachelor’s degree from Duke. He and his family live in Rhode Island.


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