By Steve Wunker
This blog first appeared as Steve Wunker’s piece for Forbes
As school ends about now, many families – including mine – find the topic of college choices coming up. Kids feel pressure to get into their top school, of course. But even if they can achieve that goal, and they can afford the attendance, there are so many options that they seem paralyzed by choice. What to do?
I was reminded of a portion of my book Jobs to be Done written a few years ago about my son asking to go to a New England Patriots NFL game with a bunch of friends. That would have been…expensive. So I asked him more deeply about his motivations and priorities – the jobs that he was trying to get done. He wanted a bonding experience that his friends could talk about afterward, an event that was exciting, and something out of the ordinary. Cool: we went to a Major League Soccer game instead, where we could be far closer to the action, meet the players, invite a lot of friends, and still come out far ahead financially. College selection is an occasion for using these methods.
Fortunately, Forbes contributor Michael Horn and Bob Moesta published a book called Choosing College last year which delves into these issues. Based on over 100 interviews with students who had recently selected a wide range of colleges, they discerned five overarching jobs to be done which guided their choices:
The nature of their work covered students from traditional high schoolers seeking a four-year residential experience to adult learners seeking a career change. So, some of these five jobs may not be that pertinent for your family. What you can do – as Horn and Moesta suggest in their book – is to try to discern your own children’s priorities.
Critically, you must avoid a tempting question: What kind of college do you want to go to? It jumps straight to the solution, and – after 15 years of applying Jobs to be Done methodologies – I can assure you that you will miss a huge potential trove of findings by doing so. It would be as if I had asked my son after he’d expressed his desire to see the Patriots game, “Easy opponent or hard?” Wrong tack.
Equally, don’t go to the other extreme and put the whole methodology into one uber-question: What do you want to get done by going to college? That is what we call a Martian Market Researcher question. It’s good to be removed from the hullaballoo of our usual perceptions and lenses, but this question isn’t framed in human language. People don’t think this way.
Instead, go at this obliquely. When BMW first studied the potential market for relaunching the Mini brand in the 1990s, they didn’t even reveal they were researching cars; instead, they inquired about peoples’ overall priorities, and they discovered that the need for uniqueness and self-expression was a frustrated one which they could anchor their car’s identity around. Use a similar tack with your child, stepping into the subject of college choices bit by bit. Here are some suggested lines of questioning, in sequence as you gradually address the topic more directly:
Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive. If the conversation is going well, you’ll cover a lot of topics you hadn’t anticipated. That’s good – this conversation is meant to be exploratory.
I know, I know. Teenagers might just want to grunt a response. Market researchers have the privilege of paying people for their time, so they’re required to answer. For family, you have to find the right moment to have these conversations and give the kid plenty of time to answer discursively. That’s fine; the human mind seldom works in strictly linear ways, particularly when the subject is so emotionally fraught. Give them space to talk things through, and then gently guide the discussion back to the key issues or spread the conversation out over a few talks. You may well find that they need to address these questions in small steps, and that’s perfectly OK.
I can remember being asked all too many times, “What kind of college do you want to go to?” How I hated that question! Don’t fall into the same trap. By using Jobs to be Done techniques, you can get a truer, more detailed, and more useful set of responses. Just as in business, in personal life the secret to getting great answers lies in asking great questions.
Click for a more detailed explanation of how to research Jobs to be Done.