What theory did you just use: Amazon’s new bookstore

A weekly tradition in the Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise (BSSE) course at the Harvard Business School is to have a student present a current news story from the business world to ignite a discussion to answer the question: if the theories of this course could talk, what would they say about this? If we’re feeling especially bold, we ask our theories to make predictions on how the issue might play out or on how we would advise the company to move forward in their current circumstance.

BSSE today covers a wide terrain of theory which we broadly partition into twenty one modules. A new student of theory would not be at fault for experiencing the paradox of choice when asked which theories would provide the most clarity through which to study a problem. Who better to ask than Clay Christensen, architect of the BSSE course and many of its theories, which theories come to mind as he reads the news. Welcome to #whattheory, our attempt to bring BSSE-inspired current event discussions to you.

Amazon made headlines this week with news that it was opening its first brick and mortar bookstore in Seattle. To date, Harvard Business Publishing has published over twenty cases that include Amazon in its title and over 150 cases that cite Amazon as an example. If I had more time, I’d check to see whether in any of these thousands of pages of leading thinking, anyone predicted that Jeff Bezos would open a brick and mortar bookstore under the Amazon brand.

So what’s going on here? A quick online search reveals many news articles announcing the opening, a few reviews about the early in-store experience (none too complimentary, but is it fair to judge anyone on their first day?), and just a couple of people willing to posit on why Amazon would open a bookstore.

The news came as a surprise to Clay, so he immediately turned to a couple of theories that he knew would have an opinion on the story:

- Jobs to be done

- Exploration/exploitation — deliberate vs. emergent strategy (chapter 8 of The Innovator’s Solution)

- Interdependence and modularity (chapter 5 of The Innovator’s Solution)

What do you think these theories’ opinions are about Amazon opening a bookstore? What’s the difference between the job of “I want to buy something” versus “I want to shop for something?” If there’s one thing we can be sure about, it’s that this store is no accident — there is definitely at least one — if not more — theory driving this new venture. What do you think it is?

— written by Tracy Kim Horn, Community Manager, Forum for Growth & Innovation