In 1997, Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen published his first seminal work, The Innovator’s Dilemma, which laid out a concept he termed “Disruptive Innovation.” It took a few years for the book to catch on, but eventually its tightly-reasoned, well-evidenced and counter-intuitive approach found deep resonance with innovators worldwide.
Then something odd happened. As people discussed the concept more widely, those who had only passing familiarity with it began to use the term “disruptive innovation” in their own ways. They deployed it to describe pretty much anything, not using the clear definition laid out in Christensen’s work: an innovation that relegates some existing performance dimensions in order to lower a product’s or service’s costs radically or improve its accessibility. The “disruptive innovation” term was used so widely that, for many, it became almost meaningless.
We are now seeing the same watering-down phenomenon occur with another legacy of Christensen’s work, “Jobs to be Done.” This concept stipulates that people do not seek to buy products or services but, rather, to accomplish certain Jobs that arise in their lives. They go to Starbucks, for example, not just for coffee but also to indulge, have a place to stay for a short period, and feel perked up for the morning. Using the lens of Jobs to be Done allows companies to open new avenues for innovation, thinking far more three-dimensionally about their business models and customers’ experiences. Christensen (who served as my mentor in consulting for close to six years) first wrote about Jobs in his 2003 book, The Innovator’s Solution. The concept took more than a decade to take root, but interest has grown steadily.
Oversimplifying Jobs to be Done happens in two key ways: 1) people position what they have been doing for decades as the hot new concept of Jobs, trying to fit old wine into new bottles so to speak, and 2) people who encounter the “Jobs to be Done” concept, do not conduct deep research into the methodology, and believe they can deploy it without that foundation.
Unfortunately, truly powerful business ideas do not work like this. The details matter greatly. I first learned this lesson after having studied market segmentation throughout my M.B.A. program. I thought I really understood the topic, then I started at Bain & Company consulting on some very thorny problems and realized the way that one applies basic concepts makes all the difference.
With Jobs to be Done, there are five common misapplications:
1. Jobs are listed devoid of context, blending away the richness of individual experiences and details that may in fact illuminate innovation opportunities. It is critical to know, for example, that a person who is alone at a bakery may choose to indulge, such as by having a pastry, more often than a nearby group of patrons, who rely on that same venue to fulfill the different Job of finding a place to gather together and talk before a Sunday matinee.
2. Jobs are framed exclusively in a rational, functional manner. One company I encountered, for instance, believed its diabetes care products were being chosen to help patients accomplish the Job of managing their blood sugar values. That was true, in part, but the company’s belief did not explain why patients still drank sugary sodas, did not bring their blood sugar data to their doctors’ appointments, and tested their blood only irregularly. Human beings are not robots – whether the market is business-to-consumer (B2C) or business-to-business (B2B) – and listing stakeholders’ motivations in a mechanistic way may lead companies terribly astray.
3. Jobs are not organized in hierarchies or with respect to how they relate to each other. Identifying 85 distinct Jobs to be Done gives a company very little workable information. Companies would benefit from prioritizing and framing their propositions to customers in simple constructs that resonate. There needs to be a set of “whys” that tie Jobs together in order to make the resulting insights coherent. Why, for instance, does the frothiness of a cappuccino really matter? Not only because the drink tastes lighter and seems less filling, but also because frothiness signifies that the barista paid careful attention to the drink order (and hence to the customer) and that the customer will enjoy an experience that will not happen at home.
4. There is no conflict to resolve among Jobs. Breakthrough products usually do not succeed because they do everything better, all at once. Rather, they find new routes to resolve tensions that people encounter in attempting to satisfy key objectives. Starbucks, for example, managed to make people pampered while keeping service times relatively quick. It also delivered personalized service in a highly reliable manner. Tensions that exist between Jobs create opportunities for companies to differentiate their products or services.
5. The questioning technique used by the researchers is wrong. A long time ago, I was involved in a project that tried to understand customers’ priorities in a new car. We went about it straightforwardly enough, asking people to prioritize a large set of things. The number one Job people said was important? Stopping the car quickly. The number of people who actually buy a car based on its brakes? Close to zero. Paint (catering to Jobs related to self-expression and creating uniqueness) sells far more cars than brakes do. We had asked the wrong question in the wrong way. If you ask people about their motivations, they tend to answer very sensibly, but the reality of life is often far messier. Understanding core impulses – Jobs to be Done – requires triangulation and oblique lines of questioning so that people reveal their real thoughts and purchase processes, rather than shunting them into convenient constructs that seem reasonable but fail to honor how decisions occur in practice.
Many of the mistakes listed above are obfuscated by the examples touted by would-be practitioners of Jobs to be Done. Those case studies tend towards simple, very well-understood, super-rational products like construction hardware, whereas many of the most valuable innovations lie in complex, fuzzy fields like financial services, social media, and fashion. An acid test of the Jobs to be Done methodology should reveal how this approach works not only in easy circumstances but also in challenging ones. If Jobs can help explain the complicated web of stakeholders’ priorities and decisions, then the method also is primed to succeed with what is simple.
As with Disruptive Innovation and other significant business concepts, there are right and wrong ways to deploy Jobs to be Done. Keeping the above list in mind will help steer you to complex yet coherent results which do justice to a marketplace’s nuances while indicating where great opportunity exists.
More of this approach is featured in my book JOBS TO BE DONE: A Roadmap for Customer-Centered Innovation.
The Blake Project Can Help You Create A Bolder Competitive Future In The Jobs To Be Done Workshop
Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Growth and Brand Education