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Jobs to Be Done Theory: Time to take the red pill…


I love movies that cause me to question my own reality and the Matrix franchise is near the top of the list.* Much like Neo ultimately chose to take “the red pill,” I drank the (red) Jobs to Be Done Kool-Aid a long time ago. Enlightened by the late Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen’s insight that people buy products to get jobs done, I had a new lens through which to consider why one product might succeed while another might fail. Over the years, as I’ve taught Jobs Theory, I’ve tried to extend its application. Here are three different ways you can apply the theory to keep your team - and you - focused on the right things.


1. Using Jobs to Be Done Theory to Fuel Market Innovation


At the most basic level, Jobs to Be Done Theory is a powerful lens through which you can identify the underlying reasons why customers buy products or services. As Professor Christensen and others have written, Jobs to Be Done are outcomes that customers seek to achieve or problems that customers seek to solve. Back to Harvard Business School Professor Ted Levitt’s famous quote: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” Help me create a hole is the job and the drill is the product or solution that you might select to get that job done.


Help me create a hole is a functional job. There are also emotional and social jobs. Help me feel safe is an emotional job and Help me look successful is a social job. When we buy a product or a service, we’re subconsciously selecting the one that we feel is best able to get our important jobs done.


If you’re at the gym, for example, drinking Gatorade might quench your thirst (functional job) while making you look like a serious athlete (social job). If you’re a gamer, drinking Mountain Dew might keep you awake (functional job) while making you seem edgy (social job). If you’re at a meeting, you might drink water from a water bottle because it will quench your thirst while also sending the right message about your values (look like someone who makes healthy and environmentally sustainable choices). Years ago, Toyota Prius owners often liked how its hatchback shape suggested to others that they prioritized going green over looking flashy.


2. Using Jobs to Be Done to Navigate Organizational Dynamics


Let’s now go deeper. As I wrote about here, there is another set of customers whose Jobs to Be Done are sometimes equally or even more important for innovation leaders and teams to address. No innovation initiative ever gets the chance to succeed or fail in the market if it doesn’t first have the support of at least some internal key stakeholders (e.g. business unit leaders, functional leaders) outside of the innovation team. It’s therefore critically important that innovation leaders and teams seek to discover and address those key stakeholder jobs if they are to be successful.


Early in one collaboration, a key stakeholder shared with us their view on how disruption might unfold within their industry. As our initiative progressed, the team identified an opportunity to disrupt the industry as the key stakeholder suggested. When the stakeholder recognized the alignment, he was onboard immediately. In other collaborations, simply spending time in key stakeholder offices (or now, considering the items in their Zoom backgrounds) was enough to reveal jobs linked to valued causes (e.g. volunteering) or the value of family (e.g. newspaper clippings of a child’s accomplishments).


At a minimum, innovation leaders and teams will always make progress if they can make key stakeholders feel smart and valued. At a maximum, innovation leaders and teams that tap directly into key stakeholder professional aspirations (Help me get promoted) or personal passions (Improve the work prospects for veterans) may unlock powerful allies and influencers.


3. Teaching Jobs to Be Done to Address Jobs to Be Done


The rabbit hole goes even deeper. When I get asked to teach Jobs Theory at a conference or corporate workshop, I always try to be mindful of the fact that the requester is asking me to be a “solution” to their Jobs to Be Done. Those jobs could be: Help my sales folks better connect with our customers and/or Help our executives know how innovative we are and/or even Fill this open slot in our conference agenda.


I therefore always start by asking questions to understand the “Whys” behind the request and also how the requester “defines success” for the session. If I have a sense of both, I can craft my “session solution” (e.g. presentation or discussion; slides with words or just pictures; high-level introduction to the content or a detailed drill-down) to address the former while resulting in the latter.


When the session starts, each of the participants in the room have (at least initially) “hired” my session simply by being present. Some might be there because they are genuinely interested to develop a new skill. Others might be there because the session gets them out of a meeting they don’t want to attend or simply because their boss will be there and they want to seem engaged. Still others might be there because they can sit in the back and have some uninterrupted email time.


Through both my session preparation and my delivery, I try to get the jobs done of both the requester and of as many of the session participants as is practical. If a participant is raptly engaged, I can tell that my session is a compelling solution to their jobs. If a participant walks out, on the other hand, let’s just say it sends the message that there was not “product-market fit.” The rabbit hole goes particularly deep when I share with the participants how my session is a solution designed to get their jobs done and then explain that, by sharing those insights, I’m trying to get their jobs done.


Professor Christensen once said he believed that Jobs Theory will eventually prove more valuable to the world than Disruption Theory. I agree and in fact, believe that you can’t practically explain the latter without the former – more to come in a future post. If you really think about it, the things we buy or consume, the choices we make, even the actions we take are all “solutions” designed to address Jobs to Be Done. We don’t buy a drill just to buy a drill – even if we don’t need a hole, we might just feel accomplished by expanding our drill collection. We also don’t drink a milkshake just to drink a milkshake or tell someone we love them just to say the word. We do these things motivated to address the functional, emotional and social “Whys” underneath.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this “red pill” journey. I’m excited as your thoughts and builds will undoubtedly stretch my thinking even further. One last thing…did this article get your jobs done?

*I will come clean right now and admit to dressing up as Neo (along with some of my old IDC colleagues who I will not embarrass by “@”ing them) to see The Matrix Reloaded in the theater.