‘Jobs to Be Done’ Is Growing in Popularity. But What Is It?

Inspired by Japanese auto manufacturing principles, “jobs to be done” is ascendant in software circles.
Jeff Link
August 18, 2020
Updated: August 25, 2020
Jeff Link
August 18, 2020
Updated: August 25, 2020

What competes with a Snickers bar? A Milky Way? Three Musketeers? “If you actually look at it in context, and understand the job it does, it competes more with a Red Bull, a power bar or a Big Mac,” said Bob Moesta, the president and CEO of Re-Wired Group and one of the pioneers of the jobs to be done framework.

And why is that?

“Because it’s typically eaten after you’ve missed your last meal, your stomach is growling, you have a bunch of work still to do and your energy is falling low,” he said.

“Instead of asking people what products they want, let’s talk to them about what they’re trying to achieve.”

Moesta helped develop the jobs to be done framework alongside innovation strategist Tony Ulwick, a former senior product planner at IBM, and the late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. A research and innovation process that grew out of Toyota manufacturing models from the mid-1980s, jobs to be done is premised on the idea that customer motivations for buying products are often elusive, and less about the product than you might imagine.

“The theory itself,” Ulwick explains, “is based on this notion that people buy products to get a job done. So instead of studying the products and asking people what products they want, let’s talk to them about what they’re trying to achieve and how they measure success at each step of the way.”

What is Jobs to Be Done?

Jobs to be done is a research and development process rooted in the idea that people don’t buy products or services — they hire them to serve their needs. Understanding these “jobs” gives you a more accurate picture of your competition and allows you to prioritize product releases and identify emerging markets.

Think of it like this: People don’t just buy candy bars. They buy something to satisfy their hunger, give them energy or fill a Halloween basket. Knowing what these “jobs” are — in essence, people’s interests and desires — is the first step toward meeting customer demand in the right way.

Or as Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt famously put it: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

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Understanding the Customer’s Struggles

Focusing on customers’ underlying motives helps companies more clearly assess potential markets and competitors. A cup of Starbucks coffee and a meditation app, though they appear to be very different products on the surface, may be serving the same purpose: giving a morning commuter five minutes of peace to focus and reset, said Mindy Cultra.

Cultra is vice president of creative analytics at the Chicago-based product innovation agency The Sound, which works with companies like Coca-Cola, General Motors, Samsung and Visa to apply the framework in practice.

“If you focus on the motives, your possibilities and your adjacencies are so much bigger,” Cultra said.

But there’s another, lesser-known aspect of the approach that’s important too: The idea that, as a rule, consumers are very good at identifying and articulating their struggles, but they have no idea what the solution looks like until they see it.

“They’re not the product planners, they’re not the scientists, the materials experts,” Ulwick said. “They can’t tell you they want a microwave [before it’s invented], for example, but they could certainly tell you they want to minimize the time it takes to cook a meal.”

In other words: What the customer really wants may not even exist yet. Before the invention of the microwave, consumers were comfortably rooted in the notion that food was cooked on a stovetop or in an oven.

What jobs to be done does is retract the lens from a specific product or market segment to reveal the full field of possibilities. This opens the door to solutions people never would have imagined, though many of these products and services go on to become nearly indispensable: How do you reheat soup? In the microwave. How do you cook a frozen burrito? In the microwave. Doing either over an open flame seems ludicrous now.

 

The customer struggle is core to Jobs to Be Done.
Image: Shutterstock

People Don’t Buy Your Product. They Hire It.

Software companies have been using jobs to be done for decades, taking cues from early evangelists like Ulwick who left his role as a senior planner in IBM’s PC division in 1991 to form the consulting firm Strategyn and help companies apply the theory in practice. Until recently, however, it was largely overshadowed by iterative, fail-fast methodologies such as agile, which are grounded in the idea that the key to competitive advantage is building products quickly, putting them in front of customers and improving them over time as user insights are collected and incorporated back into subsequent releases.

“Quite literally, they’re intertwining the development process with the innovation process,” Ulwick said. “What we’re suggesting is that you separate the innovation process from the development process.”

While cutting that cord may be anathema to agile purists, jobs to be done, which front-loads the product innovation process, appears to be gaining traction as major players such as Microsoft, Salesforce, Basecamp and Intercom are rushing to embrace it. Why? And why now?

“Microsoft, Salesforce and others have turned to it in the last several years. There is hype surrounding it.”

Theories differ, but an underlying motif seems to be that jobs to be done drives at something authentic in what customers actually want, and uncovers the scrappy, unbridled nature of competition — which is not just one mobile phone company duking it out against another, but a larger, shape-shifting landscape where one’s potential competitors may be lying in the wait, unseen.

“Microsoft, Salesforce and others have turned to it in the last several years,” said Jim Kalbach, head of customer experience at MURAL. “There is hype surrounding it. I don’t know whether that’s a result of agile being around so long or lean is over or what. Maybe companies are beginning to realize there needs to be something more than just who is shouting the loudest to the market.”

Todd Boes, chief product officer at the customer training software company Thought Industries, believes jobs to be done’s growing popularity is likely due, in part, to the convergence of the marketplace. Citing the podcast How Would You Beat as the basis for the claim, he said United Airlines suddenly finds itself competing with platforms like Zoom to provide a way for people to meet. Meanwhile, high-growth emerging markets — such as the one for licensing customer training software — are flooded with new entrants eager to win customers.

What gives jobs to be done an edge under these conditions, he said, paraphrasing a tweet by Christensen, is that it is “rooted in the fact that customers don’t buy your product, they hire it to perform a service.”

What logically follows is this: Not only can customers leave when something better comes along, but a business can miss emerging opportunities because its focus is too myopic, zeroing in on customer support tickets or user interface analytics, rather than panning out to where real disruption is taking place.

“So for instance, in the days when mobile and video were emerging, those were nascent markets,” Boes said. “A lot of companies that prioritize [through sales-led or revenue-based methodologies] missed those opportunities, because those features and capabilities were not being prioritized since they represented small markets. I can tell you that I, personally, was involved in this. At Yahoo, we missed big opportunities because of the errors in the frameworks we used to prioritize.”

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Basecamp applied Jobs to Be Done as a strategic framework for the email service Hey.
Image: Basecamp

Basecamp Re-Imagined Email With Jobs to Be Done

Basecamp’s new email service Hey is a prime example of how jobs to be done can frame a product development and brand positioning strategy poised to shake up a calcified market.

“How many people struggle with email?” Moestra asked me. “Or, let me ask it this way, how many people don’t struggle with email? And yet the two largest [providers], Microsoft and Google, have done really nothing to help you. If anything, they’ve made it more and more complicated.”

Moesta’s firm, the Re-Wired Group, has been consulting with Basecamp for the past 10 years, and used jobs to be done as the strategic framework behind its development. In an attempt to make email fun again, or at least less of a chore, Hey flips the traditional conception of the service on its head, he said. It begins with the premise that email should be designed for receivers, not senders.

“[Jobs to be done] is rooted in the fact that customers don’t buy your product, they hire it to perform a service.”

The core insight of Basecamp co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson as Moesta interpreted it to me, “that your inbox is like your living room — and you don’t let everybody in your living room,” came from focusing on users’ struggles. “So how do you actually build in a way in which to only let people in who basically have been invited?” he asked.

This was a complicated technical challenge, of course, but jobs to be done simplified it by grouping people’s struggles into buckets of “things you need to respond to, things you want to read and receipts,” as noted by Casey Newton in The Verge.

And while there are certainly unique features to Hey — The Paper Trail for receipts and other items that don’t require immediate attention; The Feed, curated almost like a magazine filled with your favorite newsletters — these features can be directly mapped to the jobs people want to do on email. Dealing with spam, as you may have guessed, is not one of them.

To take another example, The Sound applied jobs to be done when working with two large streaming audio companies who recently merged. As part of a broader brand positioning and messaging campaign, Cultra said, company executives wanted to understand the human motivations for why people choose to listen to the things they do.

To identify jobs, or life situations in which people listen to various audio stimuli, The Sound conducted in-depth interviews of more than 3,000 people. They wanted to understand more than just what people listen to — YouTube videos, talk radio, podcasts, live concerts, ASMR recordings and nature sound apps — but their psychological motivations for doing so: for instance, “to disconnect and reset.”

This led to the identification of 10 different jobs in a massive U.S. market, in which users listen to an average of 50 hours of audio every week. Fifty hours a week. That equates to a total of 12 billion weekly listening hours. “Those numbers are almost unbelievable, but when you define the space in that way, it totally lines up,” Cultra said.

While multivariate analysis showed factors like age or family status influenced listening behavior and device preferences, jobs to be done revealed other things, such as the share of the total available market the recently merged audio companies were capturing.

“Say 10 percent of listening hours are devoted to a particular job,” Cultra said. “Well, within that job, what’s the share that your brand has, compared to your key competitors. Which also gets you to whitespace because there may be a share of listening hours that isn’t captured by a paid service.’”

 

Jobs to Be Done Has Roots in Japanese Manufacturing
Image: Shutterstock

Jobs to Be Done Started in Japanese Manufacturing

Let’s go back, for a moment, to 1985. Back then, Moesta was a Michigan State University engineering student interning at Ford. He had boarded a plane with the engineer and statistician W. Edwards Deming, whom some credit as one of the chief architects of Japan’s post-World War-II economic revitalization. They were headed to Japan to study product development and, specifically, why Toyota was surging ahead of Ford when it came to quality assurance and failure prevention.

The prevailing wisdom in innovation and R&D back then in Detroit — the importance of listening to the voice of the customer — didn’t make much sense to Moesta, as an aspiring engineer who knew his way around an engine block. A customer might know that their steering wheel was too stiff, but how that translated into designing a drivetrain and assembling it on the manufacturing floor was much hazier.

“[Customers] don’t know what’s possible,” he said. “And so trying to get something from the voice of the customer is rather tricky, right?”

But a Japanese manufacturing method called “quality function deployment” developed by Mitsubishi shipyard worker Yoji Akao in the late 1960s made things somewhat easier. The model was essentially a series of matrices designed to funnel the voice of the customer to the technical specifications of a product. It is data intensive and begins, as described on Quality-One International’s website, with a matrix called the House of Quality that “demonstrates the relationship between the customer wants (‘Whats’) and the design parameters (‘Hows’).”

“So for example, if I want to be able to turn the car, I’m going to turn the steering wheel,” Moesta said. “That has to then be translated into the angle that I’m going to turn it and how much the wheels will change. As an engineer, I understood the linkages from the steering wheel down to the tires, and understood how that worked. But understanding how to translate the voice of the customer” to their steering preference was far more vexing.

“[Customers] don’t know what’s possible. And so trying to get something from the voice of the customer is rather tricky, right?”

Along with the Kano model, a product development and customer satisfaction tool developed in 1984 by Tokyo University of Science professor Noriaki Kano, it formed the basis for his early thinking about jobs to be done. The Kano model, which holds that not all product features or attributes are equal, identifies five categories of customer satisfaction, from “dissatisfaction” to “excitement,” and weighs them against investment costs. Viewed through the Kano model, brakes or headlights might be more important to get right than the finish of a door handle.

In the early nineties, Moesta and Rick Pedi, working as consultants for food and beverage companies, hospitals and defense contractors under the name Pedi, Moesta & Associates, took those models and layered on a unifying component: the customer’s struggle. Unpacking the distinct problems people had — at a far deeper level than demographic data might suggest — was key to identifying and prioritizing products to meet their needs.

“Some people would say they want a stiff steering wheel, and some people would say they want it easy,” Moesta explained. “And I’d end up with the wrong steering wheel. Because the people who want it stiff are basically people who want a race car, and the people who want it easy want almost a luxury car. And so you start to realize you’re getting conflicting data, and averaging it doesn’t help.”

But understanding people’s motivations and spelling them out as jobs steps does. Maybe people want two different cars. Or maybe speed-adjusted steering can solve both problems at once: the solution is how you best address their needs. Thus was born jobs to be done — at least in theory.

 

The approaches of Tony Ulwick and Bob Moesta define the two schools to Jobs to Be Done.
Image: Shutterstock

The Two Schools of Jobs to Be Done

There are actually two schools of thought on what the definition of a job is, Cultra said. There’s the outcome-driven approach, modeled after strategists like Christensen and Ulwick, who define a job as fairly functional. And then there’s those like Moesta and growth operations analyst Alan Klement, the author of When Coffee and Kale Compete, who define jobs through a deeper psychological lens.

But if Ulwick’s approach sits a bit lower on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that’s due to his experience. He left IBM in 1991 after working as a product planner on the PC Junior, what he calls a “massive failure” that led to one of the defining revelations of his career: “We need to focus on the underlying processes that people are trying to execute, as opposed to some other focal point,” he said.

Ulwick’s approach, which he said Christensen popularized when he adapted it and gave it the name jobs to be done in his book The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth, doesn’t concern itself with messaging and demand generation. Rather, it attempts to distill whether there is demand for a product to begin with. To return to the microwave example:

“People are trying to prepare a meal right?” he said. “That’s the job they’re trying to get done. And we’re going to use a series of metrics to measure success on each step of the way. As I mentioned, minimize the time it takes to complete the meal, minimize the time it takes to clean up after preparing the meal, or minimize the likelihood of overcooking or undercooking a meal.”

By understanding these job steps and where people struggle, Ulwick said, “we’re able to figure out how to create products and services that will get the job done better. So our focus is on creating products that customers want, as opposed to positioning products that are already out there.”

“We’re not going into a market to try to understand one or two unmet needs. We’re trying to understand all the needs, and that way we can figure out which are underserved.”

He points to Strategyn’s work with Ontrack (formerly Kroll Ontrack) as one example. The data recovery firm recognized an opportunity to provide electronic discovery services for the paper-heavy legal industry. Initially, the company was focused narrowly on security measures, such as restricting access to hard drive data. The core job lawyers wanted the technology to serve, however, was to locate evidence to support or refute a case.

After defining the market around Ontrack’s legal team and this job, Strategyn conducted qualitative interviews with 40 lawyers. This formed the basis for the creation of a jobs map plotting 73 outcome statements describing how the lawyers would like the technology to serve their needs. Lawyers at Ontrack prioritized these statements to reveal 20 underserved outcomes related to e-discovery and information management during the litigation cycle. Ontrack developed the product in response to these outcomes and, five years later, had grown its revenue by an estimated $200 million.

“So in other words, we’re not going into a market to try to understand one or two unmet needs,” Ulwick said. “What we’re trying to understand are all the needs, and that way we can figure out which are underserved, where people might be willing to pay more to get the job done better, and where people are overserved, where people are [willing] to pay less” for an inferior product or service.

Tony Ulwick’s Jobs to Be Done Model

  1. Define the market. In Ulwick’s model, a market is defined as a group of people and the job they’re trying to get done.
  2. Uncover the customer’s needs. Customers’ needs can be assessed through qualitative interviews. Ulwick recommends an eight-step job map, outlined in the 2008 Harvard Business Review article “The Customer Centered Innovation Map” he co-wrote with Lance Bettencourt.
  3. Quantify the needs. Customers measure success in different ways. Surveys, typically involving at least 100 customers, help “to document the circumstances [customers] were in the last time they executed the job — and to rate the importance and satisfaction of each desired outcome and job statement,” Ulwick notes in Medium.
  4. Identify opportunities. Statistical analysis of survey data of the total customer population allows for outcome-based market segmentation. Identifying where a platform is not adequately satisfying customers needs reveals market opportunities.
  5. Formulate a product innovation strategy. Determine which segments can create the most value. Target them in your product roadmap and feature and service offerings.

In many ways, Moestra’s application of jobs to be done parallels Ulwick’s. It identifies the customer’s struggle as the lynchpin of innovation and understands the importance of making trade-offs. Where it differs is in its definition of “jobs.” These are not just functional goals, he told me, but social and emotional ones as well. They are similar to the jobs Cultra refers to: using music, for instance, to “disconnect and reset.” Through this lens, a customer’s motives may be largely unspoken or unobservable, though they are still important to purchasing decisions.

“If I make [a car’s] brakes incredible, it doesn’t make you love the car, but if the brakes don’t work, you’re going to hate it. Jobs brings to bear the things that are important from the customer’s perspective, the attributes that are almost assumed or implied,” Moestra said. But it also uncovers “the moments when you can design excitement where people don’t anticipate it.”

Bob Moesta’s Jobs to Be Done Model

  1. Identify customer struggles. Determine what progress consumers are trying to make, and where they struggle in the process.
  2. Target moments of non-consumption. Non-consumption refers to products or services that people would like to buy but can’t. This is often because products are over-engineered and either too expensive or too complicated for most people to use.
  3. Assess trade-offs. For some features, people are willing to devote more time and more money. Breaking down consumer behavior into jobs to be done, distinct from demographics or personas, will help reveal which features are most essential and where it is wise to invest. Because value is tied closely to context, when and where people desire a product or service is as important as what they value.
  4. Categorize jobs by their purpose. Jobs come before the products or services intended to solve them. Understanding the social, emotional, and functional context of a job is key to identifying the full range of competitors and developing the right solutions.
  5. Assess outcomes. Evaluate products and features by their ability to address jobs better than competitors.

 

Do the Right Things. Then Do Things Right.

Google “jobs to be done” and you’ll find dozens of definitions. In April, Kalbach set out to harmonize them in a book called The Jobs to Be Done Playbook: Align Your Markets, Organization and Strategy Around Customer Needs. He wanted to break down jobs to be done into a modular, accessible set of “Lego-like plays” that could be adopted by a software firm, separately or together, and put into practice.

“I had been drawn to the method for a long time, but wondered if it could be applied as a proactive approach to actually ‘get shit done,’” he said, meaning getting things done on a tight budget with a lean team and short shipping runway. “I always thought, ‘Yes.’”

According to Kalbach, a logical first step is to create a job map — a low-grade visualization that separates a job into steps needed for completion. This is entirely different from a customer journey map that tells a “go-to-market” story, from product discovery and onboarding to habit forming and renewal. It completely removes the product from the field of inquiry.

Let’s say a chicken is crossing a road, he explained, sharing a demo map over Zoom. What is its objective? What tools does it need? How does it prepare? How does it confirm it is safe to cross? How does it make the crossing? How does it monitor its progress? Does it need to modify its course as conditions change? How does it know it has reached the other side?

Ulwick said setting research constraints is also important for smaller companies. Whereas a large company may do 60 qualitative interviews over a six-month period, a startup may do five or 10 interviews over a week. Early in the process, he recommends hosting a customer immersion session, a five- to six-hour meeting where a product development team talks with four or five representative customers to determine the market, job and desired outcomes.

“This framework does not work for inside-focused, technology-led organizations. People need to know how to interview customers in a way to pull this information out.”

“It can be bootstrapped,” he said. “When it comes to quantification, a large company may survey thousands of people and do data cuts across multiple geographies. Whereas a small company probably would just want to keep it inexpensive, do one country and one language, and maybe use an established platform like Survey Monkey.”

While jobs to be done can be an excellent framework for envisioning a product roadmap through a strategic lens, it is not for everyone. For the method to work, Boes said, it is crucial to have a product team that is comfortable talking to customers.

“This framework does not work for inside-focused, technology-led organizations,” he said. “People need to know how to interview customers in a way to pull this information out. You’re not going to just ask the customer ‘Hey, what do I build?’ You have to tease it out.”

Starting small is also important. Books like Ulwick’s Jobs to Be Done: Theory to Practice and Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor’s “The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth can be good guides, Boes said. He also recommends testing the water with product roadmapping software like Thrv, which can “generate a customer effort score” for various product features and “map customer pain points to specific job steps in the development cycle,” as described in an earlier Built In story.

“Don’t try to boil the ocean,” he said. “Start with a small customer segment and get some quick wins. Then you can continue to expand the usage.”

In the end, successfully adopting jobs to be done requires a product development mindset that moves the focus away from the product itself and places it on the needs and desires of the customer.

“Agile is about doing things right,” Ulwick said. “Jobs to be done is about doing the right things. If we can take the guesswork out of innovation, we can do the right things, then do things right.”

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