I’ve previously described the importance of nailing your customer’s problem as the initial battle. But it’s about way more than just getting their attention. When you can describe your customer’s problems clearly and succinctly — even better than they can, there is an automatic transference where they believe you also have the solution for them. This is what Jay Abraham calls the “Strategy of Preeminence”. This same phenomenon is also at work at the doctor’s office where after correctly diagnosing you, you are more open to the prescription.

But getting to this stage requires a deep understanding of your customers. In my book, Running Lean, I advocate for using customer problem interviews and observation techniques for this but I have recently been experimenting with another approach called jobs-to-be-done. Clayton Christensen briefly describes this framework in his book “The Innovator’s Solution” which is where I first read about it.

The basic premise is that people hire products to get a job done. If you can uncover the job, it puts you in the right context for creating a solution.

Sounds basic. But it can lead to some interesting and counter-intuitive insights.

Clay and his team were hired to help a major food brand build a “better” milkshake. The company assumed they were competing against other milkshakes and they had already changed up the product many times with no measurable results. Through the jobs framework they were able to uncover the real reason why people were buying milkshakes which not only made the axes of product improvement obvious but also drove more sales.

If you haven’t heard or seen this video on the “Milkshake Study”, check it out below:

In the video, Clay attributes the jobs framework to a colleague (Bob Moesta) who remained unnamed for several years but who is now on a mission of teaching and spreading this framework. Last week, I had the honor of co-hosting a joint Running Lean + Switch workshop with Bob and his team (Chris Spiek and Ervin Fowlkes) here in Austin, TX. Our goal was exploring the intersection of jobs and lean, and from the reaction of the audience I’d declare it a success.

Here were my 3 biggest takeaways:

1. Job = Problem + Customer Segment + Situational Context

A number of you know that I’ve gone back and forth on the prescribed order for filling out a Lean Canvas where I even once did this:

Asking people to simultaneously fill out both boxes at the same time was a usability fail but I was really trying to get across the point that problems and customer segments are inseparable. You can’t define one without the other. Jobs extends this even further by adding a third dimension: situational context. People’s perception of the problem, the value they place on it, and the appropriate solution varies greatly with situational context.

Here’s a nice illustration of this via Alan Klement:

On the Lean Canvas, situational context should go into your “Early Adopter” box. Your early adopter description shouldn’t just be limited to a set of distinguishing customer demographics but should also include psychographic (or behavioral) cues that differentiate them.

Lets take a high level problem description like “Photo and video sharing is hard”. Once you realize that your customer segment is a “sleep-deprived, first-time mom experiencing a life-changing relationship with her newborn” versus “just-any-mom” (no disrespect intended), the problem takes on a much richer flavor:

2. Jobs transcend time and product categories

Lets turn to another Jobs:

When the iPad was launched, tablet competition was non-existent but Steve Jobs knew he wasn’t competing against other tablet devices but rather against your smartphone and laptop. He needed to convince you to switch which is why he didn’t lead with 10 new things you could do with the iPad but 10 old things you were already doing with your smartphone or laptop that were much better done with an iPad. Most of Apple’s ads are amped up on situational context for the same reason. It’s not about features and benefits but how and where you put those features and benefits to use.

On the Lean Canvas, this should be captured in the “Existing Alternatives” box.

Your true competition is not determined by who you think they are but rather by your customer segment’s current alternatives and the jobs for which they are hiring them. Even non-consumption can be an opportunity for innovation provided there is sufficient evidence of motivation for progress i.e. repeatedly trying to do something and failing.

Lets taking another example from one of my own products: Lean Canvas. A lot of people narrowly describe our competition as the original Business Model Canvas (BMC). First, I’d describe both canvases as operating under different paradigms and serving different customer segments. You can read about that here. But the bigger existing alternative opportunity (white space) for us isn’t the BMC but a much bigger audience of people that are still either writing (more like forced into writing) traditional business plans/cases or do no planning at all (non-consumption).

What then is the job of a business plan? The answer will vary on the customer segment and situational context but here are results from a simple exchange in one interview:

Why do entrepreneurs write business plans?
To get funded.
(notice it’s not to run lean)

Why do investors make people write business plans and then not read them?
They know the plan is a best guess but they still want the entrepreneur to critically think about their business versus just telling them how great their product is.

The job of a business plan for them is getting the entrepreneur to describe an investable business.



At the core of this apparent disconnect, is the fact that both entrepreneurs and investors want the same thing: To build a successful business. The business plan is an awful tool to hire for this purpose because it takes needless time and effort. Instead put lighter-weight tools in place, like the Lean Canvas, that help entrepreneurs spend more time building what both parties really want — TRACTION.

From a product development perspective, we’ve been continually trying to make Lean Canvas better. But what does “better” mean. Uncover the job (in this case getting funded) and it changes your perspective on what to build next.

3. When Customers Hire Your Product, They Fire Something Else

This by far is one of the biggest insights for me. While the “Existing Alternatives” box is a good place to start, there isn’t enough room to really grok the job on the canvas. I’ve developed a 4 step process for annotating the existing alternatives using a simple customer journey map.

You can use this map to systematically:

  • identify monetizable pain by scoping the problem and ranking based on pain/desire level
  • design your minimum viable product (or feature) by determining where it starts and stops and what you’ll be asking people to fire
  • craft a compelling unique value proposition that incorporates the desired outcome that customers will use to measure success
  • determine pricing by anchoring against value versus cost

Here’s a partially marked up flow showing some of these layers:



What’s Next?

The first Running Lean + Switch workshop was the beginning of what I hope to be a healthy collaboration towards uncovering what customers really want versus what they say they want which are often two very different things.

Bob and Chris have honed a unique interviewing format for uncovering jobs. They anchor their conversations around a recent switch that a customer made which could be a new purchase (or cancelation) and then unpack the job story from there. I recommend checking out some of their interviews on their site http://jtbd.org. They are simultaneously entertaining and a bit freaky because often the interviewees don’t even understand the driving forces that led them to their decisions.

“There is no such thing as an impulse purchase”.
- Bob Moesta

While I see immediate applications of this style of JTBD interviews for an existing product (like Lean Canvas where we are applying them), I am also looking to adapt them into the problem/solution fit interviewing process when pursuing a new product or innovation. The customer journey mapping process above is a step in that direction but there’ll be lots more to come.

I’m curious if you have been applying the jobs framework yourself and how. Please leave a comment below.

Also we are tentatively scheduling the next joint workshop in Chicago. If you’d like to see a workshop near you, cast your vote here.