You’ve probably run into the jobs-to-be-done framework/theory. I did several years ago when I first stumbled into the Milkshake Study popularized by Clayton Christensen.
I was immediately intrigued and had more questions than answers.
I read everything I could find and worked alongside several JTBD thought leaders and practitioners, including Bob Moesta, Chris Spiek, Tony Ulwick, Alan Klement, Des Traynor. Much of their work influenced the development and ongoing evolution of the Customer Forces Canvas and the Innovator’s Gift project.
But even after all this research, two things continue to bother me.
First, the commonly found definitions of a jtbd are circular, polymorphic, or purposely vague. Second, many case studies felt like neat magic tricks — obvious in hindsight but hard to recreate with your product.
I want to attempt to tackle the problem of the definition first. I believe starting with a clearer, more concise, simpler definition automatically moves us forward on the second issue.
The Definitions Problem
Here is a sampling of some of the definitions out there:
People don’t buy products, they hire them to get a job done.
A job, then, is something people are trying to get done. What is that?
A task, goal, or objective a person is trying to accomplish or a problem they are trying to resolve.
Tasks, goals, and problems are separate and distinct things. How can a job be three different things?
Purposely vague definition:
A job to be done describes the progress people are trying to make.
How do we scope progress?
You’ll notice I left out the attributions on these definitions. This was intentional. Seasoned practitioners should have no problem identifying the sources, and the curious should be able to look them up easily. I left them out because my goal isn’t casting judgment (or creating needless controversy). A lot of overlapping pieces are already laid out in these definitions. I am simply trying to piece them together through deconstruction.
The definition below helped me see and practice jtbd more clearly. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
What, then, is a Job-to-be-done?
A simpler definition
A job to be done is the instantiation of an unmet need or want (in response to a trigger).
Notes: One could argue that you could simplify this further: A job is an unmet need or want. This isn’t as actionable a definition. What differentiates a job from a job to be done is the time-boxed sense of urgency that a trigger creates toward fulfilling an unmet need or want. In other words, jobs could be aspirational nice-to-haves. Jobs-to-be-done, on the other hand, signal action.
All jobs start with a trigger.
We encounter triggering events throughout the day, which means we encounter jobs to be done throughout the day.
- It’s 12:36 pm, and my stomach is grumbling. I need to eat.
- It’s 7:36 pm, my stomach is grumbling, and it’s my wife’s birthday. I want to take her to a fancy restaurant.
Triggers are what define the context that shapes the job to be done.
Notes: Progress doesn’t have to be game-changing or aspirational. It could simply be taking me from being hungry to being fed.
Habits define what we do most of the time.
Having to find new solutions for every trigger we encounter would generate too much cognitive load, so we rely on existing alternatives most of the time (like where to eat lunch).
Notes: Some jtbd practitioners focus jtbd solely on the hiring and firing of products which implies buying or switching. I decouple a jtbd from a switch or a purchase. In other words, hiring doesn’t require switching. One could reuse a previously purchased product to get a job done.
Until we encounter a switching trigger
A switching trigger is a special trigger that comes with an expectation violation. That’s when we realize that our existing alternative(s) isn’t good enough to get the job done. That’s also when we seek new and different solutions.
In the lunch example above, what could cause us to seek out a new restaurant:
- a change in circumstance, e.g., first day on a new job,
- a bad experience, e.g., food poisoning from the usual lunch spot,
- an awareness event, e.g., hearing the new restaurant finally open.
Notes: Triggers instantiate jobs to be done that favor familiar solutions (existing alternatives). Switching triggers create expectation violations which open spaces for new solutions.
Getting hired is only the first battle.
When prompted to switch, customers often evaluate and trial multiple products in search of the one that best gets their job done—getting hired, while an important first step, is only the first step. Unless you can quickly deliver value (the aha moment) and establish yourself as the new status quo (the habit moment), you could easily find yourself on the firing block.
Notes: Getting a job done isn’t just about acquisition. Activation and retention are where the rubber hits the road.
In case you are wondering how the customer forces canvas relates to the customer factory blueprint… here you go:
The customer factory is a systems view of how customers move through your product funnel, transitioning through 5 states of unaware visitors to passionate, happy customers.
The customer forces describe the internal forces that make customers go through these state transitions.
Needs versus Wants
Needs are functional. Wants are emotional.
Needs have utility. Wants have energy.
Needs favor existing solutions. Wants favor new solutions.
There is a place for both.
We tend to focus on unmet needs to optimize existing solutions.
We tend to focus on unmet wants to search for new solutions.
Needs live in the solution context. Wants live in the bigger context.
Notes: The most effective marketing triggers our wants, not our needs. When Apple announces a new product, people have already made an emotional purchase. They then read the features to rationalize the purchase.
The bigger context is where you’ll find new spaces for innovation
Every product exists in multiple contexts: the solution context and the bigger context.
- Cameras exist in the product context. Photography is the bigger context.
- Lean Canvas exists in the product context. Innovation is the bigger context.
Leveling up too many times on the bigger context can get meta-physical quickly, where you start questioning the meaning of life. But most innovators don’t level up at all.
It’s better to level up, get out of scope, and then narrow down a level than stay stuck in the weeds.
How do you find the bigger context? While pursuing better products should be outcome driven, not all outcomes are desirable. For example, you could build a stronger drill bit that doesn’t break, delivering a better “hole in your wall.” But a “hole in your wall” is not the desired outcome.
Chasing desirable outcomes is how you move out of the solution space and into the bigger context.
Why do people drill a hole in their walls?
- to get a quarter-inch hole (not desirable)
- to secure a hook (not desirable)
- to hang a painting (desirable)
- to decorate their home (desirable)
- to express their style (desirable)
What do you do with this:
- If you are a drill manufacturer, you might be inclined to focus on building better drill bits that don’t break.
- If you are 3M, you might build strong mounting tape that eliminates the need for drilling.
- If you are a Samsung, you might sell more flatscreen displays that replace wall artwork.
If you are solution-agnostic, you could consider all three.
That’s why this stuff is so much fun…
This sometimes equates to disruptive innovation — doing old jobs with new solutions.
When you’re moving fast and constantly uncovering, prioritizing, and delivering on your customers' unmet needs and wants, you’re not pursuing sustaining or disruptive innovation — it’s all continuous innovation.
Doing this not only positions your business model for causing a switch. More importantly, it positions your business model against a switch.
Delivering on the bigger context is how you cause switches, and preventing switches is staying relevant to your customers.
How do you systematically uncover the right job-to-be-done?
Using carefully scripted customer interviews and summarizing your key insights on a Customer Forces Canvas.