Jobs Theory Blog

A Step-By-Step Guide to Using Clay Christensen’s Competing Against Luck and Jobs Theory to Launch Great Products, Part 1: How to Ask The Right Question

Concept business illustration.

This is a two part series explaining thrv’s process for executing Jobs Theory. Part 1: How to Ask The Right Question is about defining your customer’s job, identifying unmet needs, and analyzing competition. Part 2: Answering The Right Question is about how to build a high-growth roadmap using Jobs Theory.

Throughout my 25-year career as a Private Equity investor, as a CEO of two Silicon Valley startups backed by A-list VCs, and as a Product Manager at Microsoft, I consistently ran into the same mission critical problem: no one knew how to predict revenue growth.

It was easy to predict our costs because we controlled them. However, we struggled to predict our revenue growth because we didn’t know what caused people to buy our products. Without understanding purchasing causes, we couldn’t accurately predict how changes to our products would accelerate our revenue growth.

Ten years ago, I found the solution to my problem in Jobs-to-be-Done innovation theory (aka Jobs Theory), the subject of Clay Christensen’s new book, Competing Against Luck. The central idea behind Jobs Theory is, “your customers are not buying your products, they are hiring them to get a job done.”

If you understand what that job is, you can identify what causes customers to hire your products. As a result, you can make improvements to your products that will get the job done better. This is the key to mitigating investment risk and forecasting revenue accurately.

In the book, Clay states, “a job has an inherent complexity to it: it not only has functional dimensions, but it has social and emotional dimensions too.” This is why “in practice, seeing a job clearly and fully characterizing it can be tricky.”

After a decade of practicing Jobs Theory with companies ranging from $50 million to $50 billion in revenue, I couldn’t agree more with Clay. Identifying the job your customers are hiring your product to do is very difficult. Yet for the companies I’ve worked with, it has been the difference between declining or accelerating revenue growth.

Competing Against Luck is a deep exploration of Jobs Theory, but Clay is clear about “not attempting to be comprehensive or provide a step-by-step manual.”

In my time working with Jobs Theory, I learned that companies need a step-by-step process to turn the theory into high-growth products. That’s why I started thrv — to provide training, services, and software that enable executives and product teams to execute Jobs Theory successfully.

For those of you wondering how to use Jobs Theory to launch great products, here’s a step-by-step guide (in two parts) that maps a decade of practice to the theory in Competing Against Luck.

Step 1: Define your customer’s jobs.
In Competing Against Luck, Clay and his fellow authors suggest:

…define a job as the progress that a person is trying to make in a particular circumstance…a job has an inherent complexity to it: it not only has functional dimensions, but it has social and emotional dimensions too.

Rather than combine the functional, social, and emotional dimensions into one complex job statement, in practice I’ve found it easier to separate jobs into three different types:

  • Functional Jobs
  • Emotional Jobs
  • Consumption Jobs

Let’s look at each.

Functional Jobs
A functional job is the core task or goal that a customer is trying to accomplish.

The key is to define the task or goal independently from any product, service or technology.

As Clay says, “we don’t ‘create’ jobs, we discover them.”

“Creating a playlist on Spotify” is not a job because it includes a product (Spotify) and a solution (creating a playlist).

The question is: why do people create a playlist on Spotify? One answer is to “create a mood with music.” This is a more useful articulation of the functional job.

All products evolve and fade away over time. In order to execute the job of creating a mood with music, consumers have “hired” a huge range of products: piano rolls, Victrolas, LPs, eight-track tapes, reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes, CDs, MP3 players, and streaming apps. If you define the job with reference to the technologies consumers have used, you will be trying to hit a moving target. But, the job of creating a mood with music has never changed and will never change. This gives you a stable target for your business. Jobs Theory holds true in B2B and medical markets as we will demonstrate below.


Photo by Gillo Pontebraga – CC BY

According to Clay, “the circumstance is fundamental to defining the job (and finding a solution for it), because the nature of the progress desired will always be strongly influenced by the circumstance.”

At thrv, we state this a little differently, but the concept is the same: who is the job executor?

For example, is the job executor a consumer, a driver, a traveler, a parent, a surgeon, a nurse, a patient, a salesperson, a small business owner, a CIO, a technical architect, a database administrator, an engineer?

A single person can, of course, be multiple job executors (i.e. a driver, a parent, a patient, and an engineer) all in the same day. In Clay’s words, a person can find themselves in different “circumstances.”

The job executor is your core customer. The market exists because they are trying to execute a job-to-be-done.

While the job executor does not always make the purchase decision (e.g. a procurement officer or a hospital administrator can influence a purchase), your market exists because someone is trying to execute the core functional job. There would be no reason to purchase a solution if no one were trying to execute the functional job.

At the end of Competing Against Luck, Clay writes, “Defining the job at the right level of abstraction is critical to ensuring that the theory is useful.” This is a key step in the process.

We use three techniques to get to the “right level of abstraction.”

Focus on why in customer interviews. Ask your customers why they use a certain product. Why does a salesperson use CRM software? Why does a patient use a step-tracking app? CRM software and health apps are solutions and thus not jobs. Asking why will remove the product (which is ever-changing) from the equation and uncover the job (which is stable).

Use the Wake Up in the Morning Test. When your job executor wakes up in the morning, do they think, “I have to get this job done today”? Do salespeople wake up wondering how they will acquire customers? Do parents wake up wondering how to instill a behavior in a child? If yes, ask a helpful follow-up, “Did people waking up 100 years ago also need to do get this job done?” If not, you likely have included a solution in your job statement and you do not have a stable target for a long-lasting business.

Use Active, Goal-Driven Job Verbs. Clay writes, “a well-defined job-to-be-done is expressed in verbs and nouns.” But, what kind of verbs? Certain verbs, like “manage,” are not helpful in defining a job. For example, “manage lead data” is not a job for a salesperson because it is not the goal (i.e. it is at the wrong level of abstraction). Why does a salesperson want to manage lead data? To acquire customers. Acquire customers is the goal and thus a more useful level of abstraction. Good job verbs are active and goal-driven, such as: determine, understand, learn, acquire, enable, ensure, optimize, create, teach, instill, develop, buy, sell, obtain, identify, detect, mitigate, diagnose, treat, cure, prevent.

Emotional Jobs
We look at emotional jobs separate from the core functional job. This makes it easier to identify the emotions a job executor is experiencing when doing the job and ensures that we don’t neglect the functional job. Emotional jobs are important, but if you don’t get the functional job done, eventually your customer’s negative feelings will take over and they will fire your product.

Emotional jobs come in two flavors: personal and social.

A personal-emotional job is how you want to feel and avoid feeling when executing a job. For example, when getting to a destination on time, drivers want to feel calm and confident that they will arrive on time. They want to avoid feeling anxious about being late.

A social-emotional job is how the job executor wants to be perceived (and avoid being perceived) by others. For example, an IT professional wants to be perceived as valuable to the organization when optimizing a network. A surgeon wants to avoid being perceived as unsympathetic by patients when restoring artery blood flow.

Emotional jobs matter because if two products get the functional job done equally well, customers will choose the one that makes them feel better. For instance, if two different 401k services produce the same rate of return, they get the functional job done equally well. But, if one service hides the day-to-day data, it will make me anxious. I will choose the one that makes the health of my fund more transparent, relieving my anxiety. As Clay writes, “Overcoming customer anxieties is a very big deal.”

Consumption Jobs
Consumption jobs are the tasks required to use a solution. Purchase, install, learn to use, interface, maintain, repair, and dispose are all consumption jobs that relate to using a solution.

In the book, Clay doesn’t use the same language to discuss Consumption Jobs, but when he talks about “experiences,” he often includes Consumption Jobs.

One example from the book is how American Girl dolls were never sold in traditional toy stores but only in catalogues and then in American Girl stores. The stores in particular turned purchasing a doll (a consumption job) into a special event between a parent and their child. By tightly controlling their sales channels, American Girl improved on the purchase job. It’s a great example of how improving consumption jobs can contribute to the whole experience of getting the job done with a product.

Step 2: Identify all the needs in your customer’s job.
Knowing the customers functional, emotional and consumption jobs is just the start to practicing jobs theory. As Clay states, a product “designed without a clear job spec, even the most advanced products are likely to fail.” But, what is a “job spec”?

In our view, a job spec should include all the criteria a customer uses to judge if she can execute the job successfully. We call these criteria the customer needs, and they are metrics. As Clay writes, “A powerful lever to drive job-centric process development and integration is to measure and manage to new metrics aligned with nailing the customer’s job.”

So how do we identify all the needs (the “new metrics”) in your customer’s job? First, let’s define a customer need in more detail.

We know that all job executors want to execute the job “perfectly,” in Clay’s words. In our view, this means they want to execute it as fast as possible without any errors and without it going off track–quickly and accurately.

The good news is that speed and accuracy in a functional job can be measured, so we use “time” and “likelihood” as the main metrics to define customer needs in a job.

When drivers are trying to get to a destination on time, they need to reduce the time it takes to determine if an alternative route should be taken due to traffic. When surgeons are restoring artery blood flow, they need to reduce the likelihood of restenosis. When CIOs are enabling secure data use, they need to reduce the time it takes to determine the referential integrity of the data. When consumers are trying to create a mood with music, they need to reduce the likelihood that a song disturbs the mood.

We always structure customer needs the same way. They have a direction (reduce), a metric (time or likelihood), and a goal (e.g. an alternative route, restenosis). This structure makes needs measurable and consistent so you can align your team around objective goals.

Competing Against Luck uses the example of Southern New Hampshire University, who focused on the job of “providing [adult learners] with credentials that would improve their professional prospects as quickly and efficiently as possible.” Re-focusing on this job generated explosive growth for SNHU.

One way SNHU improved their performance on this job was by responding to financial aid inquiries within 10 minutes instead of 24 hours.

This demonstrates how you can define the needs in the job as metrics customers use to judge how quickly and accurately they can get the job done. We would define the job of SNHU’s customers as adult learners (the job executors) obtaining credentials to improve their professional prospects (the job-to-be-done).

Instead of framing the problem generically as adult learners who want to execute this job “as quickly and efficiently as possible,” we would identify all the needs in the job and structure them with a direction (reduce), a metric (time or likelihood), and a goal (e.g. obtain financial aid).

This gives us more detail about what “quickly and efficiently” actually means to the job executors.

Responding to financial aid inquiries within 10 minutes reduces the time it takes to determine if you can obtain financial aid. This is just one need in the job, but every job-to-be-done has about 100 customer needs (metrics). Your job spec should include all of these needs to get a full picture of the job.

This need structure is useful throughout the process. It helps you identify unmet needs, find competitor weaknesses, generate the best product ideas, and mitigate risk in your product road map.

Step 3: Find the unmet needs in your customer’s job.
“The Theory of Jobs to Be Done…focuses on deeply understanding your customers’ struggle for progress and then creating the right solution…”

Finding unmet needs is how you precisely articulate and quantify your customers’ struggles. A need is unmet if it has high importance but low customer satisfaction. It indicates that the job executor wants something to happen quickly or accurately but is not able to make it happen with their current solution. They are primed to switch to a new solution that meets the need.

We uncover the unmet needs with a survey that asks job executors to rate each need in the job for importance and satisfaction.

Identifying unmet needs also helps you empathize with your customers.

For example, Apple and Google Map did not help drivers “reduce the time it takes to determine an alternate route.”

You can picture this.

Imagine you are driving to a job interview and traffic on the highway comes to a complete stop. It’s not rush hour so this is a total surprise. What do you do? Do you get off and try to go a different way? How long is the traffic jam? Maybe a traffic report will come on the radio soon, but your anxiety increases with every passing minute.

Before Waze, you had no way to quickly determine if you should take an alternate route.

Waze built a business that Google bought for $1.3 billion by serving this unmet need in the job of getting to a destination on time. Waze’s app did this better than Google Maps, Apple Maps, and the radio. As a result users switched, and Waze experienced exponential growth.

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Step 4: Segment your customers.
Marketing 101 teaches us to identify a target customer. With Jobs-to-be-Done, our target is the job executors with the most unmet needs. They are the most underserved customers and therefore the segment who is most likely to buy (“hire”) your product to get the job done.

How is this different from traditional segmentation?

Clay writes, “Here I am, Clayton Christensen. I’m sixty-four years old. I’m six feet eight inches tall. My shoe size is sixteen. My wife and I have sent all our children off to college. I live in a suburb of Boston and drive a Honda minivan to work. I have a lot of other characteristics and attributes. But these characteristics have not yet caused me to go out and buy the New York Times today.”

Clay captures the essential flaw in traditional segmentation: demographics and psychographics do not cause purchases.

Age, shoe size, zip code, purchase history, etc. are all examples of characteristics that companies traditionally use to segment customers. This is also true in B2B markets, where companies segment customers by industry classification, number of employees, revenue, etc.

Here is a thought experiment to prove the point that demographics are not the most useful means of segmentation. Could an elderly rural woman who drives an economy car and an urban young man who drives a luxury sports car both struggle to get to a destination on time in the same way? In other words, could they have the same unmet needs in the job?

The answer, of course, is yes. But these two people (or “personas”) would never be grouped together in traditional segmentation and so a large portion of the market would be missed.

To execute Jobs Theory, we find customers who rate the same needs as important and unsatisfied and group them together. These are the people most likely to buy your product if it gets the job done better, regardless of their personas. They have the highest levels of frustration and anxiety when executing the job and are likely looking for a new solution.

Step 5: Identify your competitors’ weaknesses.
Once you have identified the job, found the unmet needs in the job, and segmented your customers, it’s time to identify your competitor’s weaknesses.

In every market there are multiple competitors, but they might not be who you expect. As Clay writes, “the competitive field is likely completely different from what you might have imagined.”

Did you ever think that Facebook is competing with cigarettes?

A smoker taking a break is not just seeking nicotine. Nicotine is a solution to a job. The underlying job is to relax.

As Clay writes, “From this perspective, people hire Facebook for many of the same reasons. They log into Facebook during the middle of the workday to take a break from work, relax for a few minutes while thinking about other things, and convene around a virtual water cooler with far-flung friends.”

The first part of identifying your competitors’ weaknesses is to identify the solutions people use to get the job done.

Airlines are not just competing with other airlines to help salespeople acquire customers. They are competing against web conferencing and CRM software. Angioplasty balloon makers are not just competing against other medical devices to help patients with blocked arteries improve their health. They are competing against diet programs, exercise routines, and fitness devices.

Once you see your entire competitive landscape, you can find and measure your competitors’ weaknesses by using the unmet needs in your customer’s job.

The structure of a customer need (direction, metric, goal) makes this possible. Your team can measure competitive weakness down to the second and the percentage. If the competition attempts to meet a need with a solution that is slow, manual, unreliable, or inaccurate, you have found a competitive weakness.

The competitive weakness sets the bar for how well your solution should meet the needs. To get customers to switch, you should target significant improvements over the speed and accuracy of your competition’s weak solution.


Now that you’ve defined your customer’s functional, emotional, and consumption jobs, identified the unmet needs, segmented your market, and analyzed how the competition serves these needs for the segment, you have the right question:

What can we do to serve our segment’s unmet needs in the job better than the existing solutions?

In Part 2, we’ll show you the process for answering this question.

Be sure not to miss Part 2 by signing up for our Jobs Theory newsletter. If you want to learn more about thrv right away, sign up for a demo.

2 Comments

  1. Rene

    Great article. Love the practical advice. One question about the functional job: One could argue that the job a sales person is hiring a CRM tool to do is to “sell more of a product” as opposed to just to “acquire customers”. After all, they get paid for selling the company’s product rather than “just” acquiring customers. Or would you leave the sales goal out for CRM tools because the selling part is usually not done through CRMs, i.e. once a lead is acquired, the sales person will still have to sell their product to their leads through a different solution, e.g. door-to-door, via email, phone call etc.?

  2. Jared Ranere

    We often think of the CRM as serving multiple jobs: “acquire customers,” “retain customers,” and in some cases, “support customers.” Although the last job could be seen as a step in “retain customers.” Does the idea of “retain customers” cover what you’re saying with regard to “sell more of a product” or are you suggesting that the idea of “acquire customers” could be abstracted one level up or just rephrased to “sell more of a product”?

    In any case, I think you can articulate/phrase the job in multiple ways as long as within a given team/company it is consistent.

    With regard to abstraction level, that is always the most nuanced part of defining the job. We can spend a lot of time discussing this, but the upshot is that you want to pick an abstraction level that the team can wrap their arms around, passes the wake up in the morning test, isn’t so big that you have too many job steps and needs to reasonably track, and finally mitigates market risk. For instance, “buy a car” has been a stable job for around a 100 years for companies like GM, but as autonomous cars and sharing advances, there is risk that people won’t need to buy cars and it’s better to abstract the job further. Market dynamics and technology development can play a role in the risk of certain jobs and therefore a stable definition.

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