road maps

7 Steps to Improve Annual Planning with Jobs-to-be-Done

Serious group of businesspeople having problems at work.

It’s the heart of Q4. Product Managers across the land are getting requests for next year’s road map as part of a company-wide “annual planning process.”

Some of you have talked your way out of an annual plan, “Why bother planning for more than a quarter? Every year I’ve been here, we’ve changed everything after 2 months.”

Whether you’re planning for the next quarter or the next year, you’re still on the hook for a plan. The pessimists among us wonder how they can reach an acceptable deliverable with minimal effort. The optimists have hope. Maybe this year we can make a plan that doesn’t get overhauled before we finish the first step.

Why do product road maps change so much?

Because the inputs typically used to make a road map–customer feature requests, sales team requests, stakeholder requests, new technologies–never stop changing.

But, your customer’s job-to-be-done (the goal or task that causes them to use your product) and the needs within the job do not change. You can use them as the basis for annual planning and vastly improve the stability and reliability of your road map.

Here are 7 steps to using the Jobs-to-be-Done product development method to create an annual plan that holds up throughout the year, delivers on the intended results, and satisfies customer needs better than the competition.

Step 1: Prioritize unmet customer needs
Customer Needs are the metrics customers use to judge how well the job gets done. A need is “unmet” if customers think it is important but not satisfied. Using a survey, you can assign importance and satisfaction scores to each customer need.

Here’s an example of a Customer Need:

When creating a mood with music (the job-to-be-done), you need to reduce the likelihood that the criteria for the playlist is too stringent e.g. the songs are too similar or no songs fit the criteria (the Customer Need).

In the job of create a mood with music, there are approximately 100 Needs.

The first step in annual planning is to prioritize the needs by the difference between importance and satisfaction scores–the bigger the difference, the higher the priority. A large difference indicates a large portion of the market is struggling to meet the need.

The result of this prioritization is a ranked list of problems to solve throughout the coming year and strong evidence that solving them will matter a great deal to your users. This list is the cornerstone of your plan.

Step 2: Analyze the competition and generate feature ideas to serve the unmet needs
Now that you have a list of problems (unmet customer needs) your team will tackle, it’s time to fill out your plan with solutions.

Look at how quickly and accurately existing solutions (i.e. the competition) meet your prioritized customer needs.

Remember our example:

When creating a mood with music, you need to reduce the likelihood that the criteria for the playlist is too stringent e.g. the songs are too similar or no songs fit the criteria.

If you’ve ever picked just one band to start a playlist on Pandora, you might find that the criteria is indeed too stringent and all the songs on the list are very similar. The accuracy with which Pandora meets this need is rather low.

This analysis provides the benchmark for your new ideas.

You’re looking to think up features that serve the unmet needs faster and more accurately than the competition. They will lead to people hiring your product to get their job done.

To generate ideas, gather a small, diverse group of colleagues from design, engineering, marketing, etc. Write a prioritized need on the board, and ask, “What can we do to serve this need?”

Compare each suggestion to the benchmark: existing features and the competition. If the idea will not meet the need faster and more accurately, toss it.

Keep a list of the ideas that do meet the need faster and more accurately. They will likely have varying degrees of difficulty, but you’ll deal with that later with cost estimates.

Think back to when Songza (now Google Music) launched playlists that were hand-curated by music experts. This idea served our example need much more accurately than Pandora. It’s an idea that would meet the criteria for “good” in a jobs-to-be-done idea generation session.

Step 3: Estimate new satisfaction scores
For each idea that met the above criteria and got on the list, estimate what the new satisfaction score would be if you surveyed your customers again, after they have been using this new feature. It’s a judgement of how much faster and more accurate the new feature will be.

If the existing solutions take days and your new feature only takes minutes and improves accuracy, you can imagine that satisfaction will increase quite a bit. If your new feature is only 1 second faster and the same level of accuracy, you should estimate a rather small increase in satisfaction.

Step 4: Estimate the cost of each feature
Your goal is to satisfy customer needs profitably so before you can prioritize which solutions to build first, you need a cost estimate. This is the one step that is likely not very different from what you do today. Talk with your builders–designers, engineers, etc.–and estimate the resources and time required to build the feature.

Step 5: Prioritize feature ideas by value
Feature value is a function of two factors:

  1. How many more customers will be satisfied with their ability to meet the need with the new feature
  2. How much the new feature contributes to improving the customer’s struggle to get the whole job done.

The first factor can be estimated using the new satisfaction score assigned in Step 3.

The second factor matters because your customers are not just trying to meet one need, they are trying to get the whole job done. If you’ve done the full research and collected all of the customer needs in the job (usually there are around 100), you’ll be able to see what portion of the job you are improving by meeting one or multiple needs with a given feature.

You can use these two factors to calculate the value of each feature idea. It gets a little complex, so get in touch if you want to know exactly how to do it.

After calculating the value of each feature, stack rank your list of feature ideas, putting those with the highest value and lowest cost at the top.

Step 6: Present to stakeholders
Road map presentations to stakeholders are often the most feared meetings of the year.

Product Managers have spent time with each stakeholder, understanding their goals, and collecting feature ideas from them. They’ve discussed feature requests from customers and salespeople as well as new tech that has come on the scene.

Based on estimated impact upon KPIs and cost estimates, this long list of ideas is prioritized and presented.

The stakeholders look for their ideas and fight for them. Fierce debate ensues. Passionate speeches are given. Horse trades are made.

Hours later, the team emerges from the room, exhausted and demoralized, but the road map is finalized! Everyone is getting something and no one is getting everything.

Those who think they got the raw end of the deal are onto their next mission–destroy that road map on which none of “their” features got prioritized.

Who wants to go through that every year or quarter?

A Jobs-to-be-Done roadmap presentation is very different. Here’s an agenda:

  • Remind the stakeholders of the job your customers are trying to get done.
  • Show the unmet needs, backed by qualitative and quantitative research.
  • Unveil the plan–a set of solutions to your customer’s most important and least satisfied needs.
  • Demonstrate your calculation for how getting more of the job done generates customer value, drives the willingness to pay and usage of the product i.e. meets business goals.
  • When someone offers a new idea that isn’t on the road map, evaluate it–does it meet a high priority need? Does it do it faster and more accurately than our existing ideas? Is the cost lower?

Because you’ve gone through the Jobs-to-be-Done planning process, you have objective criteria for judging ideas, reducing the need for debate and mitigating the risk of building the wrong product. Since the criteria is driven by your customers instead of your colleagues, it’s very difficult to argue against. Is there someone on your team who does not want to satisfy customer needs?

Step 7: Assess new ideas against prioritized needs
Plans fall apart when new information arises that undercuts the premise on which the plan was built. If the premise relies on ever-changing customer feature requests, sales requests, new technology, and stakeholder ideas, it’s easy to see why the plan would also constantly need to change.

When plans are built on stable customer needs, the constant flow of new data does not alter the premise and so the plan does not need to continuously change.

Instead you have a simple way to evaluate each request, each new technology, each new idea:

“Does this meet the prioritized needs better than our existing ideas and for similar or less cost?”

If no, you don’t change the plan at all. If yes, you don’t need to “pivot” or rip up the whole plan. You simply refine your existing plan–solve this list of customer problems–by swapping in a new solution for an old one.

The end of the year can be painful and frustrating if you don’t have a clear planning process that aligns your company and leads to a stable, reliable road map. I hope you find these tips for using Jobs-to-be-Done to be helpful with your annual planning.

Don’t hesitate to reach out with questions so we can help you go into the holiday season with confidence and have a prosperous new year!