How often do you get caught up in the numbers game in innovation? You are encouraged to generate lots and lots of ideas, the more ideas, the better. Then you are encouraged to “fail fast” by quickly evaluating ideas to see which is the best. But innovation is not a mixture of guesswork, searching in a random fashion what might strike a chord with your customers.

Should innovation be made up of random events? Should all those ideas be collected in the first place? How many winning concepts derive from this? We can call this the “ideas-first” approach, and this is not the one you should use to run a successful innovation program if you are looking to answer your customers’ needs.

Indeed, generating lots of ideas does not necessarily improve the probability you are satisfying a real need. So then you think a little more and say “Well actually, it really has to be a needs-first approach…” Using this approach, you are attempting to identify and understand the customers’ needs, then figure out which are unmet, and then set about devising concepts that address these spotted needs.

How to discover the unmet needs

In innovation, we have developed all sorts of methods to help capture customers’ needs. We can include focus groups, interviews, customer visits, as well as ethnographic, contextual and observational research. Each of these are great, but do they uncover all or even most of the customers’ needs? We all see “needs” differently. As innovators, we tend to see them as a problem to be solved by the best solution we can provide. As a consequence we tend to devise solutions to answer a specific need. This is the “needs-first” approach and you might strike some gold with it, but this also limits your innovation program and the value of its outcomes.

It is risky to limit yourself at answering a need without understanding where does it comes from and what it implies.

Now the question is “How can you actually capture all the needs, and how do determine their potential value to manage and prioritize them?”. The “Jobs-to-be-done” theory might be your answer.

What is a “job-to-be-done” approach?

Using an effective “needs-first approach” that uncovers all the customers’ needs sounds interesting, but then to determine which are the unmet ones makes it even better. So how is this possible?

Where do you start?

Firstly, we need a common language on what is a need. To do this, you have to describe a need's purpose, structure, content and format. You need an agreement upon a method to determine the degree to which a need is unmet, as you are looking for the hidden opportunities that your innovation concepts can fill.

As we have left much of our innovation processes to random discovery, or constrained in insights or resources, we often feel innovation is not producing the results we want. Partly, we never give to innovation the same attention, or even scrutiny, as to our other business processes. We need to turn innovation from a ‘unstructured process’ into a predictable, rules-based discipline, where we aim for clear customer insights thanks to an efficient discovery process of unmet needs.

The “Jobs-to-be-done” theory is based on the principle that people buy products to execute a job. If you know which job-to-be-done you want to address with your innovation initiative, then it is easier to identify the various needs resulting from it.

Theodore Levitt with a quote saying that people don't want quarter-inch drills. They want quarter-inch holes.

Besides, this theory offers a framework for categorizing, defining, capturing and organizing all your customer needs. Then it ties these into customer-defined-performance-metrics, which are the desired outcomes the customers are looking for to define the successful execution of the job-to-be-done. You can then use these metrics as customer need statements.

What are the benefits?

Can you imagine knowing all the customer needs? This changes the way a company starts approaching the innovation process dramatically. You can discover hidden segments and begin to identify both, the underserved and overserved to set about the pursuit of solutions that get those jobs done. By having this roadmap, you can really align the marketing, development, and research actions into building these solutions to systematically create ongoing customer value as you tackle their needs and unmet ones. It helps to focus on the best opportunities through categorizing and organizing priorities that generate value.

The key to this is getting a fix on the job. The job is stable, it’s the needs for how to achieve it , and so the technology that changes around it. For example “listen to music” is a job-to-be-done. For decades, we have improved the devices to get this job done (record players, tape and cassette players, MP3’s and presently streaming services). The only stable thing is “listen to music”.

The different schools for this theory

Before I get into the theory a little further, there’s something you should know. There are different schools of thought on how to construct a jobs-to-be-done approach. Clayton Christensen recognized the focus of an approach which should not necessarily be on the customer or the product, but rather on the underlying process. The customer is trying to execute and he called it the “job”, wanting to get it done. According to C. Christensen, it is about suggesting people to hire products to get “the job” done. This is one of his most enduring legacies he first put forward in his 2003 book "The Innovator’s Solution": don’t sell products and services to customers, but rather try to help people address their jobs-to-be-done. Recently Clayton updated his thinking through a new book "Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice” which outlines ways to help customers “struggle for progress", working through the “how” and “why” the job theory helps, and recommending to build your pursuit of understanding the jobs your customers want to get done. In fact don’t rely on luck, you are competing against it! This book would be my choice as it offers the best understanding.


The other proponent of the jobs-to-be-done theory is Tony Ulwick who has built his innovation practice, Strategyn, around taking this theory out into his Outcome-Driven Innovation (ODI). It is his work that has really set about to determining this complete search for all the needs and unmet ones. I highly recommend you to get a copy of his recent book, a very handy sized book called “Jobs to be Done - Theory into Practice”. It is an excellent read, outlining the whole concept from theory through a well-defined process into practice. It is the ideal reference point to understand both jobs-to-be-done and outcome-driven innovation.
Here are also two terrific introductions to Tony’s theory into practice:
    ■ Turn JTBD Theory into Practice (60 minutes)
    ■ ODI Overview (30 minutes)

Here is the innovation process he outlines:

schema of the jobs-to-be-done innovation process
The key elements of the Jobs-to-be-done theory

The jobs-to-be-done framework

Tony Ulwick provides in his groundbreaking Harvard Business Review article, The Customer-Centered Innovation Map, a jobs-to-be-done framework that turns the fundamentals of jobs-to-be-done thinking into an innovation practice.

This framework enables companies to deconstruct a job that customers are trying to get done into specific process steps. The resulting job map provides a structure that makes it possible, for the first time, to capture all the customer’s needs and to systematically identify opportunities for growth.

The job map

All jobs have the same eight steps. To use the jobs-to-be-done framework, look for opportunities to help customers at every step:

The job map for the jobs-to-be-done approach

The idea in brief

To systematically uncover more and better innovative ideas, Ulwick recommends using the jobs-to-be-done framework first, to break down the job that customers want done, into discrete steps. Then brainstorm ways to make steps easier, faster, or unnecessary.

For example, while cleaning clothes, people don’t notice stubborn stains until they’ve taken the clothes from a dryer and started folding them. If they find a stain, they must repeat the job. A washer that detects persistent stains and takes appropriate action before consumers execute the rest of the job would have huge appeal.

Mapping a customer job

By interviewing customers and internal experts, you can map a customer job. You start by understanding the execution step to establish a context and a frame of reference. Next, you examine each step before execution, and then afterwards you uncover the role each plays in getting the job done.

To ensure that you are mapping job steps (what the customer is trying to accomplish) rather than process solutions (what is currently being done), you ask yourself a series of validating questions, detailed below, at each step.

The validating questions

Does the step specify what the customer is trying to accomplish, or is it only being done to accomplish a more fundamental goal? Does the step apply universally for any customer executing the job, or does it depend on how a particular customer does the job?

Here are the three main questions, you should ask yourself:

   ■ Defining the execution step: what are the most central tasks that must be accomplished in getting the job done?
   ■ Defining pre-execution steps: what must happen before the core execution step to ensure the job is successfully carried out?
   ■ Defining post-execution steps: what must happen after the core execution step to ensure the job is successfully carried out?

Uncovering opportunities for innovation

With the jobs-to-be-done framework in hand, you can begin to look systematically for opportunities to create value. The questions below can guide you in your search and help you avoid overlooking any possibilities. A great way to begin is to consider the biggest drawbacks of current solutions at each step in the map-in particular, drawbacks related to speed of execution, variability, and the quality of output. To increase the effectiveness of this approach, you invite a diverse team of experts in marketing, design, engineering, and even some lead customers, to participate in this discussion.

Opportunities at the job level

   ■ Can the job be executed in a more efficient or effective sequence?
   ■ Do some customers struggle more with executing the job than others (for instance, novices versus experts, older versus younger)?
   ■ What struggles or inconveniences do customers experience because they must rely on multiple solutions to get the job done?
   ■ Is it possible to eliminate the need for particular inputs or outputs from the job?
   ■ Is it necessary that the customers execute all steps for which they are currently responsible? Can the burden be automated or shifted to someone else?
   ■ How many trends affect the way the job will be  executed in the future?
   ■ In what contexts do customers most struggle with executing the job today? Where else or when else might customers want to execute the job?

Opportunities at the step level

   ■ What causes variability (or unreliability) in executing this step? What causes execution to go off track?
   ■ Do some customers struggle more than others with this step?
   ■ What does this step’s ideal output look like, and in what ways is the current output less than ideal ?
   ■ Is this step more difficult to execute successfully in some contexts than others?
   ■ What are the biggest drawbacks of current solutions used to execute this step?
   ■ What makes executing this step time-consuming or inconvenient?


To identify opportunities for innovation, some companies focus on product leadership, some on operational excellence, and some on customer intimacy. Some offer services, others offer goods. Regardless of which business model a company chooses, the fundamental basis for identifying opportunities for growth is the same. When companies understand that customers hire products, services, software, and ideas to get jobs done, they can use a jobs-to-be-done template to dissect those jobs, to discover the innovation opportunities that are the key to growth. The jobs-to-be-done framework should be an integral part of your innovation process for Outcome-Driven Innovation.

Call to action to download HYPE's brochure about the essentials for innovation management

References and more links:
   ■ Besides the links shown in this post, I am grateful I have had the permission of Tony Ulwick to reproduce some of his wonderful content from his website
   ■ "Origin of the “Jobs to be done” innovation theory" podcast by Tony Ulwick with Nick Skillicorn - also available on his site
   ■ Strategyn Homepage
   ■ "Jobs to be done" by Tony Ulwick
   ■ "What customers want" by Tony Ulwick
   ■ "Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice” which outlines ways to help customers “struggle for progress" by Clayton Christensen

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