On the Utility of Thinking in Terms of Jobs-to-Be-Done

Cottonball clouds In a recent post examining the future of retail, I used the jobs-to-be-done approach to break down the industry. And I’ve been using it more in other ways. It’s quite useful as a basis for innovation.

The premise of the jobs-to-be-done approach is that it provides a much better basis for innovation. The focus is on unmet needs of customers. Compare this to asking wide open, pie-in-the-sky types of questions.

I thought about this when I saw this question posted on Quora:

What currently nonexistent websites would you want to be created?

Wow. Talk about an open ended question. I don’t know about you, but that question doesn’t help me. I get brain freeze. I need a prompt to come up with something. Wide open questions like that are somewhat divorced from what people actually need. And will generate a lot of ideas off the mark, or none because it’s too divorced from what people are thinking about (although one guy has an idea there).

Now I’ll describe a different situation. For Spigit, I often find myself needing to come up with a new idea to show off the system functionality. If I used that question from Quora, I’d find myself straining to generate ideas that pass the smell test.

So instead, I’ve been using the jobs-to-be-done framework. I think of my own jobs-to-be-done. Here’s one I actually used to come up with an idea for a client demo:

When I’m traveling with my family on vacation, I want to keep the kids entertained happily the entire trip.

From this job-to-be-done, I came up with an idea for a long haul family SUV (or could be a minivan). It’d have storage for games, and a flat surface for playing them. A refrigeration unit on board to keep beverages and food fresh. Multimedia for videos, music and games. It would take some design genius to develop. But it’s a vehicle I’d actually take a good look at.

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And that’s the point. The jobs-to-be-done approach is incredibly useful for generating ideas that are relevant and actually have potential. You’re plumbing the depths of what people really feel and what they actually want to accomplish. A powerful head start on innovating.

OK, let’s take this one out with a little Holiday Road.


5 Social Business Truths

Meritocracy trumps hierarchy: Companies don’t get a “pass” on Wall Street or the London Exchange becauswe they’re been around way before new companies. Political candidates aren’t immune from beingf being upended when they don’t perform. Why should work be any different? Companies that focus on the meritocracy are focused on growth. Those that pay too much attention to hierarchy are limiting their growth.

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Knowledge and ideas want to be free: When you learn something new, ever feel the urge to share it? When you know something that can help, don’t you want to answer a question? When you have an idea, isn’t it great to bounce off others? From a behavioral and technological perspective, we want knowledge and ideas to be free. Why lock ’em down?

Cognitive surplus must be a competitive advantage: Cognitive surplus – knowledge, perspectives, heuristics – is perhaps one of the most wasted assets organizations have. Each person’s surplus can be applied to a much greater range of problems and opportunities than what defines the daily tasks of her day. It’s a shame if employees go home every day without going beyond their job titles at the office.

Social and interest graphs generate positive returns: Activity streams, notifications, public interest spaces, recommendations – these new tools are exposing people to a greater range of relevant information than ever before. We’re not limited to our immediate cubicle neighbors. We are part of larger social and interest graphs. This increases the diversity of inputs, which increases our own, and organizational, odds of finding optimal solutions.

Transparency raises organizational IQ: When the left hand knows what the right hand is doing, we operate more effectively. Knowing the different initiatives, information and problems affecting other parts of the organization makes us better prepared in our own work. Operating in a vacuum sucks, because you get knocked over hard by things you don’t know. Transparency of information and conversations makes everyone smarter in their own work.

Carving Up the Retail Industry by Customer Jobs to Be Done

Online retailers had a heck of 2011 holiday season, up 15%. Whew, in a tough economy no less. But the news wasn’t as good for some physical retail stores. Sears Holdings announced disappointing sales and will be closing over 100 stores. Best Buy same store sales dropped, and some have expressed their sentiment that the retailer is on a long downward slide.

Digital disruption. Coming to a store near you.

That online and mobile commerce is increasing its share of business really isn’t a surprise. The  Internet, as promised in the 1990s, is turning over many industries.

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Retail being another such industry, although it’s a much slower process of disruption. Which means the physical retailers have time.

Time to take their natural advantages and build on them.

Determining Physical Retailers’ Competitive Advantage

Given the retail industry’s importance to the global economy and its periodic restructuring, it should come as no surprise that there’s plenty of advice for the industry. Three of the larger, well-known consultancies weigh in.

Booz and Co.’s Karla Martin sees a need for retailers to reduce selections and assortments. Bain’s Darrell Rigby sees omnichannel engagement with customers as the path for physical retailers to re-assert themselves.

In both Booz’s and Bain’s advice, there are elements of incorporating the jobs for which a customer hires a retailer. In the Booz piece, it’s a curation job: “Help me navigate an increasingly overloaded product landscape!” In the Bain piece, it’s a…well, not entirely sure what job is being satisfied. It appears to combine several customer jobs to be done. It is also a good thought piece about future industry infrastructure requirements.

These advice pieces raise the question of how to drill deeper into customer needs. Go beyond the meta trends and get specific around customers. Consulting firm McKinsey offers this thought:

“One way that manufacturers and retailers can investigate these trends is through consumer surveys designed to identify ‘purchase drivers’ – meaning those factors that are decisive in the decision to buy a product or shop at a certain retailer. This survey should not only cover conventional topics like price, quality, and service but also such factors as corporate responsibility and traceability of product origin.”

Survey fatigue notwithstanding, McKinsey starts down the right path. Get the customers’ input. McKinsey talks in terms of purchase drivers. An example of such an influence is convenience, deemed to include shopping ease and practicality.

But does that go deep enough? The risk here is that only surface-level influences are elicited, while the real drivers are buried deeper. A case of “what they say” vs. “what they do”.

A good alternative to get deeper into customers’ minds? The jobs-to-be-done approach.

Components of a Job-to-Be-Done

To create a jobs-to-be-done structure, I’ve followed the work of Strategyn’s Tony Ulwick and Lance Bettencourt, and Re-Wired Group’s Bob Moesta. They’re practitioners who have been working with organizations for years.

Ulwick and Betterncourt have defined the structure of a desired outcome statement (pdf link):

  • Direction of improvement
  • Unit of measure
  • Object of control
  • Contextual clarifier

As example, he gives:

Minimize…the time it takes…to verify the accuracy of a desired outcome…with a customer…e.g. its meaning, completeness, exactness, etc.

Bob Moesta has identified four influences on how a customer decides what product will satisfy a job to be done.

Push (F1): The situation which is driving a person to seek a solution. What is it we’re dealing with? What’s the impetus?

Pull (F2): The promise of a new solution that can satisfy the need. As customer’s consider a new solution, how well does it map to their needs?

Allegiance (F3): The familiarity of an existing solution is a risk mitigator, leverages already learned usage and known benefits.

Anxiety (F4): The unknown characteristics of the new solution, and the potential missteps that await. Would if the new solution isn’t all it’s advertised to be?

I like both forms of analysis, they are quite complementary. So I combined Ulwick, Bettencourt and Moesta’s work to use as an analytical tool.

Retail’s Jobs to Be Done

There are many jobs that retail must fulfill for customers. Below, I’ve picked four of them for analysis. Four that are ones you’d probably see as well. Each job has a defined outcome statement, and a listing of drivers which influence the retailer selected for the job. These aren’t actual customer insights I’ve surveyed, they’re from me. But they address the right type of analysis needed.

The analysis is done from the perspective of switching from a physical retailer to an online one. This is the disruption which is occurring. This perspective was chosen to illuminate possible innovations for physical retailers, or to point out the long term trend they will need to accept.
Retail Jobs - Desired Outcomes

Retail Job: Low Price

Getting the lowest price. Isn’t that what everyone wants? It’s been a human goal since we were bartering woolly mammoth skins for stone weapons.

Frankly, this job is one that will be challenging for physical retailers to fulfill. As has been noted, Amazon – and other online retailers – don’t have the overhead of physical stores. They can and do price lower. And you can see the differences, right there, on your screen.

The anxieties that consumers feel about online retailers providing this job – retailer performance, shipping delays – are there, but don’t rise to the level of overturning the pull of the online retailers. Too many online retailers have proven themselves over the years. They’ve overcome these anxieties.

Physical retailers competing to fulfill this job need scale to overcome their higher infrastructure costs: physical plant, distribution systems, inventory, in-store personnel. Kmart, for instance, is losing the scale war to Walmart, and the online retailers are generally able to outprice it.

Verdict: Long term, this job will be fulfilled by mega-stores and online retailers. But only in categories where it makes sense. Groceries, for instance, are tougher for online fulfillment of the Low Price job, due to the delivery costs of home delivery.

Retail Job: Immediacy

There’s times when you just have to have something today. Even now. Something needed for a home project. Last minute gift. Car maintenance. The list goes on and on. The Immediacy job occurs when the unforeseen happens, or the unplanned realize they need something.

So what’s the pull of online here? Well, you can see the item from your comfortable home. See, it’s right there on my screen! And even better, I can buy it right now! Hmm…not quite the same as actually having it in hand, is it?

Actually, the online retailers are working to provide the “holy grail” of e-commerce, same day delivery. There are different strategies here, although working with physical retailers is a core part of several initiatives. But the costs appear prohibitive: one start-up, Postmates, charges $10 to make short deliveries inside cities.

Verdict: The physical retailers have a distinct advantage here. That expensive distribution system that hurts them with the Low Price job? It’s a distinct advantage here. Physical retailers should play the immediacy game full tilt. Develop an app that tells customers whether something is available, and make it easy to pay for the item. Create a drive-through pick-up experience.

Retail Job: Selection

What did Henry Ford say? You can choose any color you want, as long it’s black. That may have been the case earlier in the industrial age, but not so anymore.

As a general observation, people desire with the ability to select from distinct offerings when making a purchase. For instance, when buying a shirt, isn’t good to see a variety of colors, patterns, cuts, etc.? You’re looking for something that fits your style. If you’ve got a home repair, don’t you want the right tool for the job? Purchasing for your kids, and it’s great to see smaller sizes of an item.

Online retailers can fulfill the Selection job nicely with their ability to provide a long tail inventory. If one retailer doesn’t have what you want, the next retailer is a click away, thanks to Google search and dedicated shopping engines. Online sites can also “own” a category with a larger selection by accessing buyers globally, not just in the local market.

Physical retailers have competed to fulfill this job by offering a wide selection of categories (mass merchandisers) or by going deep in a single category (electronics, books, pet supplies, etc.). One advantage the physical retailers have is the ability to hold and touch items, useful when considering a large number of options.

Verdict: Physical retailers will eventually cede most of the Selection job to online, due to online’s distinct advantages.

Retail Job: Help

With so many options available to us, a distinct #firstworldproblem, it can be daunting to navigate the product landscape. You’ve got a personal style, but could use some help in finding items to match it. There are multiple philosophies for raisi9ng baby, what items fit the one you’re following?

Shoppers want information to help them in their purchases. Beyond information, they want advice. Because a low price on something that misses the mark is just throwing money away. The Help job relates to what a products are being purchased for, not for how complex the product is.

Online commerce offers shoppers great amounts of information. With a click, detailed product information – the kind not available in-store – can be found. Ratings by other shoppers are aggregated, helping distinguish between good and bad products. Online retailers who can specialize in a more narrow category can offer expert advice.

But…and it’s a big but…it’s hard to replicate the give-n-take, the weighing of trade-offs with a live person in front of you. That’s the advantage physical retailers have. There are just times when you really want to talk to someone.

Verdict: This is the physical retailers’ job to lose. With local presence and real live people, they’re positioned to do well here.  The best opportunities lie in cases where the outcome of the product has a fairly high degree of emotional or monetary value for the customer.

Which Customer Job to Fulfill?

For physical retailers, the customer job to fulfill should be a natural extension of their strengths. A company’s assets lead naturally to addressing a particular job the customer wants fulfilled. You really can look at industry structure based on the jobs to be done. And see that some long term trends suggest where retail is heading.

Keep in mind that a larger set of real customers could well describe the jobs they’re seeking fulfilled. My four above are drawn from own experience. But it’s getting input from multiple customers where this methodology comes alive. I’m sure there are some additional jobs that aren’t being fulfilled very well right now, which are opportunities for the future.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.