It’s the Jobs-to-Be-Done, Stupid!

I do product management for Spigit. I’ve done product management for other companies as well. And let me tell you, the easiest thing in the world is to fall into the trap of focusing on how customers are using your product. Product forms your relationship with customers. It’s how you know them. They will tell you about your product, and the features they want improved. You can’t not listen to that. Of course, you’re going to improve your product.

But don’t confuse that with understanding what your customers need.

Just because you’re on top of what you’re customers need from your current product, doesn’t mean you’re on top of market changes. Two titans of the television industry remind us of that. They have, in recent weeks, been dismissive of a rumored Apple HDTV:

Sharp isn’t paying much heed to rumors that Apple is developing an HDTV. Nor does it have much reason to, says Kozo Takahashi, head of the company’s operations in North and South America.

All Things D

“TVs are ultimately about picture quality. Ultimately. How smart they are…great, but let’s face it that’s a secondary consideration.” – Samsung AV product manager


And there you have it. Apple HDTV? Whatever.

Of course, one might be reminded of the comment by Palm’s CEO before the Apple iPhone was introduced: “PC guys are not going to just figure [phones] out. They’re not going to just walk in.” Ouch!

What we’re seeing is incumbents falling back on the thing that got them to their position: features. This is feature-led innovation. It’s got its place in the market, but relying only on it puts companies at risk for missing either (i) critical market shifts; or (ii) emerging needs that will drive organic growth.

Divergence between Product Features and Jobs-to-Be-Done

In the graphic below, a typical scenario for feature-led innovation is depicted. What happens is that over time, companies lose touch with where the market moves, with customers’ changing jobs-to-be-done.

When a company “makes it” in the market, it has the features that meet what customers are trying to get done. On the graph above, that’s set as “Time 0”, where features match Job 1. Given this is the ticket to success, a company will of course continue to develop these features. And the people who were looking for Job 1 fulfilled will follow along as the new features are rolled out.

Somewhere along the line, a new job-to-be-done emerges. Call it Job 2. New jobs enter the market all the time, via what Re-Wired Group’s Bob Moesta calls the “push” force. After Job 2, Job 3 emerges. And on and on.

But many companies are never aware of this. There are too many customers. Product is selling. You know your company’s product, and you’ve gotten lots of feedback for improvements. Systems are in place to reward and nudge you further along the path that fulfills Job 1. When they do solicit feedback from customers, it’s all Net Promoter Scores, focus groups for new features, surveys, customer service ticket analysis. Believe me, I really can appreciate how companies get lulled into this cycle of feature-led innovation. Professor Freek Vermeulen of the London Business School calls this the innovation “success trap”.

Meanwhile, customers cast about for ways of fulfilling their new jobs-to-be-done. They improvise. They settle. They experiment. They’re open to new entrants that meet their emerging jobs. And this is how it happens to companies.

Let’s look back at what the Samsung product manager said: “TVs are ultimately about picture quality. Ultimately. How smart they are…great, but let’s face it that’s a secondary consideration.”

Here are three jobs I’d personally like fulfilled that aren’t about picture quality:

Situation Job to Be Done Success Metric
When I turn on my TV I want a set of recommendations
based on my viewing habits
Increased awareness of
shows that interest me
When I want to share a moment I want a link to post to
Facebook or Twitter
Decrease steps it takes to
share on social networks
When I’m watching a sports
I want to order food for delivery Decrease time it takes to find
food and place order

The first two of those jobs have emerged based on new technologies in other arenas (recommendation engines, social networks). The third is a tried-and-true job that’s been around forever. Might there be a play to improve that via my TV?

All three of those jobs-to-be-done are divergent from the ongoing focus on picture quality espoused by the incumbent TV leaders.

Parable of Digital Cameras

The feature race of the HDTV manufacturers has a parallel in the digital camera industry. A key feature of digital cameras has been the megapixels. The higher the megapixels, the better the image quality. It has been escalating so much in recent years, Consumer Reports ran a piece wondering when the megapixel arms race would cease.

But in another case of new jobs emerging, lower end digital cameras are seeing their sales decline. Why? As the L.A. times noted in December 2011:

According to a survey by NPD Group, 27% of photos and videos taken this year were shot with smartphones — up from 17% last year.

Wait a minute. Are you telling me that with all that megapixel firepower, we’re gravitating toward phone cameras? What’s wrong with people these days?

Nothing actually. There’s always been the job-to-be-done of capturing moments. It’s just that lugging around a separate camera everywhere you go is a pain. But people want to be connected – talk, messaging, email, surfing – and will gladly carry their phone with them. Which is quite sufficient to fulfill the job of capturing moments. Megapixels be damned. Of course, the megapixels are getting better on smart phones too. Clayton Christensen must be amused by the ongoing disruptive innovation.

Sharp, Samsung…heck, all companies…are you listening? How well do you know the emerging jobs-to-be-done by your customers?

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter, and I’m a Senior Consultant at HYPE Innovation.


About Hutch Carpenter
Chief Scientist Revolution Credit

28 Responses to It’s the Jobs-to-Be-Done, Stupid!

  1. Great points, Hutch – those under-served customers are always the biggest market imaginable, and by default, their needs are quite different from the early adopters/innovators.

    Let’s face it though – most companies aren’t good at listening. They don’t hear the complaints and seriously address them, when products fail at their stated purpose, and the far more subtle aspect of listening for unstated needs/wants? That’s like magic to most companies. It’s either a trick, or not possible, so why bother?

    Of course Sharp, Samsung, etc., in what they say publicly vs. what they are doing behind the scenes, are potentially just aiming to throw off signals that they aren’t worried, while their pants are on fire behind the scenes, OR… as you suggest, they are simply waiting around to continue business as usual.

    Darwinian market, activate! 🙂


    • And the underserved grows over time, unless a company is agile in reading the market and adjusting. Takes some “out-of-body” experiences by the company…as in, get out of the office.

  2. Hitashi says:

    Great write up Hutch.. ! So true, how we get in trap of expanding the product based on customer feedback and forget about the emerging markets.

    • Thanks Hitashi. Customer feedback on current product is immediate, pulse-inducing and subject to “we gotta get this done now!” Getting away from that is one of the bigger challenges.

  3. Great post, Hutch – you make a very good point in separating needs (jobs-to-be-done) and solutions (features).

    I think it’s a crucial skill to be able to abstract from solutions to needs. Here is my take on why it’s crucial to distinguish solutions from needs – might be of interest in this context.
    It was quite interesting to see Lance Bettencourt from Strategyn agreeing to this point in the comments.

    – Ralph

  4. Anonymous says:

    Brilliant, Hutch!

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  6. Brian Tolle says:

    Great stuff, Hutch. You’ve got the crystal ball fired up. I have only one thing to add and I’ll zero in on the remote control device aspect of HDTV’s. If Apple can make the remote disappear from the face of the earth, leaving the iPhone in its place, I will worship them for eternity. Here’s a quote from the Steve Jobs bio by Isaacson re: how Apple came to create the iPhone after the debacle with the ROKR with Motorola, Apple and Cingular. In my humble opinion, the remote is Byzantine as well. Thanks!

    Jobs was furious. “I’m sick of dealing with these stupid companies like Motorola,” he told Tony Fadell and others at one of the iPod product review meetings. “Let’s do it ourselves.” He had noticed something odd about the cell phones on the market: They all stank, just like portable music players used to. “We would sit around talking about how much we hated our phones,” he recalled. “They were way too complicated. They had features nobody could figure out, including the address book. It was just Byzantine.” George Riley, an outside lawyer for Apple, remembers sitting at meetings to go over legal issues, and Jobs would get bored, grab Riley’s mobile phone, and start pointing out all the ways it was “brain-dead.” So Jobs and his team became excited about the prospect of building a phone that they would want to use. “That’s the best motivator of all,” Jobs later said.

  7. Very nice write up on 1) jobs diverging over time and 2) the traps of feature-led innovation and 3) clear examples of how incumbents have had their focus on the wrong jobs at the wrong time (both yesterday with Palm and today with incumbent HDTV leaders). Well done.

    • Yeah, that first one, that jobs diverge over time. It strikes me as the root cause of so many companies’ going under. hey need a mix of increased awareness of changes, and an institutional willingness to do something about it.

      • Brian Tolle says:

        Hi Hutch and Alec, I think one part of the dynamic of jobs diverging over time relates to the consumer’s changing expectations of quality/product dimensions. We use the Kano Model a lot to help explain how “wow” features migrate over time to “expected” features.

  8. Dan, You wrote: “their needs are quite different from the early adopters/innovators.”

    Please help me understand what those “needs” are? I am about to launch a new product and want to thoroughly recognize and appreciate what the the needs of my target audiences might be.

    Thank you.

    Steve Chayer

  9. Hutch: You wrote: I’m not sure what the difference is between a job 2 or 3 and a new feature. Doesn’t completing or responding to job 2 or 3 result in a new feature?

    • Hutch: (Sorry meant to take out you wrote)

      I’m not sure what the difference is between a job 2 or 3 and a new feature. Doesn’t completing or responding to job 2 or 3 result in a new feature?

      • Hi Steven –

        Job 2, 3 are new needs that people have. “Needs” might be overstating it, perhaps one could say they are things people want to. For example. People have taken to sharing their thoughts and reading those of others during TV sports events and popular programs (e.g. American Idol). My job is to be able to share those moments. Now, I can just write a tweet. But would if I could click a point in time of the program, make that a link and use that my tweet or Facebook post.

        Now, when your focus is only on picture quality, you’re *not* thinking about this new job-to-be-done. Sure, the manifestation of the job is a feature. But the feature only gets there by knowing the job I want to get done.

        What do you think?


  10. Rick Ladd says:

    Hutch – I really like your concept of “Jobs-to-be-done” as a metaphor for understanding customer/consumer requirements. This seems such a no-brainer, yet companies consistently seem to stagnate and pay more attention to what they’re doing than what they could be doing. In the process, their (shall we call them) crowd-sourced design team is completely ignored. It seems they go on the defensive, scrambling to fix their shortcomings rather than working collaboratively to design a way beyond them. I guess this is just another job-to-be-done wrt the use of social media to truly communicate with, rather than react to and direct, consumers.

    • It’s so prevalent, I don’t think it’s a case of specific personality types attracted to product/strategy jobs who are extremely tone-deaf. Rather, it’s deeply ingrained into the process itself. Everything is about the success you’re having, not the changes that are happening.

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  17. Al says:

    This post reminds me of the Total Experience Model which I developed last year and presented at SXSW and use in my day to day as a product manager. The job to be done is similar to what i called “activity needs”. it also goes one level higher though, to life needs. check out a blog post I wrote on the topic. the book referred to there has more detailed as well.

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