Jobs to Be Done is Product Management

Karen Dillon, Contributing Editor of Harvard Business Review and co-author of Competing Against Luck, dissects the most common problems with corporate innovation efforts and shares how understanding customers’ job to be done can help product teams make better decisions.


Karen has been studying disruption theory with Clayton Christensen for years. The problem they discovered was that while many companies aspire to disrupt, disruption theory doesn’t explain how to disrupt. As a result, most corporate innovation efforts fail and waste billions of dollars in the process.

That’s why Karen, Clayton, and their co-authors wrote Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice. The book reveals their theory called “Jobs to Be Done.” The theory provides innovators with a framework for understanding customer needs and building successful products.

While traditional business analysis focused on how incumbents lose their competitive edge to younger, more cutting-edge companies, they stop short of explaining how to identify or become a successful disruptor:

What Clay realizes it doesn’t say, how do you know do you know how to be one of those disruptors? How do you get that right? You know the odds of becoming a successful disruptor just on a good idea, seemed pretty small too. There’s a reason that venture capitalists and private companies invest in a lot of companies with the hopes of a few actually paying off because a lot of people think getting innovation right, coming up with the right idea at the right time is really just a crap shoot.”

To address this shortcoming, Karen and her co-authors developed the Jobs to Be Done framework, which focuses on the reasons why customers buy.

Understanding the causal mechanism, the reason why customers make the choice that they make if you understand that, you will be very likely to be successful with your product or service or company. If you don’t, if your kind of still guessing, based on good smart people making good guesses but not squarely on the causal mechanism, your odds of succeeding are not very good.”

Jobs to Be Done is controversial in that Karen and her co-authors believe that droves of customer demographic data and elaborate personas won’t help innovators build successful products as much as they think they will. Rather, Karen says innovators should focus on their customers “job to be done.”

A job to be done is not a product, service, or a specific solution. It’s the higher purpose that customers are working towards. Karen describes how this influences buying decisions:

The reason people make choices is not because of who they are, or the specific features and benefits, it’s because [they’re] struggling with something and trying to make progress to accomplish something. So we believe what we call a jobs-to-be-done is the reason that people make those choices. It’s not because of the product it’s because of something I personally am trying to accomplish and a job to be in our definition is specifically the progress someone is trying to make in particular circumstances. The reason we pick a product or service is not for it’s functional dimensions but for what’s it’s gonna actually do.”

The reason people buy a product is not just for its functional dimensions, it’s to do the job they’re trying to get done. Therefore, Karen advises listeners to understand the social, emotional and functional components of that job:

If you understand that, you will be very likely to be successful with your product or service or company. If you don’t, if your kind of still guessing, based on good smart people making good guesses but not squarely on the causal mechanism, your odds of succeeding are not very good.”

She then describes what you should be looking when listening to customers and provides a succinct definition of a job to be done:

We believe what we call a job to be done is the reason that people make those choices. It’s not because of the product it’s because of something I personally am trying to accomplish and a job to be in our definition is specifically the progress someone is trying to make in particular circumstances.”

To get started with the Jobs to Be Done framework, Karen says leadership must understand it and measure success from the Jobs to Be Done perspective. While there might be on evangelist that gets it, you’re going to need more than that.

Unless the leadership from the top actually understands and supports and measures success against the job versus all the traditional measurements of success, you’re unlikely to be successful in the long run.”

Karen provides Airbnb as an example of a company that has done this successfully. The team at Airbnb understands that people want to live like a local, not just have a place to sleep. The job is emotional and social as much as functional.

If you understand and define your products and services through the lens of the progress someone’s trying to make in particular circumstances and understand the social emotional functional components of that job, you’re far more likely to create something that I actually want to hire in our language as opposed to buy, hire, to help me make that progress.”

You’ll learn a lot from this episode about the theory of jobs to be done and what it takes for a company to successfully implement it.

Here are the highlights:

  • How does Karen use Disruption Theory to help companies innovate? (2:50)
  • What are the most common corporate innovation strategies today? (5:35)
  • How does “jobs to be done” inform product and feature development? (7:30)
  • How can companies discover their customers’ jobs to be done? (9:30)
  • What companies have successfully adopted the “jobs to be done” framework? (11:30)
  • What are best practices for adopting the “jobs to be done” framework? (13:00)
  • How can product teams track their progress towards helping customers’ achieve their “jobs to be done”? (15:30)

Karen Dillon

Contributing Editor of Harvard Business Review and co-author of Competing Against Luck

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