The Origin Story for Jobs-to-be-Done Thinking (JTBD)

The Origin Story for Jobs-to-be-Done Thinking (JTBD)


How did jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) thinking begin?

The cornerstone was laid way, way back in 1960 with the most famous HBR article ever written, Marketing Myopia. Ted Levitt told us us that “the railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. (but rather) …They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business.” He further explains that the movie industry should likewise define itself as the entertainment business, not the movie business. This was 1960, mind you. (Years later, Blockbuster Video could have benefited from this idea.)

Levitt drew a distinction between customer needs and solutions. He further showed that solutions changed but that needs were stable. An important principle of what was to become JTBD thinking.

Next, we have Clayton Christensen. In the 1990’s, he wrote The Innovator’s Dilemma, a flawed but important work. The “dilemma” is really more of a contradiction. It’s this: Good companies listen to customers, invest in capabilities, seek higher margins and target large markets. These positive attributes help them to win in traditional, stable markets by improving their products with sustaining innovations.  However, a commitment to this strategy can leave them vulnerable to newer disruptive innovations.

He explains that sustaining innovations are improvements to current products. Companies like these upmarket moves because they can deliver higher performing products while staying within a technology they are comfortable with. But on this trajectory, Christensen asserts they will soon pass the performance level that customers can use. Higher performance can also make products become more complicated and expensive. It’s the new camera model with additional pixels. Sure, there was a time when extra pixels were better – but there’s a threshold beyond when customers just do not care any longer. Conversely, disruptive innovations use a different core technology – such as digital photography vs. film. They are often simpler, cheaper, and may even perform worse than incumbent products. Decision makers, biased and blind, look down upon the new disruptive innovation because they cannot imagine that customers would accept different products that may even perform worse.

Christensen was close to JTBD thinking – but not quite there yet. His definition of a disruptive innovation could be improved with this change: Disruptive innovations use a different core technology to accomplish the same job.

Still, The Innovator’s Dilemma was important because it helped us to see the dangers of continuous upmarket moves, the threat of new technologies that underperform current ones, and the traps of always pursuing the bigger market. It’s flawed with an overly narrow definition of a disruptive innovation however. His examples did happen to be cheaper, simpler, and with worse performance.  But he was incorrect in assuming that would always be the case. This error would be addressed nearly 10 years later with the publication of Blue Ocean Strategy. But that issue aside, The Innovator’s Dilemma advanced the JTBD conversation because it asked the right question – even though it did not answer it. The question was this, “What is common to sustaining and disruptive innovations?”

The answer is of course: the customer’s JTBD. It would be spelled out in Tony Ulwick’s 1999 work Business Strategy Formulation even though this book does not use the term “customer job.” However, other than not using the word, he describes the concept well. For example, Ulwick describes a customer need as something that is:

  • Stable over time
  • Independent of technology (or any solution)
  • A statement of benefit sought

Even though the phrase “job-to-be-done” isn’t used – the book’s definition of a need fits well a modern job definition. Additionally, it addresses many innovation myths of the day such as:

  • Customers do not know what they need
  • Customer requirements change quickly over time

Customers may not know what solution they want, but they do know what they are trying to accomplish. And where technologies certainly change over time, needs are stable. In the book, Tony builds upon the idea with this example: for the task of “Quickly communicate with others that are in a different physical location” he points out that from 1820 to 1999, the solutions changed from the horse to satellite communications. In my view, this book truly articulated the concept of a JTBD for the first time.

In 2003, Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Solution was more explicit as it spelled out JTBD using language that we still use today. Christensen spoke about the common practice of segmenting markets based upon demographics or even product categories. Christensen pointed out that this was flawed because these characteristics were not good predictors of what a customer would buy. The real segmentation should be around getting a job done. Customers “hire” products to accomplish a job – and gravitate towards the product that will do it best.

JTBD had graduated. The awkward teenage years now in the rear-view mirror. In 2005, it officially arrived with three important works:

  • Blue Ocean Strategy – Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne
  • Marketing Malpractice – HBR article by Christensen
  • What Customers Want – Tony Ulwick

Blue Ocean Strategy did not actually use the words “job-to-be-done.” But it did correct errors in thinking from The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution. Christensen had an overly narrow view of disruptive innovations – only considering those where a new value curve was created because of the novel solution was simpler, more convenient, or cheaper. Blue Ocean Strategy simply described the concept of a new value curve where some elements of performance might be higher and others lower.  It uses the example of Cirque du Soleil which, when compared to more traditional circuses, delivers higher performance on artistry, lower performance on animal shows….and at a much higher price. Blue Ocean Strategy’s concept of the new value curve was a revolutionary idea. It was quite “disruptive” itself. It challenged Michael Porter’s idea that to succeed a business had to be either a low-cost provider or a niche-player. It torched the main idea from the popular strategy book The Discipline of Market Leaders – which stated that a business had to commit to operational excellence, customer intimacy or product leadership. Such commitments are not necessary. In the end, perhaps the most interesting thing about Blue Ocean Strategy is that it’s one of the most useful books for applying JTBD – and yet – it does not refer to the concept.

Christensen doubled down on the JTBD principle in his 2005 HBR article Marketing Malpractice, sharing the same alliteration with Levitt’s Marketing Myopia.  This article contains the famous “milkshake” example which goes as follows. He was consulting for a restaurant chain that wanted to increase milkshake sales. He observed an increase in milkshake sales during the morning hours. The breakthrough was that some customers hired milkshakes as their breakfast. As such, the milkshake would also provide entertainment during an otherwise dull commute. Provide breakfast. Provide entertainment. A customer hired the milkshake to do these jobs – and from that understanding, new solutions could be created– such as adding bits of fruit. This would help the milkshake to accomplish those jobs better.

Finally, Tony Ulwick’s What Customers Want completed the JTBD story with his Outcome-Driven Innovation process. It goes like this. A customer hires a product to accomplish a job. Customers use metrics to evaluate how well a solution performs to get that job done. WCW gave us something that we didn’t have before: a process to put JTBD into practice.

In the end, Christensen made huge contributions to JTBD thinking. Kim and Mauborgne’s Blue Ocean Strategy cleared the stage for new thinking with the value curve. And in the process, exposed flaws in two popular strategic models: Porter’s Five Forces and Value Disciplines. But it was Tony Ulwick, a veteran of the practitioner ranks rather than the academic ones, who completed the JTBD puzzle. With ODI, we had more than JTBD theory.

We knew how to put it into practice.

We knew what to do next.

For better understanding, consider reading these works referred to within this article:

 Then afterwards, to solidify JTBD in your noggin, I have two more for you:

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