In 1997, Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen published his first seminal work, The Innovator’s Dilemma, which laid out a concept he termed “Disruptive Innovation.” It took a few years for the book to catch on, but eventually its tightly-reasoned, well-evidenced and counter-intuitive approach found deep resonance with innovators worldwide.
Then something odd happened. As people discussed the concept more widely, those who had only passing familiarity with it began to use the term “disruptive innovation” in their own ways. They deployed it to describe pretty much anything, not using the clear definition laid out in Christensen’s work: an innovation that relegates some existing performance dimensions in order to lower a product’s or service’s costs radically or improve its accessibility. The “disruptive innovation” term was used so widely that, for many, it became almost meaningless.
We are now seeing the same watering-down phenomenon occur with another legacy of Christensen’s work, “Jobs to be Done.” This concept stipulates that people do not seek to buy products or services but, rather, to accomplish certain Jobs that arise in their lives. They go to Starbucks, for example, not just for coffee but also to indulge, have a place to stay for a short period, and feel perked up for the morning. Using the lens of Jobs to be Done allows companies to open new avenues for innovation, thinking far more three-dimensionally about their business models and customers’ experiences. Christensen (who served as my mentor in consulting for close to six years) first wrote about Jobs in his 2003 book, The Innovator’s Solution. The concept took more than a decade to take root, but interest has grown steadily.
Oversimplifying Jobs to be Done happens in two key ways: 1) people position what they have been doing for decades as the hot new concept of Jobs, trying to fit old wine into new bottles so to speak, and 2) people encounter the “Jobs to be Done” concept, do not conduct deep research into the methodology, and believe they can deploy it without that foundation.
Unfortunately, truly powerful business ideas do not work like this. The details matter greatly. I first learned this lesson after having studied market segmentation throughout my M.B.A. program. I thought I really understood the topic, then I started at Bain & Company consulting on some very thorny problems and realized the way that one applies basic concepts makes all the difference.
With Jobs to be Done, there are some common misapplications:
Many of the mistakes listed above are obfuscated by the examples touted by would-be practitioners of Jobs to be Done. Those case studies tend towards simple, very well-understood, super-rational products like construction hardware, whereas many of the most valuable innovations lie in complex, fuzzy fields like financial services, social media, and fashion. An acid test of the Jobs to be Done methodology should reveal how this approach works not only in easy circumstances but also in challenging ones. If Jobs can help explain the complicated web of stakeholders’ priorities and decisions, then the method also is primed to succeed with what is simple.
As with Disruptive Innovation and other significant business concepts, there are right and wrong ways to deploy Jobs to be Done. Keeping the above list in mind will help steer you to complex yet coherent results which do justice to a marketplace’s nuances while indicating where great opportunity exists.
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