Jobs To Be Done

This year, I was sitting with a rather baffling question. What if there is a kind of successful product in the market, you do lots of research and such. But in the end, you still ask yourself: so what are those users really doing there? You can always ask them nicely. But you know, there’s this difference between stated preferences and reality. Ask people, and they read the NY Times and watch CNN. See the data, and you won’t believe what happens next.

Right. Stated preferences mostly reveals more about the guy asking than what’s really going on. People try to keep up appearances. That’s the human condition. If you’re not a registered sociopath or a saint or another type of fringe personality.

All users lie. But only if you ask.
All users lie. But only if you ask for it.

#JTBD to the rescue

Guess what. There’s a really nice solution out there. Because the problem of not knowing what your customers really do and want is a fairly common one. Clayton Christensen, professor at the Harvard Business School, came up with the concept in the 90ies.

Jobs To Be Done refers to the core concept behind: people don’t buy “a product”. They “hire” a product to get a “job” done. Have a look at those four guys in a subway car. The “job” is always the same: How to not get bored on a subway ride. But three totally different products got “hired”. A book, a smartphone, a magazine (we don’t know about the gentleman to our left).

But that’s not the hard part. The hard part is finding out what the job really is people hire your product for. Think about a newspaper publishers. A weekend issue of the NY Times is a nice thing to stack up in your spacious living room. But unfolding it on the A-train needs lots of manual dexterity, yogi-like body mastery and a certain disregard for the people sitting next to you. It took decades to come up with newspapers sized for subway rides (and no, the NY Times isn’t one of them).

One job, 3 different products hired.

The beauty of Christensen’s concept is its simplicity:

“The fact that you’re 18 to 35 years old with a college degree does not cause you to buy a product,” Christensen says. “It may be correlated with the decision, but it doesn’t cause it. We developed this idea because we wanted to understand what causes us to buy a product, not what’s correlated with it. We realized that the causal mechanism behind a purchase is, ‘Oh, I’ve got a job to be done.’ And it turns out that it’s really effective in allowing a company to build products that people want to buy.”

You want more? Watch Christensen a bit more in detail.

To get to the bottom of the jobs question, you start with interviews. No surprise. What you want is an xray of your customers mindset when he’s using your product, when he decided to buy, and finding out what is really the job he is solving by using it. So you better start talking, and forget all your assumptions (even if they turn out right).

The interview style is pretty interesting: laid back and trying not to be leading you walk your customers along a scripted timeline. I liked it. Seems like my former journalistic life not only lead to excessive noseyness (an occupational hazard). But then, I had some help (thanks, Tor) and many helpful resources. The Jobs be Done Handbook might look rather pricey for being a self-published booklet of just a handful of pages and really hideous typesetting. But hey, it get’s its job done.

More of a challenge: most scripts, guides to scripts and examples of interviews out there are geared towards real products, bricks and mortar style. Tangible goods. Which makes it a bit hard to follow advice like “build around the Point of Sales“. As the PoS will be most likely your customer’s living room.

But hey, I got it to work. It’s just that the how part might have to become another post.

Community Organizer vs Top Down CEO

How does a business work? In the pre-election days, Romneyites blasted Obama for having no business experience at all. Here’s the former community organizer from Chicago, in the other corner watch the earth shaking CEO. So who’s got business experience? Who can save the economy?

As strong as this narrative sounds, it has a major shortcoming: it’s based upon a perception of business coming straight from the era of the “Mad Men”. Monolithic entities competing in well defined markets. Strong hierachies, wth strong men on top. Who are on top, because they not only are stronger than their underlings, but because they know better (because being on top of the hierarchy, all communications are channeled towards them).

Be it a local grocer or a global behemoth: top down decision making ruled OK. And once upon a time, this might have been a working paradigm. Like any well standing 60 ton cold blooded quasi-reptile had every right to scoff at those pesky mammals, which couldn’t even lay a decent egg.

Top down businesses mimick the dinosaur model: a large body commanded by a tiny head. It’s ruling principle is the vulgar confucianism of the stereotypical kung fu flick: the higher the rank of the guy you have to fight, the better his kung fu. It’s preferred development model is the waterfall process. First define all details, then execute.

The more unstable the environment, the riskier this process model becomes. As daddy already knows best, feedback loops are perceived as a hindrance. Which leads us to the the community organizer model.

Coming from the realm of software development, agile methods are gaining traction in other areas as well. Instead of central planning, those methods are based upon constant iteration based upon the feedback of different stakeholders. It’s somewhat related to community organizing, at least in my understanding.

To be sure, I have not the faintest idea what Obama really did his community organizing days. But let’s first get rid of one misunderstanding. The counter position to Top Down is NOT Bottom Up, at least not in my textbook. Bottom up would be a nicely humming worker’s collective. And just like with top down (AAPL!), there are examples of bottom up entities doing really good (sic). But bottom up and top down share the same problem: both structure are highly inflexible.

Agile methods think in stakeholders. Business owner and customers, marketing and development, production and legal: all those units are made of people, who have to give their constant inputs. It’s all fast iterations, everything’s broken down into easily digestible pieces. It’a a cooperative process with some kind of a community organizer, well, organizing it.

Top down large organization usually do not listen for input. Which sometimes leads to quite fascinating results. In a multinational I once stumbeld into the following situation: as an external consultant I was hired to manage a project. Turns out, there were three different parallel process flows to be aware of. Flow one was the official process as required by headquarter. The second process flow was completely unrelated, not to be mixed up with process flow one, somewhat unofficial, but nevertheless mandatory, as it was the process this formerly separate unit has been following for decades. Process number three was finally the process how the department was handling things, as the other two processes were somewhat decoupled from reality.

Now, back to Obama vs Romney, the community organizer vs the Top Down CEO. Let’s keep in mind: the presidential elections in the US are big business. It’s a $6 billion business, a major stimulus program for local tv stations. And it’s about getting a really large workforce on the ground.

Now, some parts of those makeshift corporations a.k.a. know the campaigns are a fairly well known affair. Buying air time in local tv is a fairly straightforward task, with just two unknowns: will the (outsourced) creative be really compelling? And how to allocate the budget, which is even with the richest of campaigns an important constraint.

But how do you work with the workforce on the ground? Team Obama is a supporter of open source software, the former community organizer defined in 2008 the basics of digital campaigning. So how has the top down CEO been approaching things? Let me give you this purely anecdotal answer: read this example of a worst case, waterfall-like top down process, with no working feedback loops, which might even had some real impact on the outcome of the election.

In a nutshell, the story goes like this: to support volunteers at election day, Team Romney planned a digital tool, which would replace some fairly cumbersome paper processes. @JohnEkdahl, the clearly disgruntled volunteer, gives a good overview on what went wrong. Mostly, it leads back to the problem of not iterating, not listening, of not having working feedback loops. It’s the CEO with the top down business experience at work.

No room to iterate is risk management at its worst: it’s either win or fail. Which looks like an 50:50 bet. But of course not even this is true: you have only one chance to win. But a gazillion odds are against you. It’s betting everything on zero on a roulette wheel with infinite numbers.