If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. -Henry Ford

Disruption happens when companies use technology to help customers “achieve what they already had been trying to do.” -Clayton Christensen

I recently came across a really useful (for me) way to look at startups. Like a lot of good insights, its useful because it distills a complex topic into simple statements.

It’s called the “Jobs-To-Be-Done” theory.

Clayton Christensen described this concept in this paper he wrote with one of the best tech entrepreneurs and product marketers of all-time, Scott Cook of Intuit. Recently one of the pioneers of this concept, Bob Moesta, started a consultancy and great podcast around this concept. They even have a Twitter hashtag (#JTBD) about the topic. (That’s how I re-discovered this. I initially read about it in The Innovator’s Solution but it seemed so obvious at the time that I just breezed through it.)

The theory simply asks, “What job your product is hired to do?” And if you want your customers to switch products you need to ask, “Why would they ‘fire’ the other product and ‘hire’ yours?”

I’m not going to delve into the whole theory because the post would be too long. It’s a simple idea but not obvious to apply. There are a ton of resources on this, some of which I list below. But here are the 3 key concepts for me. In a later post, I’ll talk about other points that I also found useful.

1. Defining “the job” is really complex and has many aspects.

The “job” has functional, social and emotional dimensions. This is the hardest concept for me to fully grasp, understand and apply. Fundamentally, a “job” is an unmet “want” or “need.” But the “job” has a lot of “requirements” – not just functional but also emotional and social, which suggests that context and circumstances are important. One example that explains this idea to me is this discussion here on Quora on the job that people hire Starbucks to do.

2. What people say they want or need is often very different from what they actually want or need.

See the quote above by Henry Ford. He didn’t think about the “job” as a “faster horse” but as “getting from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible.” Along those lines, in one podcast, Bob Poesta talks about SV Angel portfolio company HelloFax and the job they’re hired to do.

When you unpack this idea, it diminishes the importance of traditional market research based on demographics, psychographics, competition and customer surveys. In fact, relying too much on these tools can steer you down the wrong path.

Steve Jobs and Akio Morita reportedly eschewed traditional market research. They thought about jobs-to-be-done as universal and somewhat constant throughout time and history (see third point below).

3. Jobs evolve much more slowly than we think.

As Christenson says, “at a fundamental level, the things that people want to accomplish in their lives don’t change quickly.” For me, this is just thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The great innovators are able to define the job holistically to encompass not just the functional but also the emotional and social needs and motivations like esteem, belonging and self-actualization.

I forgot where I found this, but one blogger on the JTBD topic commented that one of the best ways to understand this concept is this Mad Men clip where Don Draper talks about the job that the photo carousel is hired to do:

Discussion and Comments

Some Resources:

Resources from Innosight, a firm co-founded by Christenson

Quora resources on JTBD and a discussion of the job that people hire Starbucks to do.

More resources from The Rewired Group

#JTBD search results on Twitter