Drills and Milkshakes: Say Yes to the Mess

In response to recent questions I’ve received about the recent popularity of Jobs to Be Done, I wrote up this quick, 5-minute read outlining why I have drill bits and milkshake straws on the cover of my book.

The early origins of JTBD point to Theodore Levitt. The famous business professor was known for telling students, “People don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.” This quote captures the essence of JTBD: focus on the outcome, not the technology. The drill is the means, not the end result.

But it was Peter Drucker, a contemporary of Levitt and pioneer of modern management, who first used the phrase “jobs to be done.” He wrote in Innovation and Entrepreneurship (1985):

Some innovations based on process need exploit incongruities, others demographics. Indeed, process need, unlike the other sources of innovation, does not start out with an event in the environment, whether internal or external. It starts out with the job to be done. (p. 69)

Drucker’s notion of “process need” as it relates to JTBD does two things. First, it suggests that an objective unfolds over time in a series of steps: it’s a process. Second, it specifies the interpretation of “need” to characteristics related to that process.

It wasn’t until Clayton Christensen popularizing the concept that it became widespread and formalized. Nearly every contemporary mention of JTBD links back to Christensen’s use of the concept outlined in his book The Innovator’s Solution. Perhaps more so, Christensen’s “milkshake marketing,” based on jobs people have when they buy milkshakes, has become a center of attention for JTBD practitioners.

Since Christensen’s introduction of JTBD, the field has split into different schools of thought. Newcomers may find an array of approaches and opinions on the topic.

One school of thought focuses on the functional objectives that can be broken down into steps. It sees the job and it’s desired outcomes as a measurable unit of analysis that predicts why people will eventually adopt an innovation. For example, if you’re in the home loan business, you could also see the main job to be done as “finance a new home.” A drill has become a symbol for this perspective, recalling Levitt.

The other school interprets the job as the “progress” that people want to make in their lives at a high-level. For instance, if you’re in the business of granting home loans, you might say the progress that people want to make is to “make a better home life.” A milkshake has become a symbol of this perspective, referencing Christensen.

I believe these two sides are not mutually exclusive, and there is a place for both. The two main differences I see are around the level of abstraction and the starting point for innovation.

  1. Level of Abstraction

In any given domain, the jobs people are trying to get done can be seen in a hierarchy. To go up the hierarchy, ask “why?” and ask “how?” to go down.

When working with JTBD, there are three different levels to keep in mind:

  • Aspirations — These are the top-level goals an individual seeks or the progress they want to make
  • Main job — This is a core functional objective someone wants to accomplish
  • Job step — this is a sub-goal of the main job that is a step in the process of getting the job done.

From this view, the two schools of thought are not opposed: they’re just operating on different levels of abstraction. In the home loan example given above, the job performer wants to both “finance a new home” (main job) and “make a better home life” (aspiration) at the same time.

Both are valid perspectives that can inform a solution provider, just operating at different levels of granularity.

2. Sequence

The second main difference between the two schools of thought is the order of consideration.

From the jobs-as-progress perspective, you begin with the aspiration to explore ways of increasing demand for a product or service. In the jobs-as-objective school of thought, you begin with a tactical objective to find new opportunities for innovation.

The problem I have with starting at a high level — starting with the aspiration — is that there are many many ways in which that need can be fulfilled. Forming better relationships with your spouse might also “make a better home life.” Redecorating an existing house can too, as well as practicing yoga. The list of potential solutions could go on and on.

Beginning with a functional job is, in comparison, more precise. Teams at the home loan provider can then ask, for example, how might better help someone “finance a new home.” The target is more tangible. But more importantly, the influence the team can have to help an individual get a job done better is more direct.

This isn’t to say the aspirations are not relevant: they are, but in a later phase. As a result, my view of JTBD suggests a process: first, focus on the main functional objective people have and solve for that. This will help increase your chances of adoption. Second, while creating the solution and offering around it, consider how speaking to the aspirations can increase market demand.

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Book Cover

The cover of my book The JTBD Playbook features imagery that suggests combining schools of thought. The straw symbolizes Christensen’s milkshake marketing and represents the perspective of JTBD as aspirations. The drill bits reference Levitt and represent JTBD as a functional process.

The techniques, or plays, I cover in the book come from both perspectives. I also suggest that you can combine them. For instance, if you created a job map for “financing a new home,” you can prioritize opportunities in that map but looking at points that “make a better home life” and innovating around them.

The bottom line is that working with human needs is a messy business. People in your market don’t come in neat regular packages for you and your team to immediately grasp. As Levitt said in his landmark article “Marketing Myopia”: “Consumers are unpredictable, varied, fickle, stupid, shortsighted, stubborn, and generally bothersome.”

So it’s up to you to sort out the fickleness and unpredictability of the individuals you serve. To do that, you’ll need all the insight you can get, from understanding jobs as progress to analyzing jobs as a process. Ultimately, JTBD lets you say “yes” to the mess.

To learn more, sign up for our newsletter at the JTBD Toolkit.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL

One comment

  1. Pingback: Дайджест продуктового дизайна, октябрь 2020 - Юрий Ветров об интерфейсах

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