Misconceptions and Limitations of ‘Jobs-to-be-Done’ Innovation Approach


(This is the third in a series of articles initially published in The Business Journals)

I recently had an opportunity to interview Jeff Baker, head of customer insights, category management and strategy at Valvoline and a former client of mine.

There are very few executives in the country who have the depth of experience with what’s known as the “jobs-to-be-done” (JTBD) innovation approach as Baker. He has been using the approach for nearly 15 years through his various roles at Microsoft, Strategyn, NetJets and now Valvoline.

Previously, I asked him to share his perceptions of the ‘jobs-to be-done’ innovation approach as well as discuss how he uses it in his current work.

This week, in the third and final installment of our interview, Jeff discusses some misconceptions and limitations of the approach.

Q: What are the misconceptions or limitations of the JTBD approach?

Baker: I’m not sure if this is a misconception or a limitation, but one of the things about JTBD research is that it’s unlike other types of research that essentially deliver the answer to an A/B test, and one thing that I found myself saying over and over is that this methodology is not designed to give you a direct answer, and that makes some people uncomfortable. I’m not sure it’s really a limitation. I think it’s a challenge that people run into at times.

People are used to research that says “So, people liked this feature better than that feature. OK, we’ll go with that one,” and you’re done. That’s the end of the process. But with JTBD, you’re not testing solution ideas; you’re discovering the customers’ unmet needs in the form of the jobs they want to get done free of all solutions. So, once you get the research results, that’s not the end of the process. It’s essentially the beginning of the internal team’s work figuring out how to create value to help those customers get those jobs done better.

Back in my Microsoft days, after I developed our Habits & Practices approach, which was anchored in JTBD, one thing that I ran into was people affectionately calling it the “Cadillac solution.” But not every group has the time or the resources to employ the Cadillac solution. So, the question arises, “How can we keep the core principles, not abandon them, but not take as much time and as much money?”

One answer for many business units is to do the qualitative jobs research only and skip the quant research. You can get a lot out of just seeing the market through the lens of what jobs people are trying to get done (qualitative research only). It’s a conscious tradeoff to not do the quant research, but you can definitely make great progress with just a good understanding of the jobs people want to get done, followed by a less formal means of prioritizing them.

One additional consideration: One of the strengths of the JTBD approach is that all the customer needs (jobs to be done) can be captured through qualitative interviews. Additionally, these need (job) statements can then be deployed in a survey to a representative sample of the target population to be rated for importance and satisfaction.

The more important a job is to get done and the less satisfied customers are with their ability to get it done using their current product solution, the greater the opportunity for innovation and growth it presents. This provides and unprecedented level of clarity and precision about where to focus and what to do to drive innovation and growth.)

One other limitation is that it takes more commitment in time and brain power, precisely because it is so different. I can’t tell you how many times I used the word “translation” when talking with my internal partners about the research findings, because in order to satisfy an unmet need you have to translate that job into some kind of feature or function or experiential element. That takes creative, imaginative thinking. And sometimes that can be hard for the business to effectively do, for whatever reason.

That translation process is something that a lot of teams are not ready for, probably not because they’re incapable of it, it’s just that they were not prepared to spend this much time thinking about it. They just want a direct answer delivered to them. So, when you reach that phase when you have to get to the translation, if people aren’t ready for it and you haven’t prepared them well in advance, then things can fall flat or come to a screeching halt. It’s just incumbent upon the practitioner to say, “Hey, you have to know this is what’s coming; it’s part of the process.”

Q: Given the power of the JTBD approach, why do you think it has not been more widely adopted?

Baker: Some of it can branch off from the limitations we talked about. It’s not very “snackable.” The challenge is that there are alternative approaches to JTBD that are very snackable, but they’re not as rigorous. JTBD takes some work and requires some unique skills to execute — whereas by contrast, it’s much easier to get enamored by a couple of chapters in the latest business book. That’s part of it; JTBD just hasn’t seemed to lend itself to any faddish business pop culture phenomenon. It requires some actual depth and some investment to really get into it and master it and some people don’t have the patience for that.

But once you get into it, it’s the most robust and sound approach I’ve used. I’ve participated in probably more than 100 JTBD projects over the years, and I’ve yet to see a case where it fails to deliver.

I’ve seen teams fail to capitalize on the insights JTBD uncovered, but I’ve never seen the approach itself fail to uncover insights that pointed to potentially game-changing new product/service concepts. That’s probably part of what draws me to it. Innovation is really pretty hard to get right, and JTBD respects that reality by bringing something robust enough to meet that challenge head on.

(A version of this article initially appeared in The Business Journals, August 21st, 2017)