Honing on Jobs-To-Be-Done? lead your way into disruptive innovation

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“People don’t simply buy products or services; they hire them to make progress in specific circumstances.” Clayton Christensen

During the pandemic lockdown, we adopted a dog. The newcomer spent hours trying to catch the little lizards in the garden without any luck. I guess he could wish for an easier or faster way to catch them, but he enjoyed the journey. I remember the last time we had a lizard in the house. I took some paper and Tupperware and caught the lizard to put it safely back in the garden. As we live in a rural area and this happens quite often, we created a system to catch lizards and free them easily.

The difference with my dog is that he can spend all his life hunting a lizard. Humans have an intrinsic desire to evolve themselves. We do this by remaking and adapting to the world around us. We use arts, sciences, and engineering to grow emotionally, intellectually, and socially. This need to evolve ourselves purposefully is what sets us apart from other animals. There was a time when humans grew tired of hunting down animals; therefore, they developed and moved to agriculture while domesticating animals. Unlike animals, for whom chasing the lizard can become a daily chore, humans will always look for more to do.

Jeff Bezos said, “Customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied.”  That’s the thing about humans. We are faced with a “job-to-be-done” every time we think of evolving ourselves.

Jobs to be done

According to Frost & Sullivan’s research [1], one in 100 new products covers their development costs. McKinsey Global Innovation Survey [2] also shows that “although 84 percent of executives agree that innovation is important to growth strategy, only 6 percent are satisfied with its performance.”

Innovation performance may be down, even if big data and AI technologies help to better understand the user. It is also a fact that human behavior is highly unpredictable. Hence, no data can ever provide a standard outlook of people’s reactions, needs, and fears. Data may play an essential role in predicting buying and other patterns, but we can achieve better ways of ascertaining user needs. We must consider human behavior. We must define what job needs to be done.

JTBD is the cornerstone of a better customer understanding and has a major impact on successful innovation. Christensen Institute [3] explains “Jobs-to-be-done as a theory that ascertains consumers’ choices when buying something. These choices don’t just scratch the surface but go beyond, thus determining the social, functional, and emotional dimensions of such decisions.”

JTBD explains how people do not just buy stuff for the sake of it; instead, they buy for a specific purpose or, more precisely, to do a “job.” By linking this necessity with progress, we home in on a world of innovative possibilities.

Can sweet potatoes for dessert trump chocolate pudding?

It happened twenty years ago; we were brainstorming with one of my best innovation partners, the R&D director of new product development. We wanted to find new ideas to reduce food waste and develop our frozen food portfolio. We had launched a successful product line of potatoes in the form of happy faces for kids. They loved it.

We thought at some point that we needed to expand this portfolio with other new ideas. We had some data that clearly showed that kids love potatoes in the form of French fries, mashed potatoes, and our new “happy faces.” Therefore, we came up with a hypothesis that if kids love potatoes and sugar, they would love “sweet-flavored potatoes.”

We did some tests and had some kids over for the first trials. Their first reaction was “Yuck!”  My colleague looked disappointed as she had spent much time trying to find the best recipe, but I remember that she also smiled and said, “They hated it.” That was the end of this adventure.

So, the data was there, potatoes were there, and sugar was there. However, there is no job-to-be-done by sweet potatoes; Potatoes are an excellent side dish for chicken or hamburger, but how do you dare to replace chocolate pudding with potatoes with sugar?

I know it sounds odd, but it was for real. At least we tried everything.

The business of nostalgia-filled hope

About two decades ago, we were looking for ideas to develop an offer for the US’s Hispanic market, much in the same vein as we did with the sweet potatoes, but we onboarded the topic differently. We started by empathizing with our users.

After talking to Hispanic families residing in the US, we found that their key challenge was finding their traditional food in a foreign country. They missed home, and what they missed the most was things like “the homemade arepa that my mother did in the morning for breakfast,” “I would love to have some papas criollas, but I can’t find these here,” or “in my country, we cook yucca sticks with fish. Here, I can’t find a good yucca.”

We realized that the job-to-be-done was not to provide the best French fries or best-frozen food for this community. The job-to-be-done was to create a link between their community, their culture and roots, and delicious yucca chips—the moment of the nostalgia of having this special dish that they had in their countries.

So, we decided to develop a product line for Hispanics that brought the flavors of their country and culture. We started with yucca sticks and then expanded to other products. That was a hit; people were happy to find their roots in any supermarket in the US.

It was a tough deal to find local Hispanic food two decades back, while today, it’s available everywhere.

Innovating by meeting jobs-to-be-done

An in-depth understanding of jobs-to-be-done gives you the opportunity for innovation without any hint of your customers’ trade-offs. If we check Nielsen BASES Breakthrough Innovation List for 2019 [4], the list of hits might seem random on the surface, but there are certain caveats. Every performer on the list catered a “job-to-be-done.” Let’s explore the JTBD with some examples starting with “Kinder Surprise.”

How did Kinder Surprise achieve breakout success with what might seem to be just another version of the decades-old peanut butter cup?  Jobs aren’t just about function—they have robust social and emotional dimensions. The folks at Kinder Surprise created a unique parents-kids experience.

Kinder Surprise is a one-of-a-kind product among the most successful confectionery launches of the past ten years. The product comes with chocolate and cream in one section and a little toy in the other. It is not just chocolate candy. The candy promotes healthy playtime between kids and parents.

Are customer experiences sellable commodities?

I remember my first visit to Starbucks. I was preparing for my GMAT and had a minimal budget because I was saving every cent for my MBA. How on earth was I willing to pay eight dollars for a vanilla latté and the corresponding carrot cake?

Because I spent four hours working in a lovely corner of the coffee shop, I loved it; it was a place in the downtown of the beautiful city I lived in at that time—Ketchum, Idaho. So, I didn’t want a cup of coffee or even the best cup of coffee. I just wanted to enjoy these four hours’ experience, working quietly to get the required score for my GMAT.

What’s so special about Starbucks?

Starbucks’ CEO, Howard Schultz, said, “Starbucks has a role and a meaningful relationship with people that is not only about the coffee.” Its mission: “To inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.”

Starbucks was not always a home-like café that served cappuccinos and espressos; it was strictly a coffee and equipment seller in its early years. The café concept based on customer-centricity and user-experience emerged in the ‘90s when Howard Schultz [5] purchased the company and brought about its meteoric expansion.

Simon Sinek, the British-American author, described its success in this quote: “Starbucks was founded around the experience and the environment of its stores. Starbucks was about a space with comfortable chairs, lots of power outlets, tables, and desks at which we could work, and the option to spend as much time in their stores as we wanted without any pressure to buy. The coffee was incidental.”

Starbucks’ core principles include end-user understanding and customer experience. The company maintains the philosophy by encouraging brand loyalty through in-store services, where the staff is trained to cater to user needs and provide personalized services.

What is so unusual about the customer experience?

Personalized experiences are at the heart of the Starbucks experience. As the barista write-downs your name on the cup, you feel a personal connection to the brand. Moreover, even if the name spellings are incorrect, it is still visibly appealing to the customers. It is due to the phenomenon where people remember the peak experience or the climax instead of averaging such an experience.

The Decoy Effect is a phenomenon where a third overpriced item changes customers’ perception regarding two reasonably price items: Starbucks uses this decoy effect to sell a customer experience at a premium rate instead of the coffee itself.

Authors Vijay Vishwanath and David Harding relate to this effect in their Harvard Business Review, article “The Starbucks Effect”: “Ten years ago, only 3% of all coffee… was priced at a premium — at least 25% higher than value brands. Today, 40% of coffee is sold at premium prices.” 

Starbucks provides the customers with a unique experience and charges a premium for it, enabling it to run around 32,600 stores [5]. As of 2020, Starbucks-operated stores accounted for 81% of total revenue, while it yielded $23.5 billion in revenue in 2020 [6].


Every organization involved in an innovation process reaps different fruits of such innovation as the methods differ considerably. Companies look at data to predict customer behaviors but ultimately fail due to the non-recognition of Jobs-to-be-done. JTBD defines the purpose of buying and hence aids innovation. Companies that identify these trends will undoubtedly cater to the needs of the customer in a different dimension.

By starting to onboard your Disruption journey, you need to focus first on empathizing with the customer and understanding the fundamental drivers to define which job-to-be-done is the ground for your disruption road. JTBD explains “how people do not just buy stuff for the sake of it; instead, they buy for a specific purpose or, more precisely, to do a job.” [7] By linking this necessity with progress, we home in on a world of innovative possibilities.

Jobs-to-be-done relates not just to the offer but to all elements related to user experiences. Hence, it is here that organizations need to rethink their strategies. Companies like Starbucks and Kinder Surprise excel at providing value to their customers by combining an offer or service, aligning processes, using technology, and designing an exceptional experience to stay ahead of the curve.

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[1] Frost & Sullivan, “New Product Development Issues and Challenges,” Frost & Sullivan, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://ww2.frost.com/growth-opportunities/new-product-development/.

[2] McKinsey & Company, “Mckinsey Global Innovation Survey,” McKinsey & Company, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/how-we-help-clients/growth-and-innovation.

[3] C. Christensen, “Jobs to be done,” Christensen Institute, 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.christenseninstitute.org/jobs-to-be-done/.

[4] M. Greenwald, “Nielsen BASES Breakthrough Innovation List For 2019 Announced Today,” Forbes, 3 December 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.forbes.com/sites/michellegreenwald/2019/12/03/nielsen-bases-breakthrough-innovation-list-for-2019-announced-today/?sh=4bd8a5f963fb.

[5] Starbucks, “Starbucks Company Profile,” [Online]. Available: https://www.starbucks.com/about-us/company-information/starbucks-company-profile.

6] Starbucks, “Starbucks Reports Q4 Fiscal 2020 Results,” 29 October 2020. [Online]. Available: https://investor.starbucks.com/press-releases/financial-releases/press-release-details/2020/Starbucks-Reports-Q4-Fiscal-2020-Results/default.aspx.

[7] Clayton M. Christensen, Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice, Harper Business, 2016.

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