Know your customer and their Jobs-to-be-Done!

Johann Botha
6 min readAug 13, 2021

A series about using jobs-to-be-done to innovate — Part 1

The origin of Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD) can be traced back to Theodor Levitt when he said that people don’t buy ¼" drills; they want ¼" holes. It was, however, Peter Drucker who first use the term when he wrote:

Some innovations based on process need to exploit incongruencies other than 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 de done. P Drucker, Innovation and Entreperneurship, 1985

JTBD, as we use it today, was popularized by Clayton Christensen in his book The Innovator’s Solution.

The problem with the term today is that there are various and varied views of JTBD.

Our use of JTBD is closest to the ODI school but not as detailed and less regimented.

Jim Kalbach (Jobs to be Done Playbook) defined JTBD as a process of reaching objectives under given circumstances, which is a bit vague. He, however, highlights that it is about the process or steps to achieve a specific objective, not some higher-level vague abstraction. The aim is to help your customer to reach their objectives by getting their job done!

Today, one can divide JTBD theory into two broad schools of thought, the Bob Moesta and Christensen school and the outcome-driven innovation (ODI) school of Tony Ulwich. The first focusing on understanding WHY people hire products to do a job, and the second focuses on pinpointing customer opportunities using intensive quantitative analysis.

Our approach is somewhere in the middle, maybe leaning a bit more towards the analytical side. Although we don’t discount the value of detailed quantitative analysis, we see it as an investment with diminishing returns. For us, it’s a question of effort versus return. And yes, maybe a year or so down the line, when you need to get blood out of a stone, and then using full-blown ODI may be worth it, but asking why and collecting data as described in previous articles will most probably suffice in the beginning!

The Problem and the Solution Space

When innovating the future of your business, you need to do a bit more than have good ideas. Understanding JTBD and Design Thinking (DT) is just the medicine prescribed if you want to out-innovate the competition.

Before exploring JTBD further, you need to understand that JTBD (like DT) spans two domains — the Problem Space and the Solution Space.

The Solution Space is about a product, service, or prototype that a customer can use. The Problem Space is about customer needs and understanding these needs better to serve customers better.

The challenge we face while in the problem space is that customers are often unaware of needs or find it difficult to express or articulate them. It’s your job to unearth needs and adequately define the problem space to drive innovation intended to create new value for customers.

Understanding customer needs proves difficult because most organizations only get customer feedback in the solution space, which is too late and costly. Luckily, we have a solution in ADapT (ADapT is our innovation-driven business agility and digital transformation method) to significantly reduce uncertainty (and waste). We will talk in a future article about testing ideas before spending too many resources pursuing something that customers don’t want.

In this article, we focus on the Problem Space, and I will, in a future article, talk about going into action and make ideas real (the Solution Space).

The principles of JTBD

JTBD ensures that we make products that customers want because it helps them to achieve their defined outcomes.

Therefore, we can say that JTBD is about understanding WHY customers hire our product and HOW it contributes to achieving what they set out to achieve. People are more likely to use products that get a job done better, quicker, and more complete.

By zooming in on what the job is that they acquired our product to do and the other associated jobs, we can answer three critical questions:

· How well does our product enable customers to do the specific job (and how can we help them do it better)?

· What other steps are part of the jobs they need to do to achieve their set objective that our product does not help them do (so that we can offer a complete solution to the jobs they need to do)?

· And ultimately, how can we change our product to do a better job of the JTBD?

You can see that with JTBD, the focus shifts away from OUR PRODUCT (or features it offers) and zooms in on WHAT THE CUSTOMER NEEDS TO DO to get their job done!

It is more likely that customers will buy our products if it does a good job answering the above questions in the affirmative.

A premise of JTBD is that jobs are universal and timeless once broken down to their most basic form. How we get the job done does not change the JTBD, and we can constantly redefine ‘how’ as new technology becomes available.

Therefore, it is critical to define the JTBD well. Then ask how applying technology and other game-changers helps to do the job better, in perpetuity!

What is interesting is that jobs often remain stable across multiple industries and contexts. Yes, some nuance will affect the ‘how’ the job is done, but not the job-to-be-done!

That means that once our product enables the outcome for one context, it is highly likely that we can use the same or similar process to get the job done in another context.

I hope you see the advantage that an investment JTBD brings to the organization when thinking about scaling.

Focusing on the job, what people do, and making the job the unit of measure in the analysis will help you get predictable results, make the innovation process more straightforward, and ensure better results.

JTBD also helps us better understand WHY people want to get a job done, not only the output but the outcomes aligned to set objectives.

Just as Jobs applies in different contexts, so too JTBD can be used in ANY context.

If a job exists, we can use JTBD to help us innovate and improve how our products make customers’ lives easier, better, more productive, and predictable, and therefore offer tangible value to customers.

Similar to Design-Thinking, JTBD is a human-centric innovation approach. The focus is on the customer, their problems, and their challenges. But unlike Design Thinking, JTBD always focuses on the cold hard facts.

Yes, we should empathize with customers, but what is better, empathizing and guessing, or doing something concrete to fix their problem based on hard facts?

In a later article, we will also describe our version of Design Thinking to handle some types of innovation problems. We cannot address all innovation problems using the same method, but JTBD is by far the most helpful, easier, and productive innovation tool, yielding very predictable results!

JTBD is my primary and preferred innovation method unless we focus on a new context and specifically on disruptive innovation.

JTBD is the primary method of sense-making in ADapT, helping organizations do what they do better and creating more value for customers.

In the following article, I will zoom in on the use of JTBD to make sense of customers, needs, and innovation initiatives.

This article is part of a series exploring the use of Agile ADapT™, a Digital Transformation Method for incumbent organizations struggling to compete in the digital age.



Johann Botha

Johann Botha, a digital change provocateur & getITright® CEO. Transform & build organizational agility, & digital-age capabilities. Consultant, speaker & author