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Inside 'Jobs'

How Jobs-to-be-Done pioneer Tony Ulwick used a “humiliating failure” to fuel a career helping companies innovate to meet customer needs.

In 1984, Tony Ulwick failed so spectacularly that he resolved never to let it happen again.

Ulwick was a product engineer on the development team of the IBM PCjr, the New Coke of personal computing. After hype around the product reached a fever pitch, its incompatibility with existing software, uncompetitive pricing, and crime-against-humanity keyboard led to discontinuation in just 14 months.

The supernova tarnished IBM’s sterling reputation and resulted in monetary losses Ulwick has estimated at over a billion dollars.

“I wondered, ‘How could a company like IBM, with all its resources, get this so wrong?’ ” Ulwick told UXPodcast. “It’s not just IBM that gets it wrong, a lot of companies get it wrong.”

Both New Coke and the PCjr were products of millions spent on market research with actual customers. But as he points out, the world would be much different if Henry Ford had tried to build a better horse. That research was focused on the product, not on the customer’s needs in that category.

Ulwick sought a way to identify the metrics customers use to judge the value of products early in the planning process, before a product fails. His journey to unearth these spawned the Jobs to be Done theory and his patented Outcome-Driven Innovation framework.

That analytical customer centricity makes him a People Nerd, motivated to understand consumer needs down to the most granular details, to go beyond the “voice of the customer” and use research to extract structured, meaningful inputs that predict product success.

Ulwick’s breakthrough came in 1990 with what later became Outcome-Driven Innovation (ODI), when he found an effective way to study the process that people are trying to execute when they are using a product, instead of the product itself. By introducing Six Sigma and process control methodology to that study, companies could make innovation more pragmatic, solving for errors and ensuring quality through rigor. Once it came to him, he says he struggled to sleep for days.

Now the founder and CEO of innovation consulting firm Strategyn, Ulwick left IBM to put his ideas to the test. He’s been in the consulting game since 1991, and touts an innovation success rate for Strategyn of 86%, as compared to a 17% industry average.

The success is fueled by Ulwick’s ODI framework to surface opportunities through gap identification. He defines and uses “job” as a statement of what a customer is trying to accomplish. These allow companies to examine what jobs people are trying to get done, how are they doing that job now, and if there is a way they could do it better.

ODI works because it’s especially predictable. Harvard Business School professor and innovation expert Clayton Christensen is a leader in the business innovation whom Ulwick introduced to the theory starting in 1999; Christensen has immersed himself in Jobs theory, and sees Ulwick’s systematic approach as an objective way to innovate successfully.

“Ulwick’s outcome-driven programs bring discipline and predictability to the often random process of innovation,” says Christensen.

As he shared on a recent webcast conversation with dscout’s CEO Michael Winnick, Ulwick believes most companies have some understanding of how consumers are using their offerings, but they’re not seeing the full picture.

“Most products only get part of the job done, and most companies think that part is actually the whole job,” Ulwick tells us. “The whole job often extends beyond what the product does, and understanding what the entire job does really opens the door to growth and innovation in that space.”

“The whole job often extends beyond what the product does, and understanding what the entire job does really opens the door to growth and innovation in that space.”

That potential to better meet needs holds true in even surprising industries or products; for example, when Ulwick got a call from Chiquita International conveying plans to “reinvent the banana,” he originally thought it was a prank call.

But as he found, people use the humble banana for a surprisingly broad range of jobs, from preventing leg cramps to getting an energy boost to sleeping better at night. And with about 1000 banana varieties growing across the world, the fruit can be improved through cross-breeding for desired characteristics. Companies seeking to optimize the banana to fill unmet market needs might research the product (the banana), the solution space (snacks) or the job (getting an energy boost in the morning). Unearthing the functional elements around having a snack could lead to a better banana.

Strategyn looked across similar snack foods (yogurt, almonds, etc.) and grouped categories to surface more than 100 jobs people are trying to get done with snacks, highlighting which jobs are underserved. One opportunity was that people are eating snacks before bedtime in an attempt to get to sleep quickly and stay asleep, but they’re not working well; by amplifying the naturally occurring tryptophan in bananas (tryptophan in turkey is why people nap after Thanksgiving feasts), Chiquita could create a banana varietal that helps people fall asleep and remain asleep.

This is a single example; when you consider all of the Jobs people want to get done in moments of their lives, it’s eye-opening how much companies could improve their current offerings or develop new ones.

That’s part of the reason that in the past few years, many organizations have gone all-in on Jobs to be Done. Recently, dscout CEO Michael Winnick has heard from employees at many companies where Jobs-based research catches fire.

“I’ve really seen a distinct change, maybe over the last year or so, as I visit dscout customers and work with them on their research, I’m hearing lots of stories of companies going bananas for Jobs to be Done,” Winnick says.

“We’re now seeing much more interest in the approach, and seeing more adoption in this new way of thinking,” Ulwick adds.

For researchers getting started with Jobs-to-be-Done, adopting the “jobs” lens and way of thinking helps them capture new inputs that can drive innovation. Because their work focuses on capturing both unmet and unknown needs, using the jobs methodology allows researchers to create what Winnick calls “a complete, rigorous map of what’s going on in the space.”

For researchers getting started with Jobs-to-be-Done, adopting the “jobs” lens and a way of thinking helps them capture new inputs that can drive innovation.

When this theory catches on at an organization, companies often overextend the scope of what they’re trying to better define. Ulwick recommends focusing on the core market as a first project to take your customer understanding to the next level. In conjunction with a product team, research can build organizational buy-in about what the customer’s needs are, then help teams and decision-makers focus on the right problems and how to solve them.

Moreover, Ulwick says this focus on core product can help better align messaging with the market. Sometimes companies already have a solution meeting exact customer needs, but they haven’t been able to promote this through marketing channels. By repositioning a core product to better articulate the value based on what customers are seeking to do, companies are equipped to innovate and drive revenue without changing the product itself.

Through research that seeks context on how customers are actually using solutions, organizations can ask customers the right questions to build a thorough jobs map that opens the door to innovation in a space. Having consumers show you how they actually use a product, especially if conducted remotely so they can document exact conditions in the moment, is a surefire way to hone in on not just what people say, but what they actually do and how they do it.

As organizations increasingly seek deep customer understanding, Ulwick remains passionate about actively practicing his Outcome-Driven Innovation approach at Strategyn, in recent years working with companies like Oracle, Twitter, Procter & Gamble and many more.

Research can build organizational buy-in about what the customer’s needs are, then help teams and decision-makers focus on the right problems and how to solve them.

After putting 18 months of “sweat and tears” into a product that couldn’t perform customers’ desired jobs well, then spending six years learning how to predict what customers want, Ulwick now leads a company using ODI to secure an innovation success rate well above industry average.

His measured approach to discovering people’s needs through research that puts them in context helps companies avoid catastrophic launches, and innovate with confidence and true customer understanding.

Want tips and frameworks for researching with a Jobs lens? Stream the webcast with Tony.

Matt Lardner

A marketer, writer and former journalist, Matt’s obsessed with discovering and telling fascinating stories about people and companies. You’ll find him walking around Chicago with a podcast in his ears.

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