5 tips to avoid an innovation flop

By: and

Jan 30, 2018

It’s a tempting thought: If we just collect data on our target customers, we can innovate to create products that will suit their needs.

If only it were that easy.

As Clayton Christensen and his coauthors explain in Competing Against Luck, it’s this line of thinking that has left countless companies with failed products. This happens because 1) there is no such thing as an average customer, and 2) a customer’s needs are unique to a specific set of circumstances.

Fortunately, innovators have a tool at their disposal to uncover what drives their customers’ purchasing decisions: Jobs Theory. The theory exposes the functional, social, and emotional dimensions behind every purchasing decision a customer makes. It asserts that people don’t buy products or services; they “hire” them to make progress in specific circumstances (their “Job to Be Done”).

Consider Iris, a Los Angeleno. Last weekend Iris battled an hour’s worth of traffic to drive from her apartment in Brentwood to a smoothie shop in Hermosa Beach. What compelled her to do so? It turns out Iris’ friend Angela lives in Hermosa, and was giving her a hard time for bailing on their evening plans. Meeting Angela for a smoothie, then, perfectly fulfilled Iris’ Job to Be Done. Functionally, it enabled them to enjoy an affordable snack; socially it provided them the opportunity to catch up; and emotionally it demonstrated Iris’ commitment to their friendship.

In short, Iris’ trek, tedious as it might have been, represented progress for her at that moment in time. And it had nothing to do with her age, gender, or any other superficial attributes commonly collected to predict customer behavior. Iris simply had a Job to Be Done. Armed with this information, the smoothie shop might consider what else it can do to enhance the social and emotional components of Iris’ and others’ jobs.

Job identified = customer satisfied

Identifying customers’ Jobs to Be Done empowers innovators to design products that customers actually want and are capable of embracing. But how do you uncover them? Traditional marketing attributes that divide customers into superficial categories (gender, age, education) may be instructive to an extent, but they won’t reveal customers jobs. Instead, innovators can try these five approaches:

1. Identify jobs all around you.

In a data-obsessed world, it might be surprising that some of the world’s greatest innovators have succeeded with little more than keen observation about customers’ jobs. Sony founder Akio Morita actually advised against market research, urging instead to “carefully watch how people live, get an intuitive sense as to what they might want and then go with it.”

2. Look for opportunities in nonconsumption.

Too often, companies focus on grabbing market share away from competitors, rather than searching for untapped demand. That untapped demand is what we call nonconsumption—when people are unable or unwilling to purchase and/or use a product or service, and literally can’t consume It happens when a given product is physically unavailable, unaffordable, or inaccessible due to other restricting factors. Why does this matter? Spotting nonconsumption alerts you to jobs that aren’t being fulfilled, making for fertile opportunities.This was certainly the case for Airbnb. According to Chip Conley, Airbnb’s head of global hospitality and strategy, in the absence of the online marketplace, 40% of guests say they wouldn’t have made their trip at all, or would have stayed with family. While we don’t know for sure why they would have forgone booking a hotel in Airbnb’s absence, we can assume cost would have played a role, since hotels typically come with standard amenities at a premium price. By tapping into nonconsumption, Airbnb discovered one of its customers’ Jobs To Be Done: inexpensive lodging. Today, the company has 60 million users in 34,000 cities, and it generated $1.7 billion in revenues in 2016.

3. Identify workarounds.

Customers who are so unhappy with available solutions that they go to great lengths to create their own are a goldmine to innovators. Their compensating behavior represents a failure of existing solutions to solve their Job to Be Done.In rural India, many people compensate for a lack of refrigeration with a traditional clay-pot cooler and daily shopping and food preparation. Indian conglomerate Godrej noticed this workaround, and responded by creating a low-cost refrigerator. Of course, they could have offered a conventional refrigerator, but doing so would’ve ignored their customers’ Job to Be Done: keep my food fresh without electricity. Instead, Godrej developed chotuKool—a compact solution, powered by a rechargeable battery, that costs a fraction of what conventional refrigerators do. Today, tens of thousands of households and small businesses have ditched their workarounds in favor of chotuKool.

4. Recognize things people don’t want to do.

Just as we have positive jobs (help me show my friend I value her friendship) we also have negative jobs (help me avoid that trip to the doctor’s office to get a prescription for what is surely textbook strep). It was this negative job that spurred the creation of QuickMedx, the forerunner of CVS Minute-Clinics. Recognizing that most people don’t want to see their doctor when they don’t have to, CVS Minute-Clinic enables patients to walk-in without an appointment, and instantly consult a nurse practitioner who can prescribe medicines for routine ailments, such as conjunctivitis, ear infections, and strep throat.

5. Spot unusual uses of products.

You can learn a lot by observing how customers use various products, especially when they use them in ways your company didn’t anticipate. That’s what happened with Arm & Hammer baking soda. For nearly a century, the company’s iconic orange box of baking soda had been a staple in every American kitchen, an essential ingredient for baking. But in the late 1960s, management observed how customers were using it in all sorts of unexpected ways—adding it to laundry detergent, mixing it with toothpaste, even sprinkling it onto the carpet. This discovery led to a jobs-based strategy with the introduction of the first phosphate-free laundry detergent and a series of other highly successful products, such as cat litter, carpet cleaner, air fresheners, and deodorant.

People are far too complex to be reduced to superficial categories that fail to recognize their unique and changing circumstances, struggles, and desires. That’s why taking the time to identify Jobs to Be Done is so crucial. Tap into people’s jobs, and opportunities will be found where none seemed possible before.

Efosa Ojomo is a research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Efosa’s work focuses on using disruptive innovation theory to fundamentally change the discourse in the global development community, thus enabling nations to engender their own path to long-term growth and prosperity.

Christina works closely with the healthcare, global prosperity, and emerging research teams in order to guide their communications and help bring their content to life. As a research editor, she enjoys working to make complex and abstract concepts relatable and meaningful.