Healthcare providers and researchers spend an enormous amount of time trying to determine why patients don’t always stick to care plans, from prescription drug regimens to recommended health practices. And undoubtedly, understanding and addressing barriers to effective patient-provider collaboration is critical to maximizing health and minimizing costly interventions.

But framing patients’ deviation from a care plan as an “adherence problem” implies that the care plan is optimal as is, and that the best solution is to try to change patients’ response to it. In some cases this may be true. However, promising results from a growing number of new healthcare delivery models present an alternative. Specifically, they suggest that providers may find more success in innovating around the care plan itself, creating health-promoting treatments and regimens (or “health solutions”) that better fit patients’ goals, values and circumstances.

In this respect, healthcare providers share a challenge with, and may learn from the experiences of, consumer product innovators, who are daily faced with the challenge of creating products that consumers will buy and use. Toward this end, many such innovators accumulate vast amounts of demographic, psychographic and preference data on their target audience, and use it to infer needs those consumers are presumably trying to address, and product characteristics that will address them.

But knowing a woman is 38 years old, works in finance, and enjoys cooking doesn’t explain why she goes out to an Italian restaurant with friends one night, and orders in pasta bolognese at home the next. As suggested by the high rate of new product failure (close to 80% according to a 2014 Nielsen study), consumer characteristics, needs assessments and product preferences don’t explain purchase behavior. To improve their odds of success, innovators must understand the mechanism behind consumer choice so they can more predictably create products consumers will pull into their lives. Jobs Theory provides a framework for doing so.

People want progress, not products

In tune with Peter Drucker’s famous insight, “The customer rarely buys what the company thinks it is selling them,” Jobs Theory explains that consumers don’t shop for brand promises, product categories and features. Rather, they seek solutions for jobs that constantly arise in life—the progress they want to make in a given set of circumstances. Successful innovations enable people to make that progress.

Jobs have functional, social and emotional components to them, and the nature and priority of these components changes depending on the circumstances surrounding the job. That’s why the circumstance is the essential unit of innovation work. Not user characteristics, product attributes, new technology, or trends.

Nailing the job with coffee houses

To understand how these insights can help innovators predictably create products and services consumers will pull into their lives, consider the evolution of Starbucks retail locations.

Camp out for the day in an urban Starbucks, and you will see a continually morphing scene. First thing in the morning, professionals and students line up for a caffeine jolt en route to work or class. As that crowd dissipates, you notice a smattering of women and men in suits, sitting solo at tables, glancing between their newspapers and cell phone clocks. These are the job-hunters, killing time before an interview in the neighborhood.

Later, the stroller set rolls in—parents and babysitters looking for a few moments of relative calm and conversation after dropping an older kid off at school. The freelancers take over in late morning, glued to their computers throughout the day while local workers swing through for a coffee break. By late afternoon, map-studying tourists and high-school kids ostensibly doing homework compete for space, and come evening it is a little bit of everything.

Each of these vignettes represents different consumers hiring Starbucks to do a different job. It isn’t easy to create one environment that can mean so many different things to so many different people, but that was CEO Howard Schultz’ intent from the beginning. He wanted to create a “third place” between consumers’ home and work, where they could do their own thing while feeling connected to a community.

This approach—selling coffee by satisfying seemingly unrelated jobs—was new when Starbucks started down this path, but it’s been broadly emulated since. The company has rigorously defended the space it created, however, and today boasts over 25,000 stores in 75 countries, and a growth strategy focused on new store formats tailored to the jobs of coffee-loving consumers.

What healthcare innovators can learn from Starbucks

Our research into consumer product innovations, like Starbucks’ retail strategy, shows that companies don’t win market share by trying to convince their target consumer they want what companies are selling. They do it by creating products that consumers will hire because they do a particular job better than any alternative solution.

Likewise, healthcare providers can drive health improvement by crafting treatments and regimes that patients will adopt because they do an important life job (whether seemingly health-related or not) and fit with their unique circumstances. Looking through the lens of Jobs Theory, Professor Clayton Christensen, Andrew Waldeck and I explore how some of today’s most innovative providers are accomplishing this feat in our recent paper, Health for Hire: Unleashing Patient Potential to Reduce Chronic Disease Costs.


  • Rebecca Fogg
    Rebecca Fogg