The most important tool in an innovator’s toolbox: Jobs Theory

Katalin Kariko, whose mRNA research ultimately led to the development of the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines, struggled to explain the relevance of her research to an intellectual property officer at the University of Pennsylvania. According to Kariko, he repeatedly asked, “What’s it good for?” Needless to say, she was disappointed. 

Kariko had been working on this technology for the better part of 15 years and saw a world of possibilities. But the IP officer needed to understand its use before spending the university’s resources to file a patent application. So, in a stroke of brilliance, Kariko observed that the IP officer was balding and said, “mRNA would be good for growing hair.” It was at that point the meeting changed and the officer agreed to file the patent after the meeting. 

What’s striking is that it wasn’t until Kariko explained the use of mRNA technology in simple terms that resonated with the patent officer that he began to believe in  the power of this new innovation. That happens to be one of the principal insights from Jobs Theory: how people perceive value and progress depends on their unique circumstances and priorities.

Developed by the late Professor Clayton Christensen and his longtime collaborator Bob Moesta, the Theory of Jobs to Be Done (or Jobs Theory) is an incredibly useful framework that helps innovators better understand consumer behavior. It highlights the fact that people don’t simply buy products or services; they hire them to make progress in specific circumstances (what we call their Job to Be Done, or for short “job”). In the IP officer’s case, one of the ways he defined progress was the ability to grow his hair. Only when he saw how he himself could make progress was he willing to “hire” the research. 

Jobs Theory goes beyond superficial categories to expose the functional, social, and emotional dimensions that explain why consumers make the choices they do. The functional dimension is simple: the product or service must function in a way that helps the consumer overcome a struggle. The social dimension of the job is about the way others view the consumer using the product or service. And the emotional component of the job is about how the product or service makes the consumer feel. Simply put, to perfectly nail the job, innovators should focus on understanding the functional, social, and emotional dimensions of the job. 

For example, several years ago, Godrej, an Indian conglomerate, developed chotuKool, a new refrigeration product to bring cooling to the hundreds of millions of Indians who lived without refrigeration. After extensive research, Godrej learned that most people who it would target with this new product didn’t have access to electricity, couldn’t afford to purchase food in bulk, and certainly couldn’t afford most refrigerators on the market. chotuKool was designed specifically for this market. 

chotuKool is a small thermoelectric refrigerator powered by a rechargeable battery, a laptop-like power supply. The product weighs around 16 pounds, has a capacity of 35 liters, and is able to maintain a temperature of 10 degree Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit). It consumes only half the electrical power used by a conventional refrigerator, and consists of only 20 components and no moving parts (depending on the size, conventional refrigerators could contain more than 200 components). Finally, at roughly $60, chotuKool cost a fraction of the least expensive refrigerator on the market. From all indications, this product should have been a slam dunk. 

Functionally, it was. But socially and emotionally, chotuKool struggled to nail the job. Before long, chotuKool was seen as the refrigerator you purchased if you couldn’t afford conventional refrigerators. In fact, upon further research, Godrej learned that many people purchased conventional electricity-based refrigerators and left them unplugged due to erratic electricity supply. For them, the fact that they owned a refrigerator, even though it wasn’t often plugged, was a status symbol. It made them feel good and elevated them socially. Though it did not solve the functional component of the job, it nailed the social and emotional ones. 

Ultimately Godrej learned from its rocky beginning and went on to develop a refrigerator that satisfied each component of its customer’s Job to Be Done. Other innovators should similarly take note: by understanding the functional, social, and emotional components of their customers’ jobs and nailing each, they’ll increase their odds of success tremendously. Just imagine how Kariko’s meeting might have ended if she hadn’t tapped into the IP officer’s desire for a luxuriously thick head of hair. 

To learn more about Jobs Theory, see: 5 tips to avoid an innovation flop 


  • Efosa Ojomo
    Efosa Ojomo

    Efosa Ojomo is a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and co-author of The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty. Efosa researches, writes, and speaks about ways in which innovation can transform organizations and create inclusive prosperity for many in emerging markets.