Between theory and practice is a nearly infinite chasm of superficial understanding and unearned confidence. This is no more true than in the case of Jobs to be Done (JTBD), and I can say that with confidence because I spent years in the chasm.


But I clawed my way up and out and experienced why JTBD is the single most powerful and transformative tool you can use to drive growth.

Want to skip the dive into the canyon and the long slow climb out?

What is Jobs to be Done (JTBD)?

A Job to be Done is a problem that a person is experiencing and/or progress a person wants to make in a given circumstance.

Although the origins of the phrase and theory are up for debate, many people point to Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, as the originator of the phrase. (if you enjoy a good nerd-fight, and who doesn’t, you can read more from each person claiming to be The creator here, here, here, and here)

“The Milkshake Story” is an excellent example of JTBD. You can watch Clay tell it here. Or, remember the first, and still beautifully correct, articulation of JTBD, from a 1923 ad for a plumbing company in Reno, Nevada:

“When you buy a razor, you buy a smooth chin—but you could wear a beard. 

When you buy a new suit, you buy an improved appearance—but you could make the old one do. 

When you buy an automobile, you buy speedy transportation—but you could walk. 

But when you buy plumbing, you buy cleanliness—for which there is no substitute!”

Why is JTBD so amazing?

Jobs to be Done surfaces the Why behind the What.

When you ask, “What do you want?” you’re asking people to define the solution. Whatever they say will be wrong because it is rooted in what exists. That’s why everyone from Henry Ford (supposedly) to Steve Jobs dismissed the usefulness of customer research.

If you ask the wrong question (What do you want?), you’ll get the wrong answer.

When you ask, “Why?” you’re asking people to define the problem. Whatever they say will be right (true) because it is rooted in their experience – the pain, frustration, and annoyance of today’s inadequate solutions.

Once you pair your understanding of why something works or doesn’t work with your knowledge of what is possible (not just what currently exists), then YOU are defining a solution that does its job better than anything else on the market.

When should you use Jobs to be Done?

Always. There is no “wrong” time to use it, and it’s valuable at every step of the innovation process:

  • Discovery: Identify un- or under-served markets by finding important and unsatisfied JTBD
  • Ideation, solution development, prototyping, market testing: Assess how well ideas solve important and unsatisfied JTBD and whether people are willing to pay for satisfaction
  • Post-launch: Understand how JTBD are shifting in importance and satisfaction as new solutions enter the market and change the basis of competition

How to identify Jobs to be Done

Full disclosure, everything that follows sounds simple but is extremely challenging. I’ve trained hundreds of people in this process. 1% immediately do it well. At least 50% never figure it out. The other 49% of us practice every chance we get – from formal qualitative research to casual conversations with friends – and eventually, we get it.

Always start with one-on-one conversations because you don’t know what you don’t know (even if you think you know, trust me, you don’t). You’re going to ask questions that invite people to bare their souls and all of their quirks, and they will. But not if there’s a crowd.

  1. Identify no more than three questions that must be answered by the end of the conversation. Any more than that, you run the risk of the conversation becoming an interrogation, and no one will reveal their quirks and insecurities if they feel interrogated.
  2. Be human. Introduce yourself as a person (where you live, why you’re interested in speaking with them, what interests you about the topic), not as a professional (name, title, serial number). Humans want to connect with humans, not business cards. 
  3. Be genuinely interested in the person you’re talking to. Ask them to introduce themselves and chime in when you find a shared interest. People will share more with you if you share with them.
  4. Ask only open-ended questions.   People want to share their story. Let them. Don’t rush them. If they start to go off track, gently guide them back. This is about them, not you.
  5. Ask at least two follow-up questions. The first answer is never the real answer. It’s the answer they think you want to hear or the answer that puts them in the best light. Ask, “Why?”  Say, “Tell me more.”  Encourage with “And what else?”  You’ll get the real answer only if you are patient and curious.
  6. Let the silence work for you. Ask the question and then stop talking. Don’t offer potential answers. Don’t explain the question. Just ask and shut up. In more Western cultures, silence is deeply uncomfortable, so people will do almost anything to fill it, including sharing their quirks and baring their souls. Sit and silently count to 8. Most people will start talking by five.

Once you identify Jobs to be Done, usually through approximately 10 JTBD conversations, you know what you don’t know. From here, you can use focus groups to refine your insights, surveys to quantify the market, or ideation sessions to develop solutions. 

In conclusion

If you want to cross (or avoid) the chasm between reading about Jobs to be Done and using it as a tool to create value and growth, you’ve got to go beyond theory and DO the work.

As with all new skills, you’ll need to be bad at it before you can be good at it. But with practice, you WILL get good.

You may even use your deep understanding and well-earned confidence to help others make the crossing.