Why ask: what job you hire your job to do for you?


People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want to buy a quarter-inch hole.

Theadore Leavitt

Job-to-be-done theory was popularized by Clayton Christensen, management thinker and author of a number of excellent books including most famously The Innovator’s Delemma. He argued that if you really want to understand why people choose one product over another, you shouldn’t study the attributes of the person – age, gender, class, race, or some psychometric measure – rather you should just ask them what outcome they were trying to achieve, and help them achieve that outcome better.

Job-to-be-done theory is critical to my effort to understand what people want from work. When you change the business model to classify employees as customers, then the next question must be: what are they buying, and why? We need to know that before we can answer the question, how do we build it better?

The customer rarely buys what the business thinks it’s selling.

Peter Drucker

The following is a simplified version of a lecture Clay Christensent gave at TechPoint.org in 2009.

So let me start with this silly example of milkshakes. MacDonald’s was trying to up the sales of its milkshake product line. They segmented their markets first by product category. You had the main meals over here, and then they had the desserts over here that were categorized by product. They could tell you exactly how many milkshakes were sold by McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and so on. Then they also segmented their markets by demographics. So they could give you a demographic profile of the people that were most likely to buy it. They even had psychographic profiles of these people. So they would invite people who fit those profiles into conference rooms and say, could you tell us what we could do to, to our milkshake that would cause you to buy more of them? Do you want it chocolatey or creamy or chunky or chewy or cheaper?

And they get very good feedback. They would then improve the product and it never had any impact on sales or profitability whatsoever. So one of our colleagues went in and just stood in one of their restaurants for 18 hours with the question on his mind: Gosh, I wonder what job people hire a milkshake to do for them?

So he took very careful data on when did they buy it? What were they wearing? Were they alone or with a group of people? Did they buy a meal with the milkshake or just the milkshake? Did they eat it in the restaurant? Did they leave?

It turned out that nearly half of the milkshakes were sold in the very early morning. It was the only thing they bought. They were always alone and they always got in the car and drove off with them.

So the next morning he comes back and he confronts these people as they’re leaving the restaurant with the milkshake in hand and he asked them: “Excuse me, please. Could you tell me what job you were trying to get done for yourself when you came here to hire this milkshake?”

As they would struggle to answer he’d say, “Well, think about when you were in the same situation needing to get the same thing done, but you didn’t come here to hire a milkshake. What did you hire?

It turned out that they all had a similar job that was, they had a very long and very boring commute to work. They just needed something to do while they were driving. One hand had to be on the wheel, but God had given them this extra cup holder and they just needed to keep busy. They weren’t hungry yet, but they knew they’d be hungry by 10 o’clock. So they wanted something that would just thunk down in their stomach and stay for a while.

So what do I hire when I got this job to do?  Well, come to think of it, I hired a banana last Friday, but it didn’t do the job well at all. It was gone in two minutes. I was hungry by 7:30. And yeah, I guess I hired donuts on occasion, but they get the steering wheel gooey. And I hire bagels, but they’re dry, tasteless, get crumbs all over my clothes. If I put cream cheese or jam on them, then I’ve got to steer with my knees. And then if the phone rings, that’s a problem. And I remember once I hired a Snickers bar, but it made me feel so guilty I never hired one again. But let me tell you, when I hire one of these milkshakes, it is so viscous that it easily takes me 20 minutes to suck it up through that thin little straw. I have no idea what the ingredients are, but I do know I’m still full at 10 o’clock and it fits right in that cup holder

It turns out that the milkshake does the job better than any of the competitors. The competitors are not burger King milkshakes, but bananas, donuts, bagels, Snickers bars. And very importantly, the milkshake is competing against boredom, because it’s so inconvenient to find your way to that restaurant, andthen you got to wait in the drive-through lane or the line inside to get it. A lot of times they just drive to work bored out of their gourds.

The orginal video can be found here.

By Dan Lindsley

Dan Lindsley

Follow Dart