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Mental Pivot #35: Jobs to Be Done

If you're a student of business strategy, you're likely familiar with the late Clayton Christensen, noted academic and business consultant. He's best known as the mind behind the theory of "disruptive innovation" which he explored in his book The Innovator's Dilemma (1997). Christensen also developed a less well-known, but equally useful thinking tool known as "Jobs to Be Done" (aka Jobs Theory).

The core idea behind Jobs to Be Done is that a customer isn't interested in purchasing a product, a customer is interested in a solution to their problem.

"When we buy a product, we essentially 'hire' something to get a job done. If it does the job well, when we are confronted with the same job, we hire that same product again. And if the product does a crummy job, we 'fire' it and look around for something else we might hire to solve the problem."

A business aphorism, popularized by Theodore Levitt, reinforces Christensen’s point: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” Successful companies understand that their solutions can help consumers achieve their goals; products and services are the means to an end.

In the 1990s, Christensen worked with a consultant hired by a fast-food chain tasked with the goal of figuring out how to sell more milkshakes. While researching and brainstorming ideas, Christensen arrived at an “aha moment” that helped crystalize his thinking about Jobs Theory.

Most companies might approach the problem of selling more milkshakes with a product-centric mindset: how can we improve the features or functionality of our product to induce greater consumption? For a milkshake, this might mean coming up with new flavors, making it more delicious, improving the texture and mouthfeel, or adding beneficial supplements like vitamins or protein powder.

Others might approach this problem using quantitative demographic or psychographic data they’ve collected. For instance, the marketing team might identify certain characteristics which correlate to higher milkshake consumption and run advertisements targeting those customers.

Christensen, however, used the framing of Jobs to Be Done and asked: "What causes a person to 'hire' a milkshake in the first place?" This approach places the customer problem at the center of inquiry.

Christensen and his team interviewed customers to unearth patterns and understand their purchase motives. He gleaned insights from a combination of probing questions, what customers were willing to share, and the behaviors they demonstrated. From this qualitative data, the team uncovered the reasons why people purchased milkshakes.

There were a range of motivations, but one in particular piqued Christensen's interest: a surprising number of consumers bought milkshakes in the morning.

Why on earth would so many people be purchasing milkshakes early in the morning? Christensen dug deeper and found that this group of milkshake drinkers needed something to eat on their long solo commutes to work. They could have chosen more traditional portable breakfast offerings like a banana, bagel, breakfast sandwich, or smoothie, but they had selected a milkshake.

The lens of Jobs to Be Done provided clarity:

  • Morning milkshake drinkers were in transit, they needed something portable. Milkshakes are portable.
  • Their commutes were long and they needed something that would fill them up and last for the duration. A milkshake can last a long time if the serving is large, the shake is thick, and you take small sips. The viscosity and coldness of a shake are two additional features that make them difficult to consume quickly.
  • Commuters needed something that was easy to consume while driving. A milkshake can fit in a standard cupholder and be consumed easily with one hand on the steering wheel.
  • Finally, they wanted something that tasted good, and—as most will agree—a milkshake tastes great.

Put simply, the milkshake was “hired” because it performed the job better than the alternatives (bananas, bagels, sandwiches, and so on). The milkshake was the best solution for this specific job.

Drawing on this specific understanding of a consumer need, Christensen realized that companies could use this approach to focus their product strategy and better align future innovation with customer goals. And while the above process might strike some as “common sense,” it’s my experience that organizations using a problem-centric approach are the exception rather than the rule.

Christensen’s milkshake case study offers several important lessons:

  • Looking at a problem from a different perspective can yield interesting new insights and opportunities.
  • Context and circumstance plays a meaningful role in the consumer decision-making process.
  • The competitive landscape shifts significantly using this lens. In the milkshake use-case, the product is not competing against other beverages or desserts but with portable breakfast foods.
  • What makes for a "better" solution, might surprise us once we’re better acquainted with the problem.
  • Armed with these insights, a company can focus its limited resources and efforts on better solutions for these real-life jobs (that aren’t always readily apparent).

As a thinking tool, Jobs to Be Done doesn’t guarantee success, but it does offer a compass for productive inquiry and a pathway for focusing one’s efforts and aligning them with your customers. Plus it’s just plain fun to think about milkshakes in a completely different light.

Christensen explores Jobs Theory in greater detail in his book Competing Against Luck (link to my notes below). You get can an overview of his ideas in a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article on the topic, "Marketing Malpractice: The Cause and the Cure" co-written with Intuit founder Scott Cook and Taddy Hall (2005).

Now onto this week's recommendations…

What’s New on the Blog:

Book Notes: "Competing Against Luck" by Clayton Christensen

Understanding the particulars of a "Job to Be Done" helps organizations better service their customers. It highlights new avenues for innovation and where to focus your efforts. The theory posits that it's not enough to study customer characteristics, one must study and understand customer problems. And these problems frequently run deeper than their functional dimensions, they often include social and emotional angles as well.


  • The Computers Are Getting Better at Writing: Novelist Stephen Marche tests out a new GPT-3-powered AI writing tool and is astonished by the current state of computer-generated prose. The tool is called Sudowrite and is in private beta.
  • Efficiency Is the Enemy: “If you ever find yourself stressed, overwhelmed, sinking into stasis despite wanting to change, or frustrated when you can’t respond to new opportunities, you need more slack in your life.”
  • The Four-Letter Code to Selling Just About Anything: 2017 piece by Derek Thompson that examines two opposing forces in consumer adoption: neophilia (curiosity of the new) and neophobia (fear of the new). He spotlights industrial designer Raymond Loewy’s MAYA theory, “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable”—a strategy that balances innovation with familiarity.
  • How Long Can We Live?: Overview on the biological limits of human lifespans, the current state of longevity research, and the rising global populations of centenarians.
  • How to Write a User Manual: Khe Hy borrows a fascinating idea from Abby Falik whereby individuals write detailed manuals about how to work with them. For instance, he includes information about his work style, values, pet peeves, schedule, and common misunderstandings. Not only is this a great exercise in interpersonal transparency, it's also a great tool for self-reflection.
  • Interstitial Journaling: Combining Notes, to-do lists, and time tracking, Anne-Laure Le Cunff writes about a productivity technique involving frequent written check-ins throughout the day to take stock of your progress, mood, and practice mindfulness.
  • No One Will Read Your Book: Elle Griffin discusses sobering facts about writing and publishing. For one, not enough people are reading books; one statistic suggests Americans read only 16 minutes per day but spend nearly 3 hours per day consuming video content.
  • On Using To Do Lists Efficiently: Bastien Guerry offers practical tips. I appreciate the idea of “must do” vs. “want to” and specific tasks vs. a “remember” list.
  • Stock Market Returns Are Anything but Average: Ben Carlson delivers a welcome reminder though effective visualizations that a historical 10% annual return over the course of a century looks quite different when you zoom in to the year-by-year data.
  • Truthiness: Larry McEnerney discusses unequivocal versus qualified language and how the relative truthiness of each is perceived. We frequently misapply absolute certainty to appear more authoritative. [FWIW, I had a wonderful history professor in college who harped on this same idea, so I appreciate being reminded of it.]

Odds & Ends:

  • Paul Simon explains the song-writing process behind the Simon & Garfunkel hit "Bridge Over Troubled Water" in this clip from an appearance on the Dick Cavett Show in 1970. I'm intrigued by the creative process so watching Simon explain, with guitar in hand, the different influences that combined to form this iconic tune is a joy to watch. For instance, one part of the piece is based on the chord progression from a Bach Chorale. Another part was inspired by a gospel group called the Swan Silvertones and incorporated a gospel-style series of chord changes. Reminds me of the adage that "good artists borrow, great artists steal."
  • The Story of Bridge Over Troubled Water is a 12-minute documentary from 2020 that explores the collaborative process that brought the actual recording of the hit single to life. It gives a much different (and more recent) look at the development of the hit song. It's fascinating to see the many inputs and participants—record producer, session musicians, orchestral arrangers, and vocalist Art Garfunkel—contribute to the finished product.
  • Excalidraw is a nifty open-source, collaborative white-boarding tool (link to GitHub repo). You can use it to create charts, diagrams, and other simple visuals. Try it out in your browser or learn more about it on the project blog.
  • Draw Logos from Memory is a simple but amusing web-based "game" where you are prompted to draw a logo and then compare your sketch with the real thing. The game only includes a dozen logos, so there's no replay value, but it's a fun little exercise.

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