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Uncommon Sense: Making Innovation Success Predictable
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Uncommon Sense: Making Innovation Success Predictable

For as long as I or my colleagues can remember, innovation has been a top priority—and a top frustration—for leaders. The fundamental problem is, most of the vast amount of customer data companies gather about innovation is structured to show correlations rather than causations—what happened when X happened, rather than what happened because of X. And of course, it’s based on customers’ responses to what’s on offer—not to something that hasn’t been presented to them yet!

After decades of watching great companies do poorly at innovation, we’ve come to the conclusion that the focus on correlation—and on knowing more and more about customers—is taking firms in the wrong direction. What they really need to home in on when thinking about new products is the progress that the customer is trying to make in a given circumstance—what the customer hopes to accomplish. This is what we’ve come to call the job to be done.

We all have many jobs to be done in our lives. Some are little (pass the time while waiting in line). Some are big (find a more fulfilling career). When we buy a product, we essentially “hire” it to help us do a job. If it does the job well, the next time we’re confronted with the same job, we tend to hire that product again. And if it does a crummy job, we “fire” it and look for an alternative.

Successful innovations help consumers solve problems—to make the progress they need to, while addressing any anxieties or inertia that might be holding them back. But we need to be clear: “Job to be done” is not an all-purpose catchphrase. Jobs are complex and multifaceted; they require precise definition. Here are some principles to keep in mind:

  • “Job” is shorthand for what an individual really seeks to accomplish in a given circumstance.
  • The circumstance in which the customer finds him- or herself is more important than customer characteristics, product attributes, new technologies, or trends.
  • Good innovations solve problems that formerly had only inadequate solutions—or no solution.
  • Jobs are rarely simply about function—they have powerful social and emotional dimensions.

Identifying and understanding the job to be done are only the first steps in creating products that customers want—especially ones they will pay premium prices for. It’s also essential to create the right set of experiences for the purchase and use of the product and then integrate those experiences into a company’s processes.

The other piece of the puzzle has to do with processes—how the company integrates across functions to support the job to be done. Processes are often hard to see, but they matter profoundly. They tell people inside the company, “This is what matters most to us.” Focusing processes on the job to be done provides clear guidance to everyone on the team.

Consider, as an example, the proven power of thinking in terms of the “job” consumers face in the most unlikely of locations … the litter box. For Church & Dwight’s Arm & Hammer cat litter team, the question was: If price were no issue, could we make litter box odors completely disappear? Because, let’s face it, that’s the job a consumer wants their cat litter to perform. And yet, despite decades of cat litter improvements, odor was still a dominant complaint among cat owners. This consumer dissatisfaction led to numerous undesirable quality-of-life consequences, from the functional (“Cleaning the litter box is the worst job in the house … worse than cleaning the toilets”) to the emotional (“I just feel like a bad homemaker if my house smells”) to the social (“Sometimes I feel embarrassed when I have guests over”).

“Consumers were passionate in their dissatisfaction and said so,” noted Bryan Harpine, director of global new products. “This sentiment prompted 70% of cat owners to user odor-mitigating accessories.”

Consumers had a clear job to accomplish. They had cobbled together multiple sub-optimal solutions to address the requirements of their job spec, but, at the end of the day, these consumers were still struggling to make forward progress against the job. Enter Arm & Hammer and their team of experts, who spent four years getting the substrate right and formulating the necessary blend of additives as well as developing the coating technology to get to an effective product. From there, the team engaged in a range of activities—from extensive consumer research to substantiate the ‘seven-day odor-free home’ claim, to retailer buy-in efforts, to point of sale and packaging updates—to ensure the best possible outcome for this new product focused directly at cat owners’ job in the litter box.

“The launch was a tremendous success, with first-year retail sales approaching $100 million and better than 50% growth in year two. Reflecting on this launch,” Harpine summarized, “not only did we achieve a lot, we learned some important things. First, once you’ve done transformation the first time, you are much more open to seeing it and doing it again. It’s as if the blinders come off, and this ties directly to a second lesson: the value of asking ‘impossible questions.’ This all began with this seemingly impossible notion of ‘If cost were no issue, could we create a litter that would actually eliminate odor completely?’ If we don’t ask that question, none of this success happens. Third [is] the power of a compelling story. Fourth, when innovation becomes a company-wide mission, the power to create and realize is exponentially greater than when innovation happens in functional silos. It’s when you align diverse skillsets at all levels with a huge goal that you create a powerful catalytic effect that lifts everyone’s game. Everyone wins—the retailer, the manufacturer and the consumer.”

Innovation can be far more predictable—and far more profitable—if you start by identifying jobs that customers are struggling to get done. Without that lens, you’re doomed to some degree to hit-or-miss innovation—to a great extent, that is, to luck. With it, you can leave relying on luck to your competitors.

This post is adapted from an article in The Harvard Business Review. For a book-length treatment of ‘Jobs theory,’ check out “Competing Against Luck.”

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