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Making Innovation Work: Three Tips for Taking ‘Jobs to be Done’ from Theory to Practice
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Making Innovation Work: Three Tips for Taking ‘Jobs to be Done’ from Theory to Practice

What do dental chews for pets, adult incontinence undergarments and sweetened light beer have in common? On the surface, absolutely nothing. But in fact, each of these product categories has featured breakthrough products in recent years driven by innovators who discovered and solved a clear consumer “job to be done.”

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s clarify what we mean by “jobs to be done”: The core idea of “Jobs Theory” speaks to the basic function of a product. In short, consumers aren’t buying products for the sake of having them; they’re hiring them to do a job that will enable progress in their daily lives.

As an increasing number of leading companies ranging from fast-moving-consumer-goods (FMCG) to consumer technology have started to focus their innovation efforts on jobs to be done, many have found that transitioning from theory to practice can be challenging.

Identifying an attractive, well-defined job as a north star for innovation efforts is an excellent first step that can pay massive dividends. But doing so is only the beginning of the journey. In fact, it’s even more critical that an organization executes fully against the job throughout the entire innovation process.

So to get you thinking about how to go about doing so, here are three tips brought to life using real-world examples from the pet care, personal care and alcoholic beverage categories.

Know How to Hunt for Jobs in the Wild

The starting point for finding jobs is always the consumer. Qualitative consumer research, such as one-on-one in-depth Interviews or in-home ethnographies, can help you go deep on real life scenes in people’s lives to thoroughly understand the job and the struggles, trade-offs, and work-arounds that characterize imperfect current solutions.

Along your hunt, don’t listen for what is already known or conjectured, but rather for unusual or surprising “that’s funny” moments—the hidden gems that reflect true discovery. Bring a “Beginner’s Mind” to jobs exploration that’s free of preconceptions, and follow the energy of the interview to know where to focus and dive deeper.

The development of Milk-Bone Brushing Chews by Big Heart Pet Brands illustrates these principles nicely. To get started, the Milk-Bone innovation team zeroed in on a poorly addressed job in the pet category: providing hassle-free oral care. As any dog owner can attest, it’s incredibly difficult and unpleasant to try to brush a dog’s teeth. And despite vet recommendations that owners brush their dog’s teeth on a daily basis, Milk-Bone’s consumer research found that very few of even the most dedicated dog owners were actually doing so.

As Milk-Bone designed a new innovation to address this job, the team relied heavily on exploratory research with consumers to truly understand the key job specs and hiring criteria. For instance, they identified the importance of framing dog oral care in a human context for consumers. This insight led the team to design the product in a way that allows it to move around the dog’s mouth to mimic the effect of brushing and to design the packaging to evoke the same cues as human oral care products (with a shiny rectangular box).

The team also found that the job involved a critical emotional need—namely, the desire of pet parents to give their dogs the same care they would give their children. This insight helped optimize the marketing of the product, which focused on building connections between parent and pet rather than the technical product specs.

Use Jobs to Guide Idea Generation

Another key benefit of Jobs Theory is its ability to sharpen how companies cultivate new innovation ideas. Traditional ideation is typically set up as a one-time, linear process that starts with a brainstorming session and proceeds directly to concept outputs. This approach prioritizes volume of ideas over finding solutions to specific consumer struggles. As a result, the outcome of these sessions can be very hit or miss (more often than not, a miss), and any successes that do emerge are often driven more by luck than by an intentional innovation strategy.

Orienting ideation toward a job is a great step toward resolving this issue. Rather than focusing idea generation on a product category, job-based ideation has participants come up with product ideas that address the circumstance of struggle inherent in a well-defined job to be done.

This technique is ideally structured to be iterative in nature, leveraging several rounds of idea generation, guided problem solving and consumer feedback to ensure the best possible solves for each job are identified. The technique is particularly effective when employing small, focused multi-disciplinary teams that are highly familiar with the focus job(s), ideally allowing for both individual problem-solving and group discussion.

The Depend brand team at Kimberly-Clark applied these principles in developing the company’s Silhouette and Real Fit undergarments. Noting that many incontinence sufferers refused to buy adult undergarments, the team focused on developing a product line for this group of “non-consumers.” In talking with consumers, the team found a clear need for a slim-fitting undergarment that would look and feel just like traditional underwear, thereby relieving the stigma and social anxiety of wearing conspicuous incontinence products.

The Depend team focused their ideation on solving a critical technical challenge: developing an entirely new material that could provide the “real underwear” experience consumers demanded. They also extensively tested and refined prototypes with consumers to ensure the final product fully delivered on their expectations. With over $60 million in year one sales and 30% sales growth in year two, the results clearly speak to the power of this approach.

Don’t Lose Sight of the Job When Translating Ideas into Concepts

Jobs Theory can also help improve the innovation concept creation process. Nielsen has found that concepts that address a clear consumer struggle perform 58% better than those that don’t. Yet, only 9% of concepts do so. Concept testing performance improves significantly when innovators ensure that new concepts are tied to a specific job and clearly explain how these concepts unlock progress.

It’s also important to note that ideas don’t have to be brand new to benefit from applying a job-to-be-done lens to them. It’s not uncommon to identify ideas that have failed in the past but perform quite well when re-oriented to explicitly address a consumer need. This basic exercise can unlock quick-win high ROI innovation opportunities by leveraging research and development resources that have already been spent.

For example, our work with the Bud Light team at Anheuser-Busch approached the niche lime-infused beer market from a totally fresh angle. Our approach started with a specific job to be done that we had identified and quantified: providing alcoholic refreshment for Millennial drinkers turned off by the bitter taste of beer, especially when consuming alcoholic beverages outdoors during the day. Not only was the company’s “Lime-A-Rita” innovation an enduring hit with consumers (responsible for over $3.6 billion in U.S. retail sales over the past five years, including the Ritas sub-line that grew from it*, but it was particularly valuable to the Bud Light brand, given its high incrementality to the light beer category and price premium over the base brand.

Putting each of these techniques into practice ensures that Jobs Theory serves as more than just a useful framework for thinking about innovation. Rather they create a highly pragmatic toolkit that brands can use to drive significantly stronger innovation results.

*Nielsen measured channels, U.S. xAOC + Total U.S. Conv + TTL Combined Liq Plus – Past five year 52 week periods through Oct. 14, 2017.