How do you improve your products (or your life)? Figure out the job that needs doing.

Products and Services. The World is full of them. But why is it that some find success and grow to be indispensable to our lives, while others sink into ambiguity and disappear? Well, according to Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School, successful products are those that are built knowing what ‘job’ they were ‘hired’ for. Confused? Let me explain.

Generally, in the marketing sphere, Christensen argues that people play a game of categorization. They segment their target market based on either the ‘attributes of the customers’ or the ‘characteristics of the products’. However, this is a broken system – just because a customer is from a certain demographic segment does not cause him/her to buy a product. So what causes us to buy products? It’s simple – we all want to get something (i.e. a job) done at any given time and we ‘hire’ a product/service to do that ‘job’ for us. Christensen illustrated this concept with the example of a fast-food restaurant that was trying to boost its sales of milkshakes:

It segmented the market by product category and had extraordinary data on the demographics and even the psychographics of customers who bought milkshakes. […] The company got very good feedback from these customers about how to improve its milkshakes. It did improve them, and surprisingly, the improvements had no impact whatsoever on sales or profits. Peter Drucker once said that rarely does the customer buy what the company thinks it’s selling.

Therefore, one of my colleagues went into a restaurant one day and observed for 18 hours to see if he could answer the question, “What job do people hire a milkshake to do for them?” […] It turned out that nearly half the customers bought milkshakes in the very early morning. […] So the next day my colleague returned and confronted these people as they left the restaurant, milkshakes in hand, asking them, “Excuse me, please, but could you tell me what job you are trying to get done for yourself when you hired that milkshake?” […]

It turned out that they all had the same job to do: They had a long and boring commute to work. One hand had to be on the steering wheel, but God had given them this other hand in which they needed something to hold while they traveled. They weren’t hungry yet, but they knew they’d be hungry by 10:00 a.m. Therefore, they needed something that would land in their stomachs and stay a while.

It turns out that the milkshake does the job better than any of the competition. Surprise! The competition is not Burger King’s milkshakes. The competition is bananas, doughnuts, bagels, Snickers bars, and in many cases, boredom. Why boredom? It was so inconvenient to get these milkshakes that people quite often just drove to work bored.

So that answers that one. Figure out the job that customers hire our product/service for and then serve the product to do that job. Easy right? Not so fast. A product will not always have just one job to do. Let’s go back to that milkshake for a minute:

My observant colleague also learned that in the afternoon and evening, the milkshake tended to be hired for a very different job. In the evening, the milkshake was bought by fathers with their children and eaten with a meal inside the restaurant. Dad feels bad because he has been saying no to his kids all day, and he just wants to say yes to something. He says, “Sure, Spence, you can have a milkshake.” Dad finishes his meal. Spence finishes his meal, and then he picks up that thick, viscous milkshake and it takes him forever to suck it up that thin straw.

Dad waits patiently.

Then Dad waits impatiently.

Finally, Dad says, “We’ve got to go,” and he throws the shake away half consumed.

Suddenly, the milkshake is not a one-size-fits-all product.

Now that we know what job (or jobs, as it may be) that our product is hired for it becomes surprisingly easy to make the right improvements to it to get that job done better:

For the morning job, for example, you would actually want to make the milkshake more viscous so it would take even longer to suck up the straw. You would stir in tiny chunks of fruit, not to make it healthy, because customers don’t hire it to be healthy, but to add variety. Think about it. Every once in a while, you would suck up a piece of fruit, and it would add an air of unpredictability to the morning routine. You would also move the milkshake dispensing machine from behind the counter to the front and give people a prepaid swipe card so they could just dash in and go.


OK, so that’s how I can improve my products. But how does this help me improve my life?

I’m glad you asked. You see, Christensen’s outlook on what actually sells a product is one that is broader than it appears. In the context of life, looking at the various aspects of your life through the job-to-be-done lens can lead to a happier life overall. In his book, How will you measure your life, Christensen takes the example of a marriage, where he observes that a number of unhappy marriages are actually based on selflessness. This is because a spouse will do what they think will make their partner happy, without knowing what they needed most: [Emphasis ours]

He [Christensen] cites the example of a husband who comes home to a tired wife attending to young kids, and gets to work immediately with the dishes and household chores without her knowledge, only to realize that what she needed the most was some adult to talk to after a day spent around restless infants. The chores are the least of her problems and him doing them only adds to her guilt.

‘If you study marriages from the job-to-be-done lens, we would find that the spouses who are most loyal to each other are those that have figured out the job that their partner needs to be done – and then they do the job reliably and well. […] The path to happiness is finding someone who you want to make happy, someone whose happiness is worth devoting yourself to. It is natural to want the people you love to be happy. What can often be difficult is understanding what your role is in that.’

You can read a summary of what he talks about in his book here.


So the next time you think about how to improve your products (or your life), concentrate on the value that product (or action) will create for your customers (or family/friends etc.) – and remember, this value can be different for different people based on the job they want done. You can’t customize a product (or your actions) to suit everyone’s needs, but (just as in the Milkshake example) many people will have the same job to be done. You just need to figure out what that is.

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