I enjoy cooking. I’m not one for recipes, and I especially like making savory stews and soups from seasonal vegetables, and with interesting spices, especially cumin. I usually make a big pot and after enjoying a nice dinner, I’ll stow away a few leftovers in serving-size containers in my freezer. Few moments give me greater happiness than when I remember I have something yummy in my freezer ready to heat up for lunch.
A while back I had an idea. Why don’t I create a service, which I’ll call 99 Bowls, which periodically sends me a carton of 12 containers of interesting soup? That way I always have something yummy to eat when I’m on my own at home for a meal.
I’m a serial entrepreneur, and this is how a new venture often starts for me. I’ve got some itch myself and I conceive of a company to scratch that itch. Let’s call this the raw opportunity.
A jobs analysis is a good first step in exploring an opportunity. It results in a clear and deliberate articulation of the job to be done for a focal customer (Christensen et al. 2016). The jobs analysis also comprises the first diamond in the triple-diamond model of design and design-thinking.
Let’s first talk about that focal customer. Before you even consider how to solve a problem, you really need to think about “for whom”? Returning to the 99 Bowls example, the product I would create for delivering pre-made meals to a school cafeteria would be dramatically different from the one I would create for a professional office worker or for a graduate student.
Two concepts are useful in identifying the focal customer. First, for zero-to-one products, you should identify the beachhead market. By this I mean the very first group of customers you will target. The best beachhead markets are those with the biggest need, the most acute pain point, and those that you can most easily reach. These markets are usually not the biggest markets. (See this chapter on defining markets for more.) The biggest markets usually have to wait until you have some experience and have started to spin up the flywheel of greater cost efficiency in your business. For 99 Bowls, a beachhead market could be relatively affluent professionals working from home at least two days per week.
The second useful concept is the persona. A persona is a description of a hypothetical customer that is highly representative of your target market. This is useful in making the challenge real to your team and to other stakeholders. A persona is usually constructed with specific attributes like age, gender, professional role, and even personality characteristics.
Let me tell you about the persona for 99 Bowls. Her name is Grace. She works as a product manager at Facebook. She’s 36 years old and lives alone with her cat Milo. She’s super fitness-conscious religiously going to a yoga class near her house in San Francisco every day. She works at home most days, although occasionally takes the Facebook shuttle to the main office about an hour away in Menlo Park. Grace is Korean-American and finds most prepared food too bland. She’s a foodie and likes a lot of heat and flavor. Makes it real, doesn’t it?
Your target segment will probably change, and after launching your solution you will almost certainly discover that there are other customer segments that your solution can address. You’ll also inevitably want to expand into adjacent segments. But, you have to start somewhere and specificity helps guide the creation of a solution.
I do a weekly podcast with entrepreneurs and my informal tally of past guests suggests that for about half of them the genesis of their business was a need that they themselves experienced. This raises the question of whether or not it is good practice to use yourself as a target customer.
Here are a few thoughts. First, you will find yourself in many professional situations in which you are not the target customer. If you are creating heavy equipment for the mining industry, you probably are not also a mine owner or equipment operator.
Second, when you are representative of your target market, I believe you are highly likely to create a product that satisfies at least one customer. You. That’s actually no easy feat. It’s a real luxury in entrepreneurship to have an immediate intuition about whether a solution is near the mark or not.
Still, designing for yourself does not guarantee a big market. You represent one data point and in most cases you aspire to serve thousands or even millions of customers. Disciplined and experienced entrepreneurs are able to leverage their own deep intuition about the job to be done while understanding that they need to be able to assume the perspective of the broader market for long-term product success.
Jobs Analysis and the Abstraction Ladder
In one of the most highly cited articles ever in Harvard Business Review, Theodore Levitt wrote “customers don’t want a ¼ inch drill, they want a ¼ inch hole.” Levitt’s insight was that when customers consider your product, they have a job to be done. They don’t typically want your product per se, they want the results of a job it can do for them.
But think about this example a bit more. I don’t know many customers who really want a ¼ inch hole either. They want to fasten a bookshelf to the wall. And do they really want to fasten a bookshelf to the wall, or do they want to store their books?
Every gap, as you first sense it, exists within an interconnected network of alternative problem statements, some more abstract and some more specific.
Here’s a technique called the abstraction ladder for elaborating the alternative ways you could state the design problem. You use the abstraction ladder for divergent thinking, to consider alternative ways you could frame the job to be done.
First, state the problem at the top of mind using the phrase “How might we…” For example, recall the 99 Bowls opportunity, which I could state as “How might we periodically deliver containers of prepared soup to work-from-home professionals?” You might write this on a self-stick note and place it on a wall or your desk.
As an aside, we use the phrase “How might we…” really just to put ourselves in a divergent frame of mind, considering many possibilities, some of which may not even be feasible.
Now, ask yourself what desirable outcome would be achieved if you solved the problem as stated. Or, in other words, why is that problem worth solving?
For example, we hope to deliver prepared soup so our customer always has something readily available to eat for lunch. Now, use that desirable outcome as the foundation of a second, more abstract, problem statement — “How might we provide a work-from-home professional with something to eat for lunch that is always readily available?” As these motives for doing the job come to mind, just write them down on separate notes and stick them higher up on your work surface.
You see what we’ve just done? We’ve moved up a rung on the abstraction ladder to state our problem a bit more generally. Now why is this a good thing?
Put simply, abstraction opens up additional solution concepts. For example, we’ve now opened up the possibility of a pre-scheduled daily lunch box drop-off, or of a meal kit that allows quick preparation of a fresh meal, or of a club in which a group of five people take turns making lunch for each other once a week. By broadening the definition of the problem, we have opened up the possibility of many more alternative solutions.
But why stop there? What is the benefit of providing readily available lunch? Well, perhaps a key motive is to increase available work time during the day? So, we could rephrase the job to be done as “How might we increase available work time during the day?” That would open up even more solution directions, maybe a virtual personal assistant to help with mundane tasks, professional or otherwise.
Of course, even this statement can be broadened. How might we be more productive? How might we better provide for ourselves and our families? As we ask why we would want to do a job, we broaden the problem definition until eventually we end up with jobs to be done like how might we improve well being in society?
Note that these increasingly general statements are not always strictly arranged on rungs of a linear abstraction ladder. There are typically many motives for any particular job to be done. Maybe a more significant motive for our target customer is to be able to control diet, or to introduce meal variety, or to enjoy more delicious food. Any given statement of the job to be done is located in a network of alternative problem statements, some more general, and some more specific.
So far in this example, we’ve always moved from more specific to more abstract, the why direction on the abstraction ladder. But, you can also step down a rung or two on the abstraction ladder by asking how — or what approach might we take to do the job. For instance, for the job to be done allow work-from-home professionals to enjoy more delicious food, we could take the approach of providing them with freshly cooked meals. That’s a more specific statement of the job to be done: How might we provide work-from-home professionals with freshly cooked meals?
When is the job to be done too abstract?
Stating the job to be done more abstractly, and thereby opening up additional solution concepts seems like a great thing. But, at what point is the job to be done too broad, too abstract? If you state the job to be done as “How might we improve well being in society?” then a solution might be to provide free neck massages in waiting lines at the airport. Although I might use that service as a customer, somehow that solution would not motivate me to quit my job and start a company. You, specifically, as an entrepreneur have a vision, and if the job to be done doesn’t align with your vision, you’re veering off track.
When you set out to create or improve something, it’s motivated by a gap you have sensed. You own that gap. If you embark on a process to create something that improves the well being of individuals in society, and it does so, but it does not achieve your goals, then you have defined the job to be done too broadly.
Step-by-step process for using the abstraction ladder
- State the problem top of mind using “How might we…” For example, how might we periodically deliver a supply of prepared soup to work-from-home professionals?
- Now, ask yourself what desirable outcome would be achieved if you solved that problem, and use that desirable outcome as the foundation of a second, more abstract, problem statement — “How might a work-from-home professional always have something available to eat for lunch?”
- Now, repeat step 2… For example, “how might we increase the available work time for work-from-home professionals?” Repeat again and again until the problem statement is something like “How might we increase well-being among members of the community?” the most abstract possible motive for solving the problem. In this step, you might use self-stick notes placed on a wall with each note capturing a different job to be done. Place the notes in a hierarchy or network with more abstract statements higher on the wall. Remember that there may be several motives for doing a job — so your abstraction ladder may branch out as you consider alternative how-might-we statements.
- Don’t be too hung up on the details of the process. Your goal is to explicitly articulate and consider several alternative problem statements, some more abstract and some more specific. If an alternative job to be done comes to mind, just write it down and put it on your work surface.
- After all that divergent thinking, it’s time to converge. Deliberately choose the most abstract statement of the problem that if addressed would still satisfy your personal vision and goals as an entrepreneur. That statement is the job to be done.
I’ve described this process as a single effort that is one and done. In reality as you proceed in developing the opportunity you may find that you benefit from further broadening or focusing of the job to be done to better align with your mandate and vision as you better understand it.
Christensen, Clayton M., Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon, and David S. Duncan. “Know your customers’ jobs to be done.” Harvard business review 94, no. 9 (2016): 54-62.
Levitt, Theodore. “Marketing myopia.” Harvard business review. 82, no. 7/8 (2004): 138-149.