“Jobs to be done” is a framework for understanding customer needs that’s widely used throughout business to spark ideas for innovation. Upon first glance, it may seem straightforward. However, when many professionals attempt to bring the theory into practice, they struggle to unlock its true potential.

Here’s a primer on the jobs to be done framework, along with some tips to help you understand and leverage it in your career.

What Is the Jobs to Be Done Theory?

The jobs to be done theory (sometimes shortened to JTBD) was first introduced by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen.

In the online course Disruptive Strategy, Christensen explains that people “hire” different products or services to do “jobs” they need to be done. Approaching the market with this lens is essential to understanding customer motivations and why some products succeed while others fail. Additionally, identifying new or emerging customer jobs to be done is a key piece of disruption innovation strategy, another area of focus in Christensen’s work.

“If we understand the job the customer is trying to do and develop a product that nails the job perfectly, then the probability that your innovation will be successful is improved in dramatic ways,” Christensen says.

Correctly identifying customer jobs to be done is a challenging task. Below are three tips for understanding the JTBD theory and applying it in real-life situations.

3 Tips for Understanding and Applying the Jobs to Be Done Theory

1. Observe

You can’t find jobs to be done without observing people. Thorough market research, including observation and customer interviews, is essential for identifying and validating jobs to be done. Only by observing customer behaviors can you truly get to the bottom of their functional, social, and emotional “jobs” that your product or services can fulfill.

Chris Larson, a former participant of Disruptive Strategy, reflects on the personal observations that helped him understand the jobs to be done theory.

“I finally had my ‘ah-ha’ moment when I was riding with my mother in the car and watching her simultaneously put on makeup, drive, and talk on the phone,” Larson says. “The thought popped into my head, ‘How could I make this easier and safer?’ Then I made the important connection, ‘What was the job to be done here?’”

Larson’s experience demonstrates a critical component of the JTBD theory. Rather than starting with an idea for a product or service and then defining the JTBD, observing someone’s behavior can lead you to discover the jobs they need to hire a product or service for.

2. Focus on the Job, Not the Product

Once you’ve noticed JTBD in your everyday life, it can be tempting to immediately shift your focus to the products or services that can fulfill those needs. However, JTBD isn’t about the product; that comes later. Instead, as you get comfortable applying the theory in real-world situations, it’s important to focus on the job, not the product.

Getting caught up in the development of the end product can cause you to miss the bigger picture: What job are you hiring for? The product will come once the right job is found. That’s the truly difficult part.

3. It’s a Process

Understanding and applying the JTBD theory is a process. First, you need to understand the theory. Working with case studies and analyzing examples of JTBD in action is a great way of building that foundation. But to apply the theory to everyday life and fuel new, innovative ideas, you need a strategic mindset.

“It wasn’t until my understanding of—and mindset toward—the concept had changed that I finally witnessed it firsthand with my mom,” Larson says. “I wasn’t contemplating the theory when I was watching her, I was just sitting there with my life flashing before my eyes. But the theory had become part of my outlook on the world—part of me. Because of that, I was able to make the connection.”

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From Theory to Real-World Application

If you’re new to the jobs to be done theory, the key concepts may come naturally, but being able to apply them in business can be challenging. With a basic knowledge of JTBD, you can find a "job to be done" for already existing products. With mastery of the theory, you can identify a job to be done in real life, from which a product can be developed.

Want to learn more about "jobs to be done" and other theories from Professor Christensen? Our six-week online course Disruptive Strategy can equip you with the tools, frameworks, and intuition to make a difference.

(This post was updated on June 23, 2020. It was originally published on August 11, 2016.)

Chris Larson

About the Author

Chris Larson is a former intern at Harvard Business School Online who worked with the marketing and product management teams.