What drives consumers to purchase and use certain products and services over others?

In the online course Disruptive Strategy, Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen presents an answer to that question. He says that although companies spend billions of dollars developing new offerings every year, most fail.

“Somewhere between 75 and 85 percent of all new products launched into the market don't succeed financially,” Christensen says. “The reason is they don't target a job that people are trying to get done.”

This idea is the crux of Christensen’s jobs to be done theory, which asserts that customers don’t simply buy a product or service—they “hire” it to do a “job.”

“A ‘job to be done’ is a problem or opportunity that somebody is trying to solve,” Christensen says. “We call it a ‘job’ because it needs to be done, and we hire people or products to get jobs done.”

Before delving into some real-world examples of Christensen’s theory in action, here’s a look at how his framework can be used to discover and observe jobs to be done.

What Are Jobs to Be Done?

Using Christensen’s framework, you can identify jobs to be done by completing the following statements related to outstanding tasks in your life:

  • “Help me…”
  • “Help me avoid…”
  • “I need to…”

In Disruptive Strategy, Christensen uses a milkshake to exemplify how a product can satisfy a job to be done. A fast-food chain finds that the bulk of its milkshakes are sold before 8:30 a.m., and the customers who purchase them don’t order any other menu items. For milkshake customers, the product meets a specific need: It helps them avoid getting hungry or bored during their commutes. The milkshakes take a long time to drink and can easily be held while driving, thereby proving to be extremely effective at accomplishing that job.

In an interview with HBR IdeaCast, Christensen shares some ways this understanding of the commuters’ job to be done can improve how the chain produces and sells milkshakes. One approach is to provide customers with a prepaid card that allows them to check out quickly and avoid waiting in line. Another option is to make milkshakes with a thicker consistency, so it takes customers longer to drink them. By taking these actions, the restaurant chain can ensure its customers feel sated and get to work on time.

Beyond meeting a need, jobs to be done typically have functional, emotional, and social dimensions. The functional dimension is the practical role a product or service fulfills, while the emotional and social dimensions encompass the feelings you get from owning or using it.

According to Christensen, companies that develop offerings centered on jobs, instead of customer attributes and buying behaviors, can excel in the market and avoid disruption.

“If you frame your business in terms of products you’re trying to sell, life comes and goes, and you get supplanted by other products and technologies,” he says. “But if you deliver something that does the job well, it will open up opportunities to use new technologies as they emerge. What your business is about is doing the job better and better, and that clarity doesn't diminish over time because of the stability of the jobs to be done.”

To illustrate this idea, here are four real-world examples of companies that have successfully developed products and services focused on jobs to be done.

4 Jobs to Be Done Examples

1. Zoom: Connecting Remote Workers

The number of professionals working remotely has grown exponentially over the past decade. This trend has spiked with the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, as scores of businesses have transitioned to telework to limit the spread of the virus. As a result, many organizations have turned to technology to connect employees virtually.

Among remote workers in the US, videoconferencing software Zoom has emerged as the most-used collaboration tool.

In this case, the job to be done is helping remote workers manage and engage with colleagues without in-person interaction, and Zoom has proven to be an effective means of doing so. In fact, the company has seen a 354 percent increase in customer growth since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With 73 percent of teams projected to include remote employees by 2028, the job of helping professionals virtually connect is poised to persist, and Zoom has made strides to upgrade its security and privacy features to keep with that trend.

2. PayPal: Providing a Secure Way to Make Online Payments

PayPal is another company that’s experienced significant growth—in recent years and due to circumstances surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.

Research shows the use of cash has been in decline and, due to concerns about COVID-19 transmission, people are increasingly opting for digital payment methods.

For consumers who need to securely and easily pay online, PayPal’s offerings have hit the mark.

In addition to a large network of merchants, PayPal provides customers with convenient payment options, such as its One Touch checkout tool.

According to CEO Dan Schulman in an article for The Motley Fool, PayPal also invokes a feeling of “trust and security” among its customers, which speaks to the emotional dimension of jobs described in Christenson’s theory.

A recent report projects the global digital payments market to grow at an annual rate of over 17 percent, enabling PayPal to continue to succeed as it expands its business.

3. DoorDash: Delivering Food Safely and Conveniently

Third-party food delivery services have become increasingly popular as more people opt for off-premises over in-person dining. This trend has recently surged in the US, with many Americans under shelter-in-place orders and restaurant owners facing stringent building capacity and sanitation guidelines.

According to research by data analytics company Second Measure, 44 percent of US consumers are using DoorDash as their preferred meal delivery platform.

DoorDash offers users a convenient way to order food without leaving their homes or making a phone call, and receive it via contactless delivery. It’s the largest platform of its kind in the US and has partnerships with over 310,000 restaurants.

As the need for contactless delivery has continued to rise amidst the coronavirus pandemic, the company has broadened its services to include orders from 7-Eleven, Wawa, Circle K, and CVS Pharmacy, enabling customers to get essential household products and over-the-counter medicines.

The global online food delivery services market is projected to grow from $111 billion in 2020 to $154 billion in 2023. DoorDash’s market share puts it in a prime spot to continue helping people get food and items delivered to their door safely and conveniently.

4. Nike: Serving the Needs of Runners

Nike sits atop the list of best-selling athletic apparel and footwear companies worldwide, but its rise to the upper echelons of the market began with a product geared toward a specific job that needed to be done.

In the mid-1960s, track and field coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman sought to engineer a shoe that could enable runners to run faster and lighter with less risk of injury. He conceived of a design with a soft sponge midsole through the ball and heel of the foot, intended to absorb road shock and reduce leg fatigue.

This idea resulted in the Cortez, which became a staple in Nike’s footwear lineup and was dubbed the “most popular long-distance training shoe in the US” by Runner’s World magazine in the early 1970s.

Since the Cortez’s success, Nike has continued to develop products that help athletes of all levels run with greater efficiency and support. Nike debuted its legendary Waffle Trainer in 1974, which provided runners with traction and cushioning that performed well on various surfaces.

More recently, the company has integrated carbon plates into shoes like the Zoom Vaporfly 4% and ZoomX Vaporfly Next%—a move that dramatically improves race performance for wearers of those models. In October 2019, Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge broke the two-hour marathon barrier wearing a carbon-plated prototype from the brand’s Alphafly series.

As professional and recreational runners alike continue to seek footwear to meet their training needs, Nike is well-positioned to deliver.

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Applying the Jobs to Be Done Framework

Viewing products and services through the lens of jobs to be done can broaden your business knowledge and set you up for career success. By focusing more on jobs that need doing than customer behaviors and demographics, you can foster innovation in the workplace and help your organization capitalize on, rather than succumb to, disruptive technology.

Do you want to discover jobs to be done and develop frameworks to better understand customers’ needs? Explore our six-week online course Disruptive Strategy, and learn about how you can identify what causes customers to buy your products and why.

Matt Gavin

About the Author

Matt Gavin is a member of the marketing team at Harvard Business School Online. Prior to returning to his home state of Massachusetts and joining HBS Online, he lived in North Carolina, where he held roles in news and content marketing. He has a background in video production and previously worked on several documentary films for Boston’s PBS station, WGBH. In his spare time, he enjoys running, exploring New England, and spending time with his family.