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Teach outcome orientation to yourself and others: What are the customers' Jobs To Be Done?

Published in Agile

Written by

Antti Tevanlinna
Senior Enterprise Coach

Tevis is an agile coach who mixes strategy, outcome-thinking, and agile. He writes weekly on all matters related #productleadership.


September 11, 2023 · 7 min read time

Outcome orientation is a significant trend in product leadership, and we are constantly encouraged to focus on outcomes. The approach is gaining popularity because it allows organisations to create valuable products by ensuring that the development process is genuinely guided by customer needs. This article focuses on the customers' Jobs To Be Done.

The first article introduced a simple backward-working method: the hypothesis statement. This article, in turn, focuses on understanding why people "hire" specific products or services to get certain jobs or tasks done in their lives. The concept comes originally from Clayton Christensen (1952-2020), a Harvard Business School professor. 

The Jobs To Be Done framework looks at product development through an outcome-oriented lens and asks: What are the customers' underlying needs and motivations for using our product or service? 

In this article, we investigate the Jobs To Be Done framework through Clayton Christensen's story about how to increase sales of milkshakes. 

Storytelling is one of the best ways to introduce new concepts in an impactful way. The best stories combine learnings with a deep connection to the world. Telling a story invites the listener to fill in the blanks and consider how they would have behaved in such a situation.

Telling the milkshake story is our preferred way of getting people to see outcomes from the customer point of view.

Part 1: The story begins (the futility of the current way)

McDonald’s wanted to increase the sales of milkshakes. They had data on sales volumes, competitors, and the characteristics of the buyers.

The company was resourceful and had good facilities for innovation. They invited people matching their ideal customers to come into focus groups, where they were asked how McDonald’s should change the milkshake so that customers would want to buy more of it. The company was trying to determine whether to make the milkshake more chocolatier, sweeter, thicker, and so forth. The customers would give straightforward and clear feedback, and the company tried many of the suggested changes. None of them would, however, change the sales or profitability in any way. 

The outcome-thinkers synopsis of part 1:

The story does a great job, starting with the failed attempt to ask the customers what they want. The initial struggle begins the story. 

Part 2: Digging deep (the clues) 

Next, one of Christensen's colleagues went to one of the restaurants for a whole day to observe and take careful notes. For 18 hours, he would stand outside the restaurant with one question: "I wonder what job the customers hire the milkshake to do for them?"  

He took detailed notes on the customers and their visits. What would customers order? Were they alone or with someone? What were they wearing? Did they eat in or take the order to go? Did they buy a meal or just the milkshake? 

It turned out that nearly half of the milkshakes were sold early in the morning. It was always one single person. The milkshake was the only thing they bought, and they got into a car and drove off with it.

The outcome-thinkers synopsis of part 2: 

There is both progress and mystery. The key piece of data on high morning sales is revealed at the end. While many of us agree that this is the right way to do research, the story keeps the grip. There are clues but no resolution yet.  

Part 3: The mystery unravels (the resolution)  

The next day, the researcher comes back and confronts the people buying milkshakes: "Could you tell me what job you were trying to do today when you came here to get this milkshake?" 

The customers would struggle to answer, so the researcher would ask another question: “When you have been in the same situation before, needing to get the job done, what did you hire?” 

It turned out that the customers all had a similar job. They had a long drive and a boring commute ahead of them. They just needed something to do when they were driving. One hand had to be on the wheel, but God had given them the other hand as a cupholder. They knew they were not hungry yet but would be around 10 o'clock. They wanted something that would keep the hunger away until lunch.  

The customers would say: "Gee - what do I use on the other mornings when I don't take a milkshake? I remember one day when I hired a banana. It was gone in two minutes, and I was hungry at nine. I also hire donuts occasionally, but they get my fingers sticky, making the steering wheel dirty. I sometimes hire donuts. However, they are dry and tasteless, and I get crumbs all over my clothes. I once hired a Snickers bar, but that made me feel so guilty.  

Let me tell you: when I hire one of these milkshakes, it is so vicious that it takes me 20 minutes to suck it up with that little straw. Who cares what the ingredients are, but I know that I'm still not hungry at 12 o'clock, and it fits right in that cupholder."   

It turns out the milkshake does the job better than any of the competitors. The competitors are not Burger King milkshakes but donuts, bananas, Snickers, and bagels. And very importantly, the milkshake is hired to fight boredom and hunger.  

The outcome-thinkers synopsis of part 3:  

Part 3 presents the new frame with the resolution of the dilemma. The new frame is how people "hire" products to do a job. You might not notice the repetition of the construct that "people hire products to get a job done", but it repeats in variations throughout the story. The story keeps explaining why the milkshake is the best product for the job.   

Notice how customer choice and competition are nicely included in the story. The customer has a choice. The context of the job clearly becomes a factor in the choice. The milkshake story also depicts segmenting and competition around the job to be done.  

Outro: Using the new frame in innovation  

Now it is clear how to match the customers' job better. McDonald's could: 

  1. Make the milkshake even thicker to make it last longer.

  2. Add pieces of fruit into the mix. Not because of health reasons but to add variation to the experience. Now and then, the customer would suck up a piece of fruit that would break the monotony of drinking a milkshake.

  3. Install a small booth next to the restaurant door where people could zip in and get their milkshake to go in seconds. 

The outcome-thinkers synopsis of the outro: 

The outro finally applies the new frame to creating new ideas. It reinforces the new way of thinking and shows how the thinking frame works in practice. 

The core message in the story and the jobs-to-be-done framework is that people hire products and services to get a job done. Using the framework allows us to define customer needs in a measurable way and identify outcomes relevant to the target audience. 

Tell the story forward

You could explain and teach people to think about Jobs To Be Done with slides. The concept is simple enough. You would likely miss the buildup of mystery, the nods of head in approval, and the smiles as the story progresses. People engage on a different level when you tell a story. 

You can, however, tell the milkshake story yourself. The steps are simple:

  1. Google “Clayton Christensen Milkshake story”.

  2. Make written notes of all the key pointers in the storyline. Memorise enough to tell the story.

  3. Tell the story.

People will appreciate your effort even if you don’t achieve perfection.

The important bit is the story of customers and the business.

An article series on outcomes

This blog is the second in a series of five articles investigating how to adopt an outcome-oriented mindset and apply it to our daily work. Each piece will discuss one mind trick that helps us change our thinking, and the next one will focus on making outcomes measurable.

Want to know more about practical outcome orientation and how to use it to create valuable and successful products?

The methods discussed in this five-part article series form the backbone of the Nitor Product Ownership training, which we have built to help you take on and thrive in the Product Owner role. This practical training gives you the skills and confidence to work as a product owner, which is the hardest and the most crucial role for the success of an agile organisation. 

Read more about the training here. 

Written by

Antti Tevanlinna
Senior Enterprise Coach

Tevis is an agile coach who mixes strategy, outcome-thinking, and agile. He writes weekly on all matters related #productleadership.

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