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Thumbs Down for the “Jobs to Be Done” Innovation Book by Anthony Ulwick

Thumbs Down for the “Jobs to Be Done” Innovation Book by Anthony Ulwick

I recently picked up Anthony Ulwick’s book Jobs to be Done:  Theory to Practice looking forward to interesting innovation insights. (This theory is also shortened to JTBD or the hashtag #JTBD.)

But I had barely started the book when I found a claim that the JTBD method has an 86% success rate… based on an oddly tiny number of only 21 projects. No one (absolutely no one) should calculate percentages with 21 cases much less make that flakey number the centerpiece of a book on innovation as it is here. This raises concerns for me about Ulwick and his commitment.

Given these low quantities, it’s likely that most positives result from things other than JTBD. Personal involvement by Ulwick and his company might have caused a placebo effect. Hidden operational strategies might have delivered the success. Or Ulwick’s team might have narrowed goals — giving up the higher risk goals innovation projects should carry.

When I discussed this with a good friend, and experienced market research expert, they recommended I throw the book out. This researcher has no patience for manipulation like this. Truth is Ulwick’s JTBD approach’s true numbers might actually be the same as the 17% success everyone else gets – no way to know. But 86% is NOT to be trusted

I chose to read further since this book has become popular. And, I am not a fan. Some key thoughts:

Ulwick’s hype is almost overwhelming. He can’t seem to avoid exaggerating. Even people who like JTBD complain to me about the hype. Ulwick tells us his method learns every possible thing about every possible customer in order to leave nothing out. He tells us we have to follow his method to a tee and get our entire company to adopt it. We are told this method does things that weren’t possible “until now” (except I’ve been doing these things for over 30 years). He even claims JTBD theory “unlocks the mystery” of innovation – I guess making it as easy as filling out your taxes. This book is difficult reading for those like me who are concerned by an overhyped consultant culture that underdelivers at high cost.

Ulwick’s closed-ended approach is bad methodology. I’ve spent 35 years (so far) with innovation. There is no process that is complete. We must work in ways that allow for, and seek, surprises – leave open doors so that good things come through them. We must be prepared to re-work strategies based on what we discover. We must know our customers, being human, are so complex that no 2 by 2 matrix or 10 point methodology can summarize them nor discover all that is important. (You might find this post from my blog interesting.)

“But”, people challenge me, “Ulwick basically just says to listen to customers and that’s good.” Listening to customers IS good – when you listen with an open mind. But JTBD theory gives us a list of items to be categorized, filled in, compiled, tabulated, percentagized, etc….. We are told to make lists, compile matrices, etc, etc. Busy-work like this gets in the way of listening. A more powerful innovation strategy is to shut the laptop and listen!!!

Ulwick’s research recommendations are ill considered. On page 87 there is a discussion of the kinds of questions for research.

    1.  The book says “It’s incorrect to ask ‘what job did you hire that product to do’?” Absolutely right. That’s a terrible question.
    2. Instead, Ulwick recommends, “Ask ‘Why are you using that product, what job are you ultimately trying to get done’?” Wow. Absolutely wrong. That’s a terrible question, too.
    3. His revised question reveals structure that is designed for the engineer – not the customer. Truly great innovation research MUST be customer centric. Lots of looking and discussion about behavior when using the product. Discussion of the other products yours works alongside. Discussions of the total project or ultimate thing to get done. Discuss how that project/thing fits in their lives. Discuss frustrations getting done what they want (related or unrelated to your product). Discuss frustrations in their social network around the product. Etc… THEN, match the vision of how your product fits customers with the possibilities you search out for innovation.
    4. This requires wide open research – NOT CLOSED ENDED. I am incredulous that he claims to have lots of experience yet makes a comment like the above. That’s the comment of an inexperienced or corporately bureaucratic researcher – not an innovator.

Other people challenge me with “But there are case studies.” These made me hopeful. Unfortunately, one particular case study was the final nail in the coffin. I’ve spent 25 years marketing hardware and tool innovations including circular saws and know the category of his Bosch case study very well.

    1. Ulwick claims: “There had not been much innovation in the circular saw market. …It was perceived as mature and commodity-like.” My reply:  By who? Bosch? That’s my guess. Customers and carpenters I know never saw it that way. And, for example, companies like Festool (eventually followed by DeWalt and Triton) created the track saw – a radical advance on the circular saw – far more interesting than anything Ulwick suggests. Most recently Kreg Tool has introduced an exceptional set of circular saw accessories for ripping and cutting sheet goods to support building with their pocket hole & screw products.
    2. Ulwick claims: There was a “hidden segment” of “finish and advanced carpenters”. My reply:  These weren’t hidden (Wikipedia tells me their union was formed in 1881). My hunch is they may have been hidden to Bosh and Ulwick due to weak understanding of the market. This comment probably says more about Ulwick than the market. In fact, the Festool, DeWalt, Triton, and Kreg products ALL target finish and advanced carpenters.
    3. Ulwick Claims:  Bosch made innovative changes – like directly connecting the extension cord to the saw and making it easier to see the blade working on the cut line. My reply:  My cheap Black & Decker hedge trimmer had that cord connection already in 1995 and the changes for visibility are nice, but not game changing.
    4. My bottom line:  These are nice incremental changes. And Bosch, apparently, had a sweet introduction of the saw in the US market. Knowing that market well, we don’t know if Bosch’s success was a result of the incremental innovations. Bosch set up outstanding retail distribution with a wide range of products and there was existing latent demand. Hard to identify the impact of incremental innovations in a market that robust.
    5. The nature of the changes speak poorly for JTBD and make me concerned that it’s a small ball methodology.

All-in-all, I come away from the book even more mystified by the popularity of Jobs to be Done.

Ulwick makes a fundamental error that will hurt innovation results. I’ve been reading lately about the difference between “complex” and “complicated” problems as describe by Rick Nason in his recent book It’s Not Complicated. Nason developed the book based on reading the scientific work on complexity and looked to apply the theory in business.

Nason points out that business tends to decide all problems are complicated – the types of problems that can be reduced into smaller problems and solved by conquering each smaller problem. By contrast, Nason points out that complex problems, when solved appropriately, create the biggest strategic advantage for companies. Yet to make progress with complex problems, you cannot use the reduction approach.

Innovation is, by it’s nature, a complex problem (that’s what’s tremendously exciting about it). Yet Ulwick offers us a classic complicated solution to a complex problem. Nason points out that trying to use reductionist approaches with complex, more holistic, problems will always be wrong. In other words, the underwhelming result of the Bosch case study result is to be expected.

My conclusions on Ulwick’s approach to Jobs to be Done

There are many individuals who have found inspiration in Ulwick’s JTBD and it’s good that people find individual inspiration they can use to build their individual visions.

Still, there is reason to be concerned that this book’s popularity might broadly hurt innovation results. (Many executives are already concerned about low ROI from innovation spending.) Ulwick’s Jobs to be Done theory is a small-ball approach — so conservative and cautious that it won’t create a foundation for the kind of innovations Clayton Christensen features in his books.

There are some things of value in the book like the idea of listening to customers and a couple of structures he suggests for thinking about customers. But these good things are few and far between.

And the word “Job” is a poor choice – it limits the imagination. Innovators must deliver things people want – whether jobs or opportunity or entertainment or whatever the customer values. (Here is a post I’ve written about drills discussing how difficult it is to sort out the drill’s “job”.) Innovators should seek only to “make something customers will buy” (in the immortal HBR published “Vision Trap” words of Jerry Langler). What’s been fascinating has been listening to the mental gymnastics of JTBD enthusiasts trying make all situations fit “a job”.

There are books that are more useful – though no single book will do it. (Part of Ulwick’s error is claiming one theory covers it all.) Let me recommend a few stimulating or provocative books. Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis, et. al., The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig, and The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. And as a cautionary read, Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (it’s a short, readable novel).

Closing Thoughts

While I’m a liberal arts undergraduate with an MS in Applied Mathematics, my background isn’t all that different from Ulwick’s – including extensive experience in tech. Walking away from the book I have a sad sense of an engineer who discovered some things, turned that limited view into a broad theory, yet never gathered broad enough experience for that theory to become wise.

Ulwick is wrong to claim to have discovered “one way”. Innovators can claim mastery only when they understand that success happens by knowing 100 different approaches to creating powerful innovation and using the 4-5 that are most important for today’s situation. (A jobs based analysis is right for some challenges – but only some.) This is also true for market research supporting innovation discovery – there are 100’s of approaches. Masters of innovation choose the ones that are most productive today.

Part of the popularity of this book and method comes from Ulwick’s claim of a powerful connection with Clayton Christensen. It’s not clear to me how much connection exists other than Christensen is being a passive party by allowing it. (Sure helps with marketing Ulwick’s consulting company, though.)

Ulwick’s popularity also comes from promising a neat and tidy solution of the kind that appeals to executives. Unfortunately, in making executives happy, he ensures they’ll get a lower return on the investment they’re putting into innovation.

Fortunately, we all get to choose much of our destiny. So it’s time to get back to what’s truly important:  the incredibly complex challenge of innovation.

Copyright 2018 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved







Categories:   Business and Strategy, Innovation


  • Posted: June 4, 2018 14:15

    Alan Klement

    Thanks for sharing Doug. I'm sure you're aware of the divide between the pro-Ulwick/ODI and the Christensen/Klement/Moesta interpretations of JTBD. I would like to read a review by you of my book, "When Coffee and Kale Compete". You can get a copy on amazon (link below) or I can send you a copy for free. It's a book about JTBD that came out just before Christensen and Ulwick released their JTBD books. Also, if you haven't already, I wrote an article with the hopes of resolving the confusion around the phrase "jobs to be done" (Link below) I hope you can find the time to review my book. LMK if I can help in that regard.
    • Posted: June 5, 2018 00:56

      Doug Garnett

      Thanks, Alan. I have one on the way from Amazon. Looking forward to browsing it. Will dig into the articles in the next day or two. What's intriguing to me in these discussion is many come from an engineering theory that there's a "best practice". I don't think there is. There are many practices and approaches. The key to innovation is sorting out how to approach THIS situation TODAY. Let me refer you to another post - one about innovation and what I learned studying art. There are incredible themes among artists for discovering innovation. Thanks!