Originally published in the Harvard business review 

At the outset of a conference call with securities analysts in July to discuss Twitter’s second-quarter earnings, CEO Jack Dorsey laid out his company’s strategy: “We intend to build an ecosystem of connected features and services focused on serving three core jobs: news, which is what’s happening; discussion, conversation; and helping people get paid,” he said.

The language Dorsey used — “three core jobs” — refers to a concept called “jobs to be done,” which is an approach to defining a business from the perspective of what really matters to its customers.

Such strategic focus is essential for a company such as Twitter — which competes against a varied set of players ranging from Facebook and TikTok to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. And Twitter’s results have been impressive. Its daily active user count has grown above 200 million, up from 126 million at year-end 2018. It is on pace to cross $4 billion in annual revenue in 2021, up from a little more than $3 billion in 2018. And as of September 20, Twitter shares had appreciated over the past five years by 170%, which compares to 185% for Facebook.

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It wasn’t always this way for Twitter. As it turns out, jobs to be done has been a key tool in Twitter’s turnaround, which began in earnest after Jack Dorsey reassumed the CEO role in October 2015. At the time, the company was still evolving and its focus was unclear. Facebook was growing users at an astounding scale and pace, and Snapchat was the shiny, new social network set to take it on. In 2015, Twitter posted a net loss of $521 million on revenue of $2.2 billion, and its shares were trading below its IPO price of $26. As Dorsey described it later, at the Innosight CEO Summit in August 2019, “We got overly reactive to everything our peers were doing. We didn’t have a clear sense of what our purpose was, and that really hurt us a lot.” (Disclosure: Twitter has not been a client of our firm, Innosight, and he was an unpaid speaker at the 2019 CEO Summit.)

Dorsey and his team were grappling with one of the most profound questions every leader must answer: What business are we really in?

How an organization defines its business impacts nearly everything it does: what customers it serves, how it serves them, whom it competes against, what external forces it regards as relevant, how it interprets those forces, what strategies it contemplates and pursues, and how it innovates.

Yet too often this question is answered in ways that are overly constraining, myopic, and obscure what’s really happening in the world around them. Even worse, the wrong frame of reference can result in completely missing emerging threats and opportunities. This often happens when an organization defines itself by the products it sells (“we are in the insurance business” or “we are in the car business”) or by some other inward-looking characteristic such as its business model (“we are an online marketplace” or “we are in the rental business”) or a capability (“we are a software development business”).

What’s needed is a way to define a business from the perspective of what’s at the heart of any company’s success: its ability to create value for customers. The “jobs to be done” approach provides such a solution.

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A job can be a problem to solve (e.g., “repair my car,” “soothe my sore throat”) or a goal (e.g., “run a marathon,” “get into college”). When jobs arise, people are motivated to seek products, services, or experiences to “hire” to perform those jobs, just like they might hire a person to do a job such as fixing a leaky pipe or babysitting the kids.

The idea can also be used to define strategic direction — and has particular value as a way of framing an organization’s identity.

How Twitter Applied the Approach

For Dorsey, jobs to be done provided a tool for strategic clarity at a critical time. “It cleared something up that was missing for me, which was how do we plan and build around a customer-centric framework that would focus the organization on why our customers are coming to us in the first place,” he said. Upon his 2015 return to Twitter, Dorsey launched an effort to identify the jobs that people hired Twitter for and, importantly, which jobs it would focus on going forward. It involved three steps.

1. Understand the full set of jobs for which Twitter was already being “hired.”

The company obtained this information by gathering insights from customer interviews, observations of how people engaged with Twitter, and data gathered from website usage.

This generated a long list of quite specific jobs, which could then be aggregated into higher-level jobs to consider for strategic prioritization. For example, jobs such as “get real-time updates about a live sporting event,” “learn more about a longstanding interest or hobby,” or “be alerted to breaking news events” could all be grouped into the higher-level of job of “inform me.”

2. Prioritize the jobs Twitter wanted to focus on.

This was done via workshops in which company leaders evaluated the list of jobs by criteria such as how widely they were shared by customers, the expected value of solving them, and where Twitter had a compelling and differentiated solution. The result was alignment around three priority jobs for Twitter consumers: “inform me,” “have a conversation,” and “inform others.” Similar work was done to identify the priority jobs of other Twitter stakeholders such as advertisers and the developer community.

3. Communicate the results and use them to allocate resources.

Ultimately, priority jobs were communicated throughout the company. They also provided a powerful mechanism for focusing how resources were allocated. For example, once the strategic jobs were identified, all product groups and teams reviewed their existing product roadmaps and assessed, for each project, how it connected to one of the priority jobs. If it couldn’t be connected, the product was taken off the roadmap. The jobs framework also helped move the organization from describing its strategy in terms of features to developing longer-term plans aimed at solving priority jobs to be done.

The framework was also applied at Dorsey’s other company, Square, to help the financial services and mobile payments company redefine its business and figure out where it might look for growth. The initial approach it took was similar to that of Twitter: The company gleaned insights into the jobs to be done from customer interviews and observations of how business owners used Square solutions. For instance, Square’s managers realized that its technology, which enabled small businesses to process credit cards, was a means to solving the broader job of “grow my business.”

That realization opened up the team’s eyes to other opportunities. For example, growth requires access to capital, and many small businesses have difficulty obtaining bank loans. Square responded by launching Square Capital (now called Square Loans), which leverages its deep understanding of its customers’ financial health (derived from their transaction history) to provide them with direct access to capital.

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The Value of a Jobs Perspective

Defining an organization from the perspective of the customer jobs it exists to solve often leads to valuable new insights about the competitive environment, risks, and opportunities, while expanding the possibilities for growth and innovation. To illustrate this, consider the contrasting implications of a car company defining its business from a product perspective (“we are in the car business”) versus a jobs perspective (“we are in the personal mobility business”).

Viewing a market through the “jobs to be done” lens produces a much broader picture of the competitive landscape.

“We are in the car business”“We are in the personal mobility business”
Primary Lens
ProductsJobs to be done
CompetitionAutomakersAutomakers, ride-hailing (e.g., Uber, Lyft), rental cars, walking, biking, videoconferencing, home delivery services
How we competeBy making higher-performing cars with more featuresBy serving consumers’ jobs to be done in novel and unexpected ways — through innovation in the core business (e.g., electrification, new-purchase experiences) or in new business lines (e.g., fleet services, micromobility)
Market sizeMeasured in total vehicle sales (cars, trucks, SUVs)Measured in vehicle sales plus other mobility-related markets (e.g., ride-hailing, e-bikes, in-vehicle entertainment) ― any intersection of jobs to be done and circumstances in which people or things need to be moved from A to B
Innovation leversAdvancing technology to create better-performing, more richly featured carsProduct innovation plus business model innovation such as new products and services, new user experiences, new financial models
Trends to worry aboutIncreased preferences for SUVs, advances in electric propulsion systems, rise of driver-assist features, autonomous car technology, consumer focus on connectivity, new distribution channelsAll of the product-related trends plus increased demand for personal mobility services (e.g., scooters), increased use of videoconferencing or telecommuting, advances in drone delivery technology, activities of nontraditional competitors (e.g., Google)
Source: Innosight© HBR.org

Clearly, these two perspectives lead to very different conclusions about what’s happening in the world, what developments merit attention, and what the strategic options are.

Beyond the clarity it provides, we’ve observed three primary benefits of the jobs-to-be-done approach:

Expanding options for strategy and innovation.

 

Jobs provides a customer-centric lens for strategy development, clarifies who the real competition is, and opens up a range of new avenues for growth and innovation.

Investing in what matters most.

When everyone in the organization understands and is oriented towards the jobs it exists to solve, employees at all levels are empowered to make better decisions in their day-to-day tasks.

Aligning and inspiring the organization.

Clarifying the priority jobs your firm exists to solve helps all employees understand how the organization creates value in the world and realizes its purpose. It also plays an important alignment role by communicating strategic focus and ensuring this is a shared language and methodology for innovation, product development, and developing customer insights.

All organizations should reflect on the customer jobs they’ve solved up to the current moment and determine how this focus might need to change in the future. By doing so, they can can chart a clear path forward.

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