Why a philosophical perspective?

Jobs-to-be-done theory has gained a lot of traction. The more people know and think about something, paradoxically, the vaguer a concept becomes. Suddenly different interpretations or accentuations arise and the meaning of the concepts seem to get streched to mean very different things. We need a clear answer to a simple and clear question: What is a Job-to-be-done?

That is, in fact, a philosophical question. Famously it was Socrates walking around ancient athens asking people what the belive justice, freedom or truth even is. We turned to philosophy to get insight on that question, since we have an in-house philosopher (Yann has an MA in philosophy and currently writes a PhD thesis in his free time).

It is time to bring clarity to the notion of a Job-to-be-done so that it becomes clear where it’s predictive power comes from.

The short answer

There’s a tendency to give long and complicated answers to simple questions. Especially if the answer is not clear. That is not the case here. In short here’s what a Job-to-be-done is: a causa finalis or a purpose cause.

That’s a notion coined by Aristotle (Physicy II.8) around 347 B.C. – more than 2000 years ago (Here’s the wikipedia link, if you want to go down that rabbithole if you’re more philosophically inclined we suggest the much richer and detailed article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). In what follows we will discuss why Aristotle is the place to turn to, what causes there are (for Aristotle) and why a Job-to-be-done is a purpose cause.

That will bring clarity to the discussions and anchor Jobs-to-be-done in a common and widely accepted notion of what we mean by a Job. In addition to clarity this will also show why the many different “interpretations” of Jobs-to-be-done theory have a common but as of yet concealed philosophical core.

“Why?” has many answers

Let’s start first by exploring in some more detail the root cause that let to some dillution of the concept.

The holy grail of innovation is understanding the “Why” of customer behaviour. Not necesserily the why in the sense of a golden circrle purpose Why but rather like this:

Why do customers act in this rather than another way?

Answering that question, especially for innovation, gives predictive insight: If we understand why people act in a certain way, we can build solutions that fits the way people behave. In short: We want innovations to be adopted, to achieve that, we want to understand why people act in this rather than another way.

But here’s the problem: There are many (categorically) different yet correct answers to that questions. Why did Sally buy the drill? Because it was offered at a lower price. Why did John take the train? Because he was reminded of how he used to do that as a student and wanted to revive the memory of these times. Why did Stephen cancel his subscription? Because he made a mistake.

All of these answers to questions about why customers act in this way rather than another can be correct. All of these explain the behaviour of these people, up to a certain point at least. That’s is a major reason why we are often at such a loss when we want to understand customers: There are so many correct answers to the why of their behaviour. Why questions can be answered by giving reasons, causes, depending on your philosophy of action even “reasons as causes” and so on.

Since there are many different ways of answers the question “why?”, we need to specify our question: What kind of “Why” do we want to know?

Which why do we want an answer to?

A lot of our efforts in innovation boil down to trying to predict customer behaviour. That is the reason we put so much emphasis on answering the why of customer behaviour: If we understand that, we will also know why (or why not) customers will adopt a solution in the future.

That’s why Clayton Christensen, as so often, hit the nail on the head when he emphasized that “Correlation does not reveal the one thing that matters most in innovation—the causality behind why I might purchase a particular solution” (Source). What we want to understand, the why we want an answer too is not an answer to correlations (because the price was lowered) but to causality.

So, the question “Why do customers act in this rather than another way?” becomes “What causes customers to act in this rather than another way?”

Jobs-to-be-done holds the promise to conceptually answer that question. Why do people buy drills? Beacuse they want a hole in the wall. Purchase or adoption is understood since the Job to be achieved is clear. As Christensen continues: “That answer, I believe, is found in the job I’m hiring a product or service to do.”(Source).

So far so good. But: Philosopher know since more than 2000 years that there are (at least) 4 different kinds of causes! Pinpointing the precise kind of cause that a Job-to-be-done is will clarify Jobs-to-be-done theory significantly and remedy some more confusions about the notion of a Job.

There are (at least) 4 different causes

For some it might be surprising to hear that there are different kinds of causes. A cause is a cause. If I let go of my pencil it will drop, cause and effect. What’s more to it?

In fact that is only one way to think of causes, although today the most prominent one. We are quite used to think of cause and effect as material, physical things acting upon each other: Billiard ball B moves forwards, because billiard ball A hit it with a strong enough force (caused itself by the billiard player moving the queue).

But Aristotle mentions three more causes – one if which, as mentioned above, is the cause Jobs-to-be-done is talking about. In philosophy there is a lot of debate around all of these causes, what they mean and if there are more but  we will not go into that here. These are the four causes Aristotle mentions:

  1. The material cause
  2. The formal cause
  3. The efficient cause
  4. The final cause

The material cause gives an answer as to the “out of what / that out of which” question. The standard example to explain this kind of cause goes something like this: What causes this statue to be so hard? The bronze it is made of. The cause of the ruggedness  of the staute is that out of which it is made. That’s not the kind of cause we are looking for when we think about innovation.

The formal cause answers a the different “form” question: Why does the statue look that way (what caused it to look this way)? The mold (form) which it was made from caused it to look that way. Again, that’s not the kind of cause we are looking for when we think about innovation and adoption.

The efficient cause is the most common way we think about causes today. It answers our questions as to what the soucre of (an often a physical) change is: What (or who) brought the statue about? Here we are getting somewhat dangerously close to an answer. But what Aristotle has in mind to answer that question would be a (physical) account of the movements and actions of the person producing the statute, much like the billiard ball example.

We suspect that it is not uncommon that our everyday notion (the efficient cause) of causality is getting confused with the cause Jobs-to-be-done has in mind. Note also that often in everyday life we believe that the cause of something must be prior to it’s effect. We need to let go of that notion to graps the causality Jobs-to-be-done is aiming at, it is only with that notion of causality that Jobs-to-be-done gets predictive power.

Causa finalis – the final cause as the Job-to-be-done

It is of course the fourth kind of cause that we are interested here: the final cause. This cause gives an answer to a very different question than the previous three: To what end was the statute built? What’s the sake that caused statue to be built?

You can instantly notice that who we ask this question makes a significant difference. If you’re asking the sculptor she might say “To make a living”. It’s her literal Job to build statues and that’s the end she builds the statue for. If you ask the patron, who ordered the statue, a quite different answer is likely, say “To honor the gods” or “To beautify my garden”. That is why any Job-to-be-done project needs to start with the stakeholders involved. Their Jobs will differ even if the same solution is involved.

It is this notion of cause that is meant when we talk about a Job-to-be-done. What causes a customer, say, to buy a product? The end she is actually trying to achive: The Job she wants to get done. Yes price and a variety of other things factor into the decision (we typically uncover around 100 such factors we call Value Metrics, i.e. Metrics customer use to judge how valuable a solution is to get the Job done), but fundamentally it’s their Job-to-be-done that causes them to want to buy in to begin with.

Future causes?

Some might be irritated by the fact that final causes “are in the future” and therefore not really causes. Causes preceed the effect, or so the story often goes. That is often the case and especially when we think of efficient causes. But: Christmas makes the sales go up (in some countries). To gift a give or to celebrate a holiday are Jobs that entail the future (or future events) that cause current behaviour.

That is where the predictive power of Jobs-to-be-done stems from: A Job is something customers want to get done (in the future) that causes them to act (today). This behaviour is, when you think about it, very common and we naturally do it all the time. It’s the purpose we want to achieve that makes us behave as we do.

That is why Jobs-to-be-done delivers such a great answer to the question of why customer behave one way rather than another: They act in accordance with the Job they want to achieve.

From a business perspective knowledge about the Job and what matters to people that want to get it done provides perspective from which the adoption of innovations can be estimated: Does the innovation help to get the Job done better than today?

Getting to an answer to that question involves some effort and a method to apply the Jobs-to-be-done logic. We call this CFI: Customer-Focused Innovation.

Progress, task, activity? Yes, Yes and Yes

Now that the relevant notion of causality is clear the different meanings and emphasis that are being put on Jobs-to-be-done can be clarified and even unified.

Is Jobs-to-be-done about progess? Yes, a whole Job is about what customers do to achieve the final cause.

Is Jobs-to-be-done about activities? Yes, the Job causes people to go through activities to achieve it.

Is Jobs-to-be-done about tasks? Yes, since the difference in meaning between activities and tasks is irrelevant.

Is Jobs-to-be-done about causes? Yes, most certainly.

From the understading of Jobs as final causes many of the discussion around Jobs-to-be-done become obsolete and are revealed as conceptually linked.

However, just knowing a Job is not enough and many different Jobs might be involved at different levels. Because the final cause is not always a given. The sculptor might say “to make a living” but of course making a living is not the final cause of the sculptor being a sculptor. We need to think in systems of final causes at different levels. And: Do we, as innovators, need to care about all of them? (No)

To organize all these different causes, activities, tasks – Jobs we developped what we call the Jobs-to-be-done hierarchy. It is helpful to structure a Job-to-be-done in a holistic way. And it is necessary to link the business intention of innovators and companies with the customer reality. For different business intentions different levels of the Job-to-be-done are more relevant: Leading a fulfilled life might be the final cause of all behaviour, but if you are building a new digital payment service – is that the level you want to be innovating at?

The Jobs-to-be-done hierarchy

This is a short introduction to the Jobs-to-be-done hierarchy. For more you can read here to learn how to apply it, here to get a general overview and here on how to apply it to increase certainty in innovation.

This is what a simplified hierarchy looks like:

In the middle is the Job-to-be-done that is in the focus of innovation efforts: The final cause customers are trying to achieve relevant for this specific purpose a company want to achieve of one stakeholder.

The Bigger Why are additional higher-level Jobs customers want to achieve. While “to make a living” might be the focus Job of a sculptor you want to innovation, but “to express yourself” could be a relevant Bigger Why influencing the Focus Job.

The Lower How are activities or task that people do to achieve the Focus Job. Up- and Downstream Jobs are Jobs that happen before and after the Focus Job is done.

Note that this hierarchy is a tool to scope the Job-to-be-innovated, i.e. it is a moving and living thing. A Lower How Job for one innovation project might be the Focus Job for another.

Scoping the Job-to-be-done is the first and often difficult step in applying Jobs-to-be-done and the confusions about the meaning of the concept add to the struggles involved in this first step.

Let’s frame your Jobs-to-be-done project together!

We consider ourselves as leading in the application of Jobs-to-be-done as we’ve used this logic in over 100 projects, often including a validation. As the initial framing of the Job-to-be-innovated is so crucial but also difficult we offer Framing workshops to get you Job-to-be-done project of the ground quickly and in the right direction: hello@vendbridge.com or schedule a call here.

We hope that this short philosophical intervention brought more clarity to the notion of a Job-to-be-done as a final cause in the aristotelian sense. This is only the first step the whole Jobs-to-be-done world and philosophy. If you want to learn more on Jobs-to-be-done, we have regular events coming up with true customer cases, you can see upcoming events here or sign up below to stay in the loop.

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