Sometimes a small shift in perspective can change how we see the world.

Don’t believe it? Well, consider this: In the sixteenth century, Copernicus realized that in fact, the planets — including the earth — circle the sun. Suddenly, viewed from this radically different perspective, humans could make mathematical sense out of the movements of the celestial bodies. Movements could be calculated with accuracy. The raw data didn’t change, but the lens through which it was viewed did. By simply changing his perspective, Copernicus challenged the centuries-old and widely accepted Aristotelian view that the heavenly bodies move in perfect circles around the earth. And that changed everything.

Or take the case of Louis Pasteur. Today, things like washing your hands before you eat and covering your mouth when you sneeze to avoid spreading germs are common practices. But that wasn’t always the case. While people knew of the physical existence of these tiny organisms as far back as the 1600s, scientists thought they were the result, rather than the cause, of illness. Disease was commonly thought to be spread by “bad air.” It wasn’t until 1861, when Louis Pasteur published his “Germ Theory” paper, that a causal connection between germs and contagious disease was made. This shift in perspective changed everything, paving the way for modern medicine and life-saving approaches to infection and disease.

And significant shifts in perspective don’t only happen in the realms of science or medicine. Intuit cofounder Scott Cook had his own “Copernican Moment” when he realized his company was going about solving his TurboTax customers’ problems in the completely wrong way. For years, his team had been focusing on improving the interview process that helped people get set up to complete their tax returns. Each year, they would ask customers how they could improve the process. And the TurboTax team dutifully incorporated more and more features based on customer feedback.

But it just wasn’t working. As he told Clay Christensen in Competing Against Luck, without a clear understanding of what the customers were hiring the product to do, “there was simply no way to differentiate which features were the right ones. It [was] like navigating without a compass.”

But then he had a realization: Customers didn’t want a better interview tool. They wanted TurboTax to do their taxes. Full stop.

This was a radically new way to look at the problem. Cook said that this shift in perspective was energizing, and led to a new burst of creativity. Now the team was aligned around the real purpose: figuring out a way to minimize or eliminate the interview, so that people could complete their taxes with as little struggle as possible.

Whether it’s the universe, germs, or a tax app, perspective not only shifts your understanding of the world — it provides a powerful framework from which you can begin to dominate a competitive landscape.

Such a shift might have served author and entrepreneur Sean Ammirati well. In his book The Science of Growth, like many curious minds before him, he spends a lot of time trying to figure out why some products fail and some succeed. At one point, Ammirati compares the personal finance sites Mint and Wesabe. Even though Mint launched several months later, it eventually overtook Wesabe and dominated the market. He comes up with a number of theories to explain the different choices that lead to either wild success or abject failure. Some of his ideas involve the relative strength of the founders’ vision and purpose, the quality of marketing efforts, and the ease of the user experience. And while his musings are interesting and have a degree of merit, ultimately there’s a problem with his conclusions: He is looking at the data through the wrong lens. Perspective, as it turns out, can make all the difference. And if we view the apparent enigmas addressed by Ammirati through the lens of Jobs To Be Done, suddenly the pieces all fit together.

As pioneering computer scientist Alan Kay once said, “A change in perspective is worth 80 IQ points.”

The Job To Be Done Lens

In fact, the Jobs to Be Done lens is potentially every bit as powerful in its effect on uncovering truths in innovation as the Copernican model is in relation to our understanding of the universe. If Sean Ammirati had only shifted his perspective and viewed the rise and fall of products through the lens of Jobs To Be Done, he may have had his own Copernican Moment.

And how does this all-powerful lens work? The Harvard Business Review explains Jobs Theory in a nutshell: “When we buy a product, we essentially 'hire' it to help us do a job. If it does the job well, the next time we’re confronted with the same job, we tend to hire that product again. And if it does a crummy job, we ‘fire’ it and look for an alternative.” Or, to put it another way, as Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt famously said, “People don’t want a quarter inch drill — they want a quarter inch hole.”

Christensen explains the power of this new way of looking at things in Competing Against Luck: “As you look at innovation through the lenses of the Jobs Theory, what you see is not the customer at the center of the innovation universe, but the customer’s Job to Be Done. It may seem like a small distinction— just a few minutes of arc— but it matters a great deal. In fact, it changes everything.”

A Look Through the Lens

So how might this new lens have changed Ammirati's assessment of product success and failure? In his book, he compares the personal finance sites Mint and Wesabe. Wesabe launched first, in 2006, but Mint went on to become the site of choice for users, quickly overtaking Wesabe, which folded in 2010. Ammirati points to a number of factors that he believes led to Wesabe’s demise at the hands of Mint. One of the largest was Mint's decision to use Yodlee, a data aggregator that allowed users to seamlessly connect Mint to their bank accounts and immediately begin “experiencing beautiful graphics,” with almost no set-up work on their part.

Ammirati further theorizes that Mint was able to pull out ahead because it did a better at optimizing their discoverability. He writes, “They understood that their potential customers would probably not be searching for personal financial management software … but would probably be searching for advice related to finance.”

In a 2010 blog, Wesabe founder Marc Hedlund opined that perhaps one reason his company lost to Mint was because “Mint focused on making the user do almost no work at all, by automatically editing and categorizing their data, reducing the number of fields in their signup form, and giving them immediate gratification as soon as they possibly could; we completely sucked at all of that.”

It’s not that these theories are outrageous or flat out wrong, it’s just that they’re looking at the problem through the wrong lens. It really boils down to something quite simple: Mint understood what people were hiring their software to do and Wesabe didn’t. Full stop. Mint knew the job that people were trying to do — understand their own finances — so therefore they knew how to make themselves discoverable. They also knew what people needed from their product, so they made it easy — through Yodlee — for people to do it. Simply put, Mint understood the job to be done and everything flowed from that: People wanted a way to easily understand and manage their personal finances. Period. Mint enabled them to do this better, more quickly and more effectively than Wesabe did. So Mint “won.” In 2009, Mint was acquired by Intuit, the makers of Quicken and TurboTax.

Mint didn't invent this job, of course: Before there was financial software, people hired financial advisers for the job of helping them understand and manage their finances. But what Mint did do was understand how to help people make better progress with the problem they were struggling with. Mint made it more convenient, less expensive, and simpler to understand and manage personal finances, thereby improving on the old way of doing this job; i.e., finding and hiring a financial adviser, going to meet them, trying to understand what they were talking about, etc. Wesabe didn't understand the job as well, and didn't make it that much easier for people to actually understand their finances — in fact, they required a lot of work on the part of the user.

By throwing up such an obstacle to switch products — all that up front work customers had to do — Wesabe didn’t offer enough incentive for people to fire whatever method they were already using to manage their finances. And that’s another important aspect of Jobs To Be Done - before someone will hire your product, they have to fire something else, even if that something else is nothing at all. Christensen points out that humans have a tendency to resist change — unless the alternative does the job much better. By truly understanding the Job to Be Done, you can then figure out ways to do the job better than whatever method people are currently using.

But Personas

You may be wondering about the role of personas in all this. How will you know which people want to do the given job? How will you know and understand who your customer is without detailed personas? Well, the beauty of understanding what people will be hiring your product to do is that the only persona that really matters is that of the person doing the job.

Once again, as Christensen explains, it all comes down to how you look at your data: “Jobs theory doesn’t require you to throw out the data and research you’ve already gathered … if you’re looking at it through the right lenses.”

Think of it this way: In the case of Mint, would it matter if the consumer who wanted to understand and manage their personal finances was a recent college graduate with heavy student loan debt or a retiree who was struggling to manage their IRA? The answer is no. When it comes to the progress people want to make — to understand and manage their personal finances — all you need to know is what people are trying to accomplish. If the product does that well and better than any other product, then it will succeed with anyone — young, old, urban, suburban, etc — who wants to hire your product to do that job.

The Two Sided Compass

The story of Mint and Wesabe demonstrates that understanding the job your product is going to perform for your customers — knowing, in effect, what they are hiring your product to do — is the key to understanding how to make a successful product that people will value. And there’s another benefit as well: The Jobs To Be Done lens can help organically align your entire organization around one common purpose. Christensen calls this effect a two sided compass, a sort of “intuitive playbook.”

Look at it this way. You know all that time you probably spend worrying about whether or not you're team is all on the same page? About whether or not your mission and purpose are inspiring and serve as real guideposts for your growth? About whether or not you can trust your team to make the right decisions on their own? About the best way to please your customers?

Once you use the Job To Be Done lens, these seemingly disparate issues can come together and be resolved. Suddenly everyone knows the organizing principle and reason your company exists, and it aligns with their daily work. Suddenly there is tangible purpose.

You’re there to help your customers make progress with something they struggle with. Jobs To Be Done not only helps you view problems in a way that you can make successful products, but being aligned around this concept as a company can help you accomplish this goal more effectively. Once the focus — the lens — turns to view the problem from the standpoint of jobs to be done, the correct action becomes more clear. And when everyone is aligned around this job, they can be trusted to make more autonomous decisions.

Putting Theory Into Practice

Jobs To Be Done is an elegant way to view innovation, but it can be a tricky and nuanced business to identify the right job to be done, and then execute the solution in such a way that customers will go on to hire your product. 

Luckily, we can take the guesswork out of creating your winning strategy. When we partner up with your team, we help you organize your thoughts, do the right research, ask the right questions, and test the right theories through actual job simulation to make sure you’re headed down the right path towards creating a successful product people will crave. The Knurture system, which includes Job Desirability Mapping, SLOW interviews, Sim Lab Sprints, and Playbooks -- essentially customized product roadmaps -- can help you nail the Job and ultimately meet your adoption goals.