Where Is The Real Value Being Added By Your Approach?


Saturday, 6.40pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Price is what you pay, Value is what you get – Warren Buffett

In the last post of my Community book project I started to explore the idea of tasks, of jobs that needed to be done and how that might operate in a community setting. What does it mean to have a job – a task to do when it comes to being together in groups?

Imagine a large family get-together, a party of some kind. You arrive early and, when you get there, are you immediately given something to do – a job to carry out, a way to help? Or are you left alone, to wander around aimlessly while everyone else rushes to get things done? Don’t you feel out of place, obliged to ask if you can help, happy if you are involved? I think having something to do together has deep biological and sociological roots stabilizing our sense of community and togetherness.

If you doubt that just think of what happens to communities when they have nothing to do. You have the images of a superstore opening, Walmart coming to town, and town shopping centres turning into ghost spaces, where the only ones that can survive are niche stores, betting shops and charity shops. Do you still have a corner store? Do you know the names of anyone that serves you? And, of course, the availability of apps makes it even less necessary to interact with anyone. You place an order and someone brings it to your table. But there’s no need to talk, apart from perhaps to say “Thank you.” But you don’t have to, do you?

One argument is that jobs are always changing, so while some are lost others open up. Of course, it means that some people are lost along the way, but isn’t that the price of progress? In countries where there is a social safety net, isn’t that the whole point of having them? It’s never that easy, unfortunately, as the scars of job losses, when they are the result of a loss of purpose, can sear through generations. So we should really be asking ourselves at least two questions? What is going to come along and take my job away? And what kind of job am I likely to be able to keep?

Let’s start with the first one, because it can be argued that the entire purpose of innovation is to make certain jobs redundant. And if you understand that principle then you might have a better chance of coming up with a useful innovation.

Let’s take a step back – what do you think of when you think of an innovation? The image we have is of something new, something different, something cool. And yes, that’s what we see, but that’s not what innovation really is. I came across a paper called Segmentation & the Jobs-to-be-done theory: A Conceptual Approach to Explaining Product Failure by Klaus Oestreicher, that has a few interesting ideas that I’d like to explore. The link to the paper is in the references below.

Oestreicher’s starting point is to suggest that instead of looking at what we think a customer needs we should look at what they need to get done – something Clayton Christensen called a “jobs-to-be-done” theory. The point is that customers very rarely know what they need. They find it very hard to tell you what kind of product or service innovation will solve their problem, or what precise solution they will be willing to buy. What they can usually tell you, on the other hand, is what they are doing now, what works for them, what they can live with and the problems and frustrations they have. And hidden in this narrative is the information you need to come up with something both innovative and commercially viable.

Let’s take an example – think of what a writer does. A writer is first a reader, a thinker, someone who wants to express herself or himself in writing. The origins of writing, however, are rooted in business, in the need for tabulating and accounting for goods and exchanges and debts. Writing is also perhaps almost as closely linked to telling the stories of great people, ballads and histories and legends to maintain reputations. Money and power have always been linked to the ability to put words on a medium.

The jobs to be done in the early days of writing came down to the selection of instrument, of medium and of surface. Sticks, clay and walls for our stone age ancestors, quills, vellum and ink in medieval Europe, brushes, bones and soot, and paper in China. The jobs were laborious and took time and the results, once down, took time to replicate. If you wanted a copy of a manuscript you had to copy it out by hand.

To really understand what was involved in creating and distributing books you could list out all the tasks, creating something that Vandermerwe called a Customer Activity Cycle (CAC) as described by Oestreicher. What you’ll see is lots of innovation – what the people who did cave drawings did was an act of stupendous innovation. But what is it that results in one innovation replacing the previous innovation? What made the printing press replace the hand-copying of books? Now, printing versus hand-copying seems to have obvious benefits – humans have certain disadvantages when it comes to competing against machines. But as you gained in speed and consistency you lost the ability to do other things as easily – for example mixing words and pictures. The argument here is that printing won because it did the jobs that needed to be done sufficiently better to make it a good idea to switch to the new medium.

In Oestreicher’s paper he uses the example of VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray to demonstrate his argument. DVD was of much better quality than VHS and didn’t degrade with each play and eventually made VHS obsolete. It didn’t really reduce the number of jobs a user had to do to play a movie – you still had to buy the medium, the player and insert the media. Blu-Ray was of higher quality than a DVD but not as much better as a DVD was than a VHS and so the argument is that we didn’t switch from DVD to Blu-Ray because what we had was already good enough. Now, this is not necessarily making the argument that what’s driven innovation is reducing jobs to be done. That innovation perhaps was in replacing live theatre with recordings that you could play back later. The real next innovation is in streaming, which truly reduces the jobs to be done. Now, you select a film from your list, click buy and play. None of that going to the shop and having to buy it sort of stuff is involved and there are truly fewer jobs to be done.

So what this should tell is if your job requires the consumer to go somewhere, then you have to ask yourself whether there is an innovation out there that makes that unnecessary. And 2020 has shown us how that would work because we now have the language of essential and non-essential jobs. Getting a haircut and getting medical treatment are essential. Eating out and going to a classroom to learn are less so. Stocking supermarket shelves with food is essential. A shop selling almost anything else is not.

When I think of jobs to be done I think of a busy kitchen – hence the image at the start of this post. The irony of that is there aren’t that many of those open now. So we need a new picture, perhaps, to think of our work and what we do. Because we need to do work in order to have a community – but those communities will be different. We know our neighbours better now but spend less time at work but perhaps more time communicating. We are getting used to the idea that we can work with anyone and we can get anything, but it takes more time to get the right thing.

I think where this heads to is that we have to become more intentional about what we are going to do – for us and for our future generations. The idea that there are tasks to be done, jobs to be done is not enough with the changes happening around us. If you want to protect yourself what you have to do is create a job that no one else can do. That’s the kind of job you are going to be able to keep, something that you’ve brought into existence that creates unique value that no one else can replicate. That means you have to go from being passive – from being someone who looks for work – to being someone who creates opportunities and demonstrates value.

And that starts with learning how to speak your mind, how to put yourself in the way of opportunity. Let’s look at that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

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