Flippers aren’t about swimming: Innovating with Jobs to be Done

4 min read
Sara Conklin
  •  Oct 10, 2018
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I want a pair of flippers for my birthday,” my 7-year-old announced today. “But, I am not actually into flippers.”

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This baffling statement came after a day at a friend’s backyard swimming pool where my daughter had her first-ever encounter with a pair of flippers. She spent several hours splashing around with them, evidently delighted. At supper that night she waxed eloquent on the subject of flippers. She told me how great they were. She prattled on about them. And then she requested a pair of flippers for her birthday, with the baffling caveat, “I am not actually into flippers.”

I was mystified. What could she possibly mean by that? As it turns out, what she said next powerfully illuminates the theory of Jobs to be Done in 4 key ways.

Jobs to Be Done: A theory of innovation

Jobs to be Done is an innovation theory proposed by Clayton Christensen and since popularized in product management and UX communities. Its key premise is that people do not want to buy products; they want to make progress in their lives. When people buy a product they are really “hiring” it to do a “Job”Twitter Logo that will help them make that progress in a given circumstance. The Job has functional elements,but often has social and emotional elements, too.

Let’s apply this to something we all have: a door. I need my door to keep intruders out of my house (functional), but I also want it to fit in with my neighbors (social), and to feel safe when I go to sleep at night (emotional).

When companies create disruptive or step-wise product innovation, the theory goes, it’s because they discovered a new way of solving a Job to be Done better than anybody else.

But…Jobs? Social elements?

For many product managers and UXers, these concepts are foreign to the way we innovate products. We may think about market segments, features, functions, workflows, pricing structures, and conversion funnels—but Jobs Theory makes powerful arguments that disruptive product innovation prioritizes first discovering and solving a Job to be Done. Which brings me back to the flippers.

“Your product innovations are only as good as your understanding of users’ Jobs to be Done.”

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Innovating the flipper

Flippers are long, flexible footwear that help you swim faster. A quick internet search on “why do people swim with flippers?” reveals a variety of swimming websites, such as this one, touting a number of advantages to swimming with flippers: more streamlined body position, helping swimmers remember to kick, increased range of motion in your ankles. Indeed, flippers sound like a great tool for improving at swimming.

To create the next innovation in flippers, many product teams might ask: How can we help people improve at swimming even more? What features would make flippers help people maintain an even more streamlined body position? What would make it easier to remember to bring your flippers to the pool? Perhaps flippers need a sensor and companion app to digitally monitor degree of flippage?

Flippers are not always about swimming

Those questions might result in useful innovations, but not a single one of them would matter to my 7-year-old, because—as I found out—improving at swimming is not her Job to be Done. I know this because she told me so. Immediately after “I’m not actually into flippers,” her eyes sparkled and she smiled dreamily. She said, “I’m into…” (dramatic pause) “… being a mermaid.”

And with that, Jobs theory came into simple focus in 3 key ways.

People don’t care about your product. They care about making progress in their lives.

As she so clearly articulated, my daughter wants to feel like a mermaid. Flippers are the best product she’s hired so far to do that Job. But, flipper-manufacturers, beware: as soon as another product does that Job better, she’ll be switching. She doesn’t actually care about flippers.

Social and emotional elements of a Job can be more powerful than functional elements.

“People don’t care about your product. They care about making progress in their lives.”

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In this example, the flippers performed a functional role, making it easier to glide through the water. But the feeling of being a mermaid and the social opportunity to engage in dramatic play is why I’ll be shelling out the money for flippers on her next birthday.

You discover Jobs to be done by deeply listening to different types of users.

The progress my daughter is trying to make in in her life, in the context of swimming, is to have fun and enjoy imaginative water play. She “hired” a pair of flippers to do the Job of making her feel like a mermaid. Most people won’t come right and tell you what their Job is—you have to ask the right questions to deeply understand what they are really trying to accomplish.

Your product innovations are only as good as your understanding of users’ Jobs to be Done.

“Improve at swimming” and “Feel like a mermaid” are both Jobs one can hire flippers to perform. From an innovation perspective, a product team will create dramatically different innovations depending on which Job they innovate for. An internet search for “mermaid flippers” reveals that at least some product teams have already innovated for the Feel like a Mermaid Job.

How might flippers be further innovated for this Job? For the vast majority of us who don’t make flippers for a living, that’s an academic question. But we all have flipper-equivalents. I will be thinking long and hard about mine, and I’ll be innovating for the mermaids.

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