How to innovate. Focus on jobs to be done.

It’s a struggle for me to make something innovative. Often it seems like everything good has already been done. There’s already at least 20 competitors doing what I want to do.

Draft is a software project I’ve been working on to help people write better. So far I’ve been incredibly blessed to receive more positive feedback on this creation than anything else I’ve ever personally produced.

But before this I was getting stuck on some project management software I was making.

Clayton Christensen is the famous author of business books like Innovators Solution. Clayton advises wannabe innovators to focus on the jobs people are trying to hire products for. He describes a fast food company that figured out how to finally improve their product development when they stopped worrying about “market research” and instead spent time figuring out what jobs people were hiring their milkshakes for. 

Similar to Clayton’s “jobs to be done” thinking, I’ve enjoyed Denis J. Hauptly’s writing on the subject: Something Really New: Three Simple Steps to Creating Truly Innovative Products.

Denis like Clayton, focuses on tasks people are trying to accomplish. Once you figure out the tasks, break them down into their individual steps.

Innovation is simply removing or combining steps.

My wife and I make coffee with a set of steps. One interesting bit is that we’ll take the coffee pot and gently jam the pot into the area of the refridgerator that dispenses water. We jam it in such a way that the dispenser keeps dispensing water as we walk away. We do that because we multitask the coffee preparation, and we’re using the sink to wash the rest of the coffee maker’s parts while the refridgerator fills the pot with water.

We’ve timed everything pretty well that we know when to go grab the pot. Usually. :)

This last weekend, my in-laws were in town for Easter and my wife’s birthday. Now I’m making coffee for more people than I’m used to. I’m in the middle of the process, and my wife’s father is buzzing at the door to come inside from his walk with his cigar. The dog is going crazy barking. And I’m trying to quiet her down. A couple minutes go by and I notice… Oh crap!

There’s water pouring out of the refridgerator dispenser all over the floor. I forgot about the pot.

Denis leads his book with an interesting example of innovating a commodity like water faucets.

He provides some typical market research: customers really like the style of their water faucets. With that information he encourages you to start brainstorming new faucet ideas.

His next few pages completely predicted my “innovations”. I had some ideas on customizing the style of the faucet. As does everyone else it seems.

But what he explores next is thinking I’ve been working very hard to incorporate into how I build products.

He breaks down the tasks people have when using faucets. If you’re in a kitchen, one task might be to bake. If you list out all the steps to that process, you might notice that getting a measuring cup and measuring so many cups of water might be steps an innovative faucet could eliminate, if you had the ability to ask the faucet for measured quantities.

I know a faucet like that in my refrigerator would save me time when making coffee and avoid the mess I created when my in-laws were here.

Before Draft I was creating a really simple project management tool for personal projects, but it didn’t seem like it was getting anyone to really notice.

So I forced myself to dig into the tasks I was using my project management software for. I found I was using it a lot for writing. I noticed I would store drafts of blog posts in the notes section of my tool.

Committing even more of my thinking to the jobs to be done approach, I focused entirely on tasks I have as a writer and a blogger, and retooling my software to eliminate steps.

For example, I kept finding myself writing comments in blogs, Hacker News, or Reddit. But as I wrote them something would come up, and I’d save an unfinished copy of that comment in my tool. I’d eventually return to it later, finish it and then go through the process of copying and pasting it back into the comment box.

The steps roughly look like this:

  1. ctrl+a in the original comment box to select all text.
  2. ctrl+c to copy text.
  3. ctrl+t to open a new tab to my project management app.
  4. Navigate to a new note.
  5. ctrl+v to paste the text.
  6. Save the text.
  7. Come back to navigate to the saved comment.
  8. Finish writing the comment.
  9. ctrl+a to select all the text.
  10. ctrl+c to copy the text.
  11. Open a new tab to find the comment box where I had stopped.
  12. ctrl+v

I imagined what it would be like to remove and combine some of these steps, and then created a Chrome extension for Draft that automates a lot of this.

We aren’t talking about curing cancer here or eliminating fossil fuels. I know that. I wish I could. This is just removing a few simple steps I do over and over.

But the response has been awesome. Someone said:

the Chromium app is a little miracle!

Maybe the most telling of all is someone who wasn’t even going to use Draft, until the Chrome extension:

So if you’re struggling to figure out how to create a product amongst all the competition doing all the same things, I strongly encourage you to spend a lot more time exploring tasks people are trying to use a product for.

What are all the steps people take to do those tasks?

You might find you don’t have to do anything crazy to eliminate or combine just a few of them to create something people finally start noticing.

P.S. It would be awesome to meet you on Twitter.

If you want more about this topic, I highly recommend this 4 minute video of Clayton on milkshakes.

There’s also folks like Bob Moesta from The Rewired Group and Jason Fried from 37signals who spend time exploring jobs to be done thinking in their writing, podcasts, and workshops. Great stuff to explore.


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