Customer Development

Jobs to be Done? It's All About Substitutes

img.phpWhen thinking about who your real competition is, it is helpful to step back and think broadly about all the different ways that the problem you're addressing can be solved. Clay Christensen and his disciples have come up with a framework - Jobs to be Done - and are trying to create a movement around this concept to help understand the competitive environment and how to refine products. They've even created their own hashtag - #JTBD - on Twitter to engage others in the conversation. But is it really that new?

To me, this is just a reformulation of the economics concept of a substitute (let's skip the math for now). The challenge for people in technology is that they tend to consider only perfect substitutes - competition that looks, smells and tastes like them - instead of stepping back and considering gross (or net) substitutes. To me, that's all this "jobs to be done" stuff is about - what are other ways that people are going about solving their problems?

A good example of this is when I was at a client discussing the merit of spending marketing dollars to promote a marquee feature of a product - photo sharing - that no one was using. When I asked the product manager who the competition was for this feature, he immediately started listing all the products in their space - little black boxes that were networked-enabled and had storage options.

The real answer was Facebook and Instagram (and now Google, Apple and Dropbox, among others). The product manager didn't step back to understand what are the real alternatives (the substitutes) for the act of storing and sharing photos with others rather than just other consumer electronics that have some photo sharing capabilities (or not).

No amount of "marketing" to promote this feature would have helped. Consumers already left this feature behind, which is why there was no adoption.

So, as a product manager, it is important to understand not only what a feature does, but also why it should exist and how it solves a problem in a way that's better than what they do today in general. Step out of your own space and look around. And if you need the #JTBD framework to help you, that's fine. You should be thinking that way anyway.

Embracing Lean Startup Philosophies as a Product Manager

feature-57-the-lean-startup-book-pop_10909You've heard of Lean Startup, but you might be wondering what does it have to do with me as a Product Manager in a larger organization. Failing fast and pivoting sounds detrimental to my career, right? There's an interesting thread in a LinkedIn Product Management group  on the breakdown of Product Management activities. As you can see from my postings, my take is that the percentage breakdown in allocated time depends on a lot of things - maturity of the product, organization, and so forth. However, the list of activities is actually pretty good. The growing consensus is that a lot of time should be spend in understanding market, industry and competitive research.

That got me thinking about how to get the information needed to reach that understanding. While they might never admit it, so many PMs spend a lot of time doing this kind of research from within the four walls of their office or cubicle, primarily reading analyst reports and the Internet. Sure, they talk to current customers and hear from sales people, but that's the extent of their "research."

Lean Startup  has become the next big thing for entrepreneurs, who are attempting to implement the model with various degrees of success. Steve Blank is the godfather of the movement, which stresses taking an iterative, scientific approach to developing your product to ensure it meets customers' needs. Of course, the movement is now getting some pushback, and more mature companies with existing products have questioned Lean's relevance to their business.

(Not to get too existential, but to those companies who think they are beyond using Lean Startup: is your product without market traction really a product?)

However, if you step back for a moment, what the Lean model is basically telling you is to get out of your cube and find out first hand what's customers really want and need in a methodical, data-driven way to build and maintain a successful product. The key is understanding that managing a product or solution is always an exercise in making decisions with incomplete information. Lean is a reaction to the same issues developers faced with waterfall that eventually created agile development and addition of scrum to the technical lexicon.

Lean : Product Management :: Agile: Engineering

Of course, Lean philosophies can be abused as much as agile. How many times have you heard that there's no design or documentation because "we're agile?" If the only concept people understand about Lean is "pivot," then they're missing the whole point. Lean is not just about pivoting. It's about getting out there and getting as much information as often as possible to make better decisions. As with everything else, it's how you use the concepts, not a rote application of ideas that may or may not be relevant.

With cost-effective tools and approaches to gathering information and testing assumptions, Lean philosophies can be embraced by all product managers in both consumer and B2B looking to become more innovative or to gain marketshare in a mature market. How can you not do this?