Playing To Win

Jobs to be Done & Playing to Win

Utility & Compatibility

Roger Martin
7 min readMay 1, 2023


Source: Roger L. Martin, 2023

I have been asked many times about Clay Christensen’s ‘Jobs to be Done’ framework. Do I like it? How does it relate to Playing to Win, or not? Since I think they are important and useful questions, I have tackled them in my 21st Year III Playing to Win Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) piece called Jobs to be Done & Playing to Win: Utility & Compatibility. You can find the previous 131 PTW/PI here.

First Things First

I must first say that Clay Christensen (1952–2020) is the nicest person I have ever met, and I have met many nice people in my life. I never met Mother Theresa before she passed away and maybe she would have been nicer. But I am not sure.

The How Will You Measure Your Life? author certainly lived his life such that it would be measured extremely favorably by virtually everyone he ever met. I was proud to call him a friend and to do some joint work together — though we never got around to collaborating on the book that we talked about for a time.

Helpful Reframing

In terms of utility, I think that Jobs to be Done (JTBD) provides a valuable reframe. Arguably it builds on the quote attributed in 1947 to an advertising executive named Leo McGivena: “Last year over one million quarter-inch drills were sold — not because people wanted quarter-inch drills but because they wanted quarter-inch holes.” It was later (1974) popularized by prior-generation Harvard Business School superstar marketing scholar Ted Levitt, who Clay cites for the insight.

In my view, JTBD takes that idea further and provides a nice way to conceptualize it — that is, that customers are not buying a product/service; they are hiring it for a job that they want/need to have done for themselves. I think the idea of hiring an offering for a job is helpfully evocative.

I think this reframing immediately motivates deeper digging into customers’ heads and hearts — to better see the world from their perspective, to understand what customers are going through. I think that doing so thoroughly will make any company a better producer of hirable offerings!

Explains the Evolution of the Economy

I think that JTBD also explains a lot about the evolution of the economy over the past half-century or so. To the extent that Clay’s argument is right, customers don’t think about offerings, they search for and, when they find them, hire offerings for a JTBD. The implication is that in due course some provider will figure that out and offer something that does the job more thoroughly than the existing offer — the quarter inch hole rather than the quarter inch drill.

Arguably, Joe Pine made an allied argument in his 1998 HBR article Welcome to the Experience Economy in which he uses the evolution of the birthday cake as his example. In the past, parents bought flour, sugar, butter and eggs in order to bake a cake for their child’s birthday. Then Betty Crocker came along with an easy-to-use cake mix. Then the in-store bakery at the grocery store sold parents a finished birthday cake — customized to their desire. And then the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant/event chain created a packaged birthday party offering for the child (and family/friends) — with a cake included. Pine’s point was in that final stage, what he called the ‘experience economy,’ the parents happily pay over 100 times more than in the first stage because they valued the experience two orders of magnitude more than they valued the cake ingredients.

But of course, Pine’s insight could just as easily be explained in terms of JTBD. The desired JTBD wasn’t a cake. It was a lovely birthday celebration for your child. This explains the broad migration of the economy from products to services (including experiences). A service that includes targeted use of a product can frequently more perfectly address the JTBD than a product alone.

And it explains the rise of Software-as-a-Service (SAAS). The JTBD is to enjoy the fruits of the software, not to own the software. And it explains the disaggregation of the modern company by way of outsourcing. The company doesn’t want payroll clerks: it wants paychecks to go out. If a provider offers to do that job on its behalf, the company will happily outsource the activity to that provider. And it explains the rise of cloud computing. The company doesn’t want a server farm. The JTBD is data storage and retrieval.

I would also argue that JTBD also explains the rise of luxury goods. I have been watching the rise to prominence of luxury goods companies for some time and the clever Scott Galloway wrote a nice piece on it recently. There are now three luxury goods companies in the top 75 market cap companies in the world, LVMH at #11 (one ahead of Exxon Mobil), Hermès at #41 (one ahead of Costco), and Dior at #64 (one ahead of Danaher). This is a relatively new thing. There were none in the top 100 at the turn of the 21st century — not even close. I would argue that a key to their rise to the upper echelons of value is that there has been a recognition of exactly what is the JTBD of high-end luxury goods. I think the view used to be that the product is an extremely well designed and fabricated garment or accessory — a classic product-centric view.

But I believe that the above luxury companies came to understand that the JTBD is to make their customers feel confident and proud. She is proud to carry a Birken bag — which is both expensive and scarce. He is confident that people will be impressed that he is wearing what is obviously a Hermès tie. If a luxury good can do those jobs for customers, their willingness to pay is extreme — far more than physical quality could ever justify. So, Hermès can be worth $229 billion with only $10 billion in annual sales — a market cap/revenue multiple that is higher than any sizable tech company.

Net, JTBD is a useful conceptual framework that helps explain and predict the evolution of the economy. Not too bad!

Link to Playing to Win

In terms of the link to Playing to Win (PTW), I think that JTBD is helpful in better defining your Where-to-Play (WTP) and in identifying a powerful way to win there (HTW).

If you are thinking about luxury hotels, it is easy to think from a product perspective as a hotel with grand architecture and décor and with obsequious service. But if you are Four Seasons founder, Isadore Sharp, and you think instead about the JTBD for the frequent business traveler, you create an environment that makes up for what they left at home and at the office. That helped Four Seasons target business travelers and the locations that they frequent as its WTP and a unique form of service as its HTW — and the rest is history for the greatest luxury hotel chain on the planet.

Other great companies have either implicitly or explicitly organized their strategy thinking around a JTBD. For example, at FedEx, the JTBD is to deliver ‘when it absolutely, positively has to be there.’ For Walt Disney, it is to ‘entertain, inform, and inspire.’ For SAP it is to ‘help the world run better.’ For Sara Blakely, it was to help you‘feel your best and look your best too.’ And that helped her create a tight and beautifully defined WTP/HTW for Spanx, which made her one of the world’s relatively few solo, self-made female billionaires.

But you can nail your JTBD and then lose it if you aren’t careful. For Walmart, the original 1962 JTBD was to ‘help people save money so they could live better.’ That is, I believe, a much better defined JTBD than the 2022 version: ‘To be the best retailer in the hearts and minds of consumers and employees.’ I sincerely doubt that either consumers or employees feel that is the job that they wish Walmart would do for them. But saving money in order to live better: I bet shoppers would enthusiastically sign up for that!

Practitioner Insights

Always be open to reframe your customers by asking: what is a more strategically powerful way to think differently about them? JTBD is by no means the only search mechanism. But I think it is a really useful tool for doing so. The key is that it helps you empathize with customers. You have to get inside their heads to intuit what job they are really seeking to have done for them. You can’t do that by thinking about a product or service that you would like to deliver. That is egocentric, not customer centric.

But just thinking about JTBD is not strategy. A great customer insight does not equate to a great strategy. You need a WTP and a HTW — that fit together and reinforce each other. Clay’s classic example of the JTBD addressed by a morning drive-through milkshake showed the new and unique insights that could be gained by asking what job the morning commuter is asking the milkshake to do? But those insights don’t define your strategy for you. You still need a WTP — which customers with what particular JTBD are you going to target? And you need a HTW — how is your milkshake offering going to win in serving the JTBD, not just address the JTBD?

So, utilize the JTBD idea to help you define your WTP and provide insights that will enable you to have a robust HTW. That is how to fit together and benefit from the combination of Jobs to be Done & Playing to Win.



Roger Martin

Professor Roger Martin is a writer, strategy advisor and in 2017 was named the #1 management thinker in world. He is also former Dean of the Rotman School.