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How Clay Christensen's Jobs to be Done Theory Works in an Agency

“If you don’t have A.D.D. before working at an agency, you will after.”

This has been a running joke I’ve heard over the years from advertising, PR, and yes, even digital agency employees.

Before working at an agency, I would just laugh along with the joke. I understood where it was coming from, but couldn’t empathize. Now, when I hear it, or any of the dozens of variations, I’ll still laugh, but with an eerie, half-smile because I know it’s true.

Working on different accounts makes for a unique challenge. There’s many aspects that make this difficult, and for me personally, the biggest hurdle is the constant switching between projects, and even mindsets. The unique challenge is giving the same quality of work to a variety of clients, industries, mindsets, and objectives. My solution? Strict adherences to the Jobs to be Done theory.

Jobs to Be Done Theory

The phrase and concept are the products of Clayton Christensen, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. An oversimplified version of the Jobs to Be Done theory is encompassed in the phrase, “people buy ¼ inch holes, not ¼ inch drill bits.”

The concept is simple. We, as consumers, “hire” products to fulfill “jobs” in our lives. The principle is obvious in a business setting. A company hires a vendor to provide services and results to the company. Consumers “hire” a hamburger to meet the needs of the “job” at hand, in this case, hunger.

If you have five minutes and you haven’t familiarized yourself with the Jobs to be Done theory yet, I highly recommend the video below. (Those who work closest with me are rolling their eyes as they read this because of how often I reference the JTBD theory and specifically the video below.)



So what do milkshakes have to do with agency life? Well, to pull the last line from the video, “If you understand the job, how to improve the product becomes just obvious.”

In an agency setting, the job is never ending and the tasks are ever expanding. It’s easy to get lost and lose valuable time reminding yourself the needs of a project. The JTBD theory helps alleviate that. By taking a minute to answer the question, “what’s the job to be done here?” the goals of the project become easy. Once you know what you’re trying to achieve you can optimize for the given task.

For Example

Let’s say I come into work, check my to-do list and find “keyword research” there. I put it on my to-do list days ago, because that’s what the strategy called for, at least it did days ago. Today it’s time to execute on my strategy, but the inspiration I had days ago when planning my week is gone. That is, unless I’ve implemented the JTBD theory beforehand.

While planning the week, instead of writing down the task, “keyword research,” I should instead write down, “ideate five new content ideas around new product launch based on keyword research.” A statement like this highlights both the “job” and task I’m “hiring” to accomplish it.

The result, when I get to the task I’m reminded what I’m actually here to do. In this case, I’m ideating five new content ideas based on keywords. That naturally implies keyword research. As I dive into the keyword research I’m conducting, I’m more informed on the task that’s actually needed and my intent is hyper-focused on the desired result.

That’s ultimately what the JTBD theory boils down to, attention to specific results, not doing tasks just to do them. A perfect fit for a results only work environment like 97th Floor.

A Word For Leaders

The JTBD theory is chiefly concerned with achieving results quickly. A manager or results coach should be able to identify the needs of a project quickly because he or she has the foresight on the entire project. This is especially true when managing multiple parties that have their hands in the same project, which is common at 97th Floor, but not unique in the agency world.

It’s the manager’s job to accurately convey the JTBD from a macro level, and as needed on a micro-level. In other words a good manager should be able to respond when their employee asks them, “what does success look like on this project?”

The answer should be concise and and direct. Not everything has to be so specific that the employee needs the manger to walk them through the task. Employees will have their own “jobs to be done” on the project. It’s collectively the manager and employee’s job to, together, align the jobs to be done into a single objective.

As with all things, the JTBD theory builds and evolves as it’s implemented on personal, team, and company-wide levels. Whatever you call it, self-imposed vision and accountability are keys to success in any business. And I can say from personal experience, they’ve kept me sane and happy in an agency setting.

PJ Howland

PJ is the VP of Industry Insights at 97th Floor. He coordinates insights with others at 97th Floor to ensure we're all elevating each other through good content.

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