Getting the Job Done

Why judgment matters more then outcomes

By Ken Norton

Chess board

Image credit: Martin Kopta under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

Last week I joined an offsite with hundreds of product managers where Dave Orr, a Google PM, spoke about decision-making. Dave is a former professional poker player (yeah, Google PMs are eclectic). In poker, as in life, you can make an excellent decision, yet still lose the hand. Or you can make a dumb move and get lucky. That’s the nature of the game. Players can easily fall victim to cognitive biases if they start second-guessing their decisions based on whether or not they won the hand. The best poker players evaluate and improve their judgment, independent of the outcome.

Dave’s talk came to mind this weekend while watching my son Carter’s basketball practice. During scrimmages, the coach often said “good shot!” even when the ball didn’t go through. I also noticed that he occasionally stayed silent when shots hit. So why was an airball from the block celebrated but a beautiful jumper from the arc wasn’t? Because the coach cares more about judgment than outcomes. At this young age, he’s reinforcing smart shot selections. If you picked a satisfactory moment to shoot, that deserved praise, whether or not the ball went through the rim. Showing shrewd awareness about when to take the shot is more important to middle school kids than the number of points on the board. The shooting ability will come once the right habits are formed. That’s essential in a sport where the greatest players in the world miss half their shots!

So take a lesson from Carter’s coach and from Dave—so you had a dreadful result, but did you make the right decision? Or you did well, but was it only because you got lucky? What did you learn that will upgrade your intuition for next time?


COMPETING AGAINST LUCK
The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice

By Clayton M. Christensen, et al.
288 pp. Harper Business
Amazon.com

I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Clayton Christensen. The Innovator’s Dilemma is the most important business book of the last half-century. In that book, Christensen introduced the theory of disruption, explaining why entrenched incumbents can be blind to immature upstarts with “worse” products. We’ve seen it play out again and again, from Salesforce.com to Airbnb.

Christensen is back with a new book, Competing Against Luck, which explores one of his approaches to combating the Innovator’s Dilemma: Jobs-To-Be-Done (JTBD). Christensen first introduced the concept using the example of a fast-food milkshake way back in 2009. Since then, the idea has taken on a life of its own, and like his earlier theory, increasingly misunderstood.

What is a JTBD? From the book:

We define a “job” as the progress that a person is trying to make in a particular circumstance. This definition of a job is not simply a new way of categorizing customers or their problems. It’s key to understanding why they make the choices they make. The choice of the word “progress” is deliberate. It represents movement toward a goal or aspiration. A job is always a process to make progress, it’s rarely a discrete event. A job is not necessarily just a “problem” that arises, though one form the progress can take is the resolution of a specific problem and the struggle it entails.

In Christensen’s original story, the “job” that customers were “hiring” a milkshake to do was make their morning commutes less boring. Understanding that shaped how the restaurant approached packaging and marketing during the commute hours.

I heartily recommend Competing Against Luck. That said, I wish he’d written this book five years ago, before JTBD took on a life of its own. Christensen is careful to explain that there might be many jobs for a particular product, that they are circumstance-specific, and cannot be generalized as a way of categorizing swaths of customers or simplifying away nuances. (He even used the example of a second job for the milkshake: hiring it as a special treat for his children that made him feel good as a parent.) However, that’s exactly how I’ve seen JTBD explained and used. Hopefully Christensen’s book will set some people straight.

For a good introduction to the book and a Q&A with its author, check out “Innovation guru Clayton Christensen’s new theory is meant to protect you from disruption” on Quartz.

Good Reads

The product people get driven out of decision-making forums. And the companies forget what it means to make great products. The product genius that brought them to that monopolistic position gets rotted out.” In this video that appears to be from the mid- to late-1990s, Steve Jobs explains why successful companies promote sales and marketing people instead of product people.

Shift your product roadmap’s focus from the technology to the user.” So says Ellen Chisa in this interview with Mixpanel.

I first met Marc Hedlund more than twenty years ago and I’ve long respected his leadership advice. This past week he put out a terrific tweetstorm that’s worth reading in full.

Originally published: November 1, 2016


Ken Norton spent more than fourteen years at Google where he led product initiatives for Docs, Calendar, Google Mobile Maps, and GV (formerly Google Ventures).

  • MOST POPULAR
  • How to Hire a Product Manager: the Classic Essay

    The classic essay that defined the product manager role
    What is product management? What makes a great product manager, and how do you become one? This is Ken Norton's classic essay on the role of product management that launched thousands of PM careers.

  • 10x Not 10%: Bold Product Strategy and Vision

    Product management by orders of magnitude
    In this ambitious essay, Ken Norton looks at the history of innovation and challenges product managers and product leaders to think bigger, to aim for 10x, not 10%.

  • Please Make Yourself Uncomfortable: Jazz and PMs

    What product managers can learn from jazz musicians
    What can product managers and product leaders learn from jazz, an art form that is all about improvisation, collaboration, and being willing to take risks?

  • 43 Best Books for Product Managers in 2021

    Essential product management reading
    Ken Norton shares his recommended books for product managers. The best books on product leadership, innovation, management, shipping winning products, and design thinking.

  • Ants & Aliens: Long-Term Product Vision & Strategy

    Why you need a thirty-year product vision (yes, thirty)
    How do you plan for the future and deliver an innovative and compelling product vision that will inspire your team to deliver winning products?

  • Meetings That Don’t Suck

    Break free from the tyranny of the conference room
    Most meetings suck, but it doesn't have to be that way. Ken Norton shows us how to break free and unsuck our meetings.

  • Building Products at Stripe

    Go deep, move fast, and build multi-decade abstractions
    What is Stripe's product culture like? Interview with a Stripe product leader demonstrate an embrace of going deep, moving fast, and maintaining a multi-decade perspective.

  • What Makes A Strong Product Culture?

    How a company's view of technology, product leadership, and empowerment contribute to product success
    Strong product cultures can produce winning products. They're places where product management is practiced (as we define it), where it is valued by the business, and where PMs can thrive and grow.

  • Building Products at Airbnb

    Snow White, storytelling, and a relentless focus on experiences
    What is Airbnb's product culture like? Interviews with Airbnb PMs demonstrate an embrace of Snow White, storytelling, and a relentless focus on experiences.

Coaching for Product Leaders

If you are interested in growing as a product manager or product leader, I offer product management coaching. I have worked with everyone from new grads just starting their PM careers to newly promoted product directors to experienced VPs of Product and Chief Product Officers. Schedule a free introductory session.

Learn more »