A word battle may be increasing your product fail rate
“I’m not sure if we’ve fully described the pain points for the patient customer, let’s take another crack at that one,” said the product manager. She was trained as a computer scientist and was practicing a method she recently learned at a “Lean Startup for the Enterprise” workshop.
“Customer pain? Why are we talking about pain points? That shouldn’t be anywhere near the value proposition!” – said, the marketer, who was graduated from business school in 1998. “We need to outmaneuver competitors! We need to better define our segments and figure out how we’re different! What are the reasons to believe?” he cried with escalating agitation.
They’d been at this for days.
What’s going on here?
It turns out, one of those business terms that should be well understood by now, with clear consensus across all disciplines, is still causing regional and generational confusion.
The experts and gurus of strategy, branding, startup methods, design thinking, business models, and marketing are not speaking the same language. Yet.
Let’s go over the two primarily opposing viewpoints on what, exactly, value proposition means.
Reasons to Believe: Strategy and Mad Ave Camp
If you went to business school before the year 2000 (or work for someone who did), your definition for value proposition was more linked to branding and corporate strategy concepts. In the olden times before the internet, companies were thought of as value chain: “a set of interconnected activities that a company performs to deliver a valuable product or service to the market,” according to Michael Porter, godfather of strategy.
Conceptually, this was an industrialized view of how a company works. The arrow starts with the supply chain, with the customer at the end. Most S&P index companies founded before the internet era still operate with this value chain mindset. As one consumer packaged goods CEO told me once, “Our job is to shuffle products out to consumers, and wrap products in a big marketing bow at the end.”
For Porter, a Value Proposition is an exercise in strategic choices about customers, needs, and price. The goal is to compete on uniqueness and differentiation. Strategy is then a set of choices about how value is configured within the value chain.
David Aaker, a prominent brand strategist and author of Building Strong Brands, encouraged marketers at the end of the chain to think deeply about the customer.
He defined the value proposition as a marketing exercise, creating a “statements of the benefits delivered by the brand that provide value to the customer.”
In a classic marketing view of the world, the Value Proposition communicates the functional and emotional benefits that add value, why we are different, the brand-customer relationship, and gives customers an ‘RTB’ or reason to believe.
The method encouraged marketers to define new customer segments determined by demographic studies. Marketing involved generating new feature and benefit promises as the primary strategy for product introduction. Pricing would be set based the right combination of features, benefits, and their intended customer segment.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when we used to crowd around 3, maybe four TV channels and all watch the same shows, marketers had more power to communicate these messages. and the work of branding was all powerful. Watch Mad Men the Kodak Carousel episode for one of the greatest examples of the value proposition advertising effect on a wonky new technology launch.
But today, the fastest growing companies do not seem to be neatly organized or understood in value chain boxes or marketing promises alone. Airbnb, Google, Facebook, Netflix and Uber did not reach their growth potential by fiddling with the number of people in the inbound logistics box, or buying Superbowl ads.. Something else is going on today, which can be best described by another flavor of value proposition.
Pain Points and Jobs to be Done: The Innovator’s Camp
What’s going on with all of these new companies? It traces back to the father of Disruption Theory, Clayton Christensen. In his 2003 book Innovator’s Solution, Christensen outlined the secret to successful a successful innovation: don’t sell products and services to customers, but help people address their jobs-to-be-done. Once you look at the competitive solutions, analyze the pain points. Have any pain points been overlooked? Great! Now you know where to invest in emphasizing your distinctive strengths.
But he saw a key limiting factor that kept incumbents from adopting the jobs-to-be-done method. In a diatribe published in Harvard Business Review called Marketing Malpractice, Christensen criticized the features-benefits-segmentation model.
“The great Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt used to tell his students, ‘People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!’ Every marketer we know agrees with Levitt’s insight.
Yet these same people segment their markets by type of drill and by price point; they measure market share of drills, no holes; and they benchmark the features and functions of their drill, not their hole, against those rivals. They then set to work offering more features and functions in the belief that these will translate into better pricing and market share. When marketers do this, they often solve the wrong problems, improving their products in ways that are irrelevant to their customers’ needs.”
– Clayton Christensen, Marketing Malpractice, HBR 2005
The lowly milk shake is Christensen’s example for how this insight plays out. A fast food company attempted the classic marketing method to increase milk shake sales. They defined their features and benefits, and drew up clear segmentation profiles of customers. When they tested variables of features – thicker, more chocolatey, cheaper, chunkier, they got clear feedback. But the improvements made had no impact on sales.
When the question was turned to ”What job is the customer hiring the milkshake to do?” the answer was revealed. Many milkshakes were purchased in the early morning, by commuters, traveling alone, sipping slowly in their cars. The milkshake offered a cleaner and more entertaining option than a messy breakfast sandwich, donut, or banana. The fast food company then used these insights to make deliberate improvements to the product for these to different jobs-to-be-done, sales improved (along with obesity rates, but that is for another day).
For Christensen, a Value Proposition is therefore a product that helps customers do more effectively, affordably and conveniently a job they’ve been trying to do. He used this theory to explain the rise of eBay and Google. “Pierre Omidyar did not design eBay for the ‘auction demographic.’ He founded it to help people sell personal items. Google was not designed for the job of finding information, not for a ‘search demographic.’”
We can see in this example how two views of the world, both originating from living Harvard Professors, play out in new product development meetings today. While Christensen’s theories are still not as widely accepted in corporate marketing circles, startup disruptors have fiercely embraced disruption theory and jobs-to-be-done concepts for their benefit.
The One Page Strategy School: Lean Startup and Business Modeling Camp
Suddenly, it seems everyone in technology and the startup sector is talking about pain points. Within the past five years, there has been rapid adoption of Christensen’s theories in incubators, university entrepreneurship programs, venture capital firms, and even grant-giving government agencies like the NSF and the NIH. “Jobs to be done” and “pain points” are natural shorthand for everyone in the Lean Startup movement, and are embedded in a widely popular on page strategy “canvas” tools like the Value Proposition Design canvas.
Business Model Canvas was introduced in Alexander Osterwalder’s well-designed coffee table book Business Model Generation. Osterwalder observed that business model innovation exercises were often plagued by “blah blah” language, with everyone talking over each other, no clear decipherable path to actually understand and generate new business model concepts. (So true!).
The canvases serve as visual tools, meant to be used with stickies, and sketched. When practiced well, teams work together to understand their current business model and value proposition design, and are freed to experiment with potential new changes for growth.
The original Business Model Canvas was hugely popular in startup circles, and spawned a number of variations and twists on the original canvas as founders and practitioners began to experiment with the tool (see our roundup of popular one page canvas tools). Osterwalder followed up with the Value Proposition Canvas in order to create more clarity and focus to the customer-to-value proposition connection. Osterwalder cites Clayton Christensen for the concept of “jobs to be done.”
A working value proposition is designed to meet a specific customer segment’s jobs to be done. First, you understand that segment deeply, observe and discover what job a customer is trying to do. What are her biggest pains? How does she define gain?
Then when you develop the value proposition, you are defining your core features, and prioritizing which ones to build first, based on this architecture of pain and jobs to be done. Which features alleviate the pain? Which create a new unexpected gain?
The focus on pain is critical for a startup. The status quo is the biggest competitive barrier for any new technology or innovation. Customers are unlikely to change their behavior and try a new untested brand without experiencing identified pain or discomfort in their routine. By making strategic choices about which customers, which jobs, and which pains to solve for, a startup can turn on the engine of growth.
How does differentiation play into the mix? The radical idea is that competitive advantage is “transient” – according to Rita McGrath of Columbia Business School in her book The End of Competitive Advantage. The world is too volatile and uncertain to base strategy on competitive advantage.
“..Virtually all strategy frameworks and tools in use today are based on a single dominant idea: that the purpose of strategy is to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage.” She argues that executives need to stop this, and offers to explain the alternative of transient competitive advantage. “..To win in volatile and uncertain environments, executives need to learn how to exploit short-lived opportunities with speed and decisiveness.” In fact, the deeply ingrained systems and structures “are outdated and even dangerous in a fast-moving competitive environment.”
– Rita McGrath, The End of Competitive Advantage
What does that mean for competitive differentiation? It means that it may be a bit of a trope. The best companies compete not with each other, but for a core customer. By understanding the rapidly shifting world of the customers, companies do well when they can constantly reconfigure their strategy and structure to deliver a well-defined proposition.
You still have to understand competitive moves and explain how your strategy differs from your competitors when you build a business case or ask a venture capitalist for funding, but your core strategic activity no longer focuses on competitive chess moves. Instead, the entire organization is built and constantly rebuilt to identify, predict, and deliver new value propositions to the customer. Whew!
Know Your Mental Models
So you’re back in that windowless room, and Jasmine from R&D is still yelling at Tom from marketing. Tom wants to focus on differentiated features and selling tactics based on outmaneuvering competitors. Jasmine wants to talk about pain points. How do you help them resolve their differences?
Recognize the benefits of holding multiple mental models, and encourage a moment of cross-silo communication and understanding.
Building your strategy on competitive differentiation alone may be dangerous, but spending time thinking about competitor moves, shifts, acquisitions, and combinations could be a helpful exercise to jar thinking. Even more fun, bring in companies from outside your narrow competitive set and see what happens when Google, Target, Coca Cola, Uber, Netflix, Ford or Tesla move into your territory.
The jobs-to-be-done view of the world is a useful starting point for a product that do not yet exist, and has the added benefit of uniting everyone’s focus on customer needs (rather than competitive moves). That’s a good thing. But jobs-to-be-done is an awkward starting place for many to wrap their heads around.
The best move? “Get out of the building,” says Steve Blank, the godfather of the Lean Startup movement in his Stanford Lean Launchpad course. Go observe customers. Listen to customers, Ask key questions. Don’t pitch your idea (yet). To get to jobs-to-be-done, ask them to tell you about a typical day. To understand pain points, learn what keeps your customer up at night. Dig under the known and obvious challenges in your customer’s life to uncover unarticulated needs and pains.
Then you can reconvene your product launch team with quotes, artifacts, photographs and observations about your customer to create a valuable value prop. And don’t stop there – go back out and test your value proposition directly with your customers.
Now, you’re rolling. You’ve stopped a turf war. Tom from marketing and Jasmine from R&D are colleagues. You’ve built your team to focus on customer needs. Build a rigorous commitment to deep customer centricity, ongoing learning, and the opportunity for meritocracy-based high accountability culture. You will have to shift from the false comforts of planning through Powerpoint, and learn to build markets and demand. And I promise you’ll have much more fun.
So start now. End the language war in product launch rooms everywhere. Get out of the building, Feel the fear, and learn a new way of working.
Here’s an armchair MBA reading list of books mentioned in this post:
Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance by Michael Porter, 1998.
Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, 2010
Value Proposition Design by Alexander Osterwalder, 2014
The End of Competitive Advantage by Rita McGrath, 2013
Here are previous Reason Street articles that relate to this post:
Can You Define Your Strategy on One Page? August 2016
Finding Your Customer Pain Points: How Far Do You Go? November 2015