Unlock innovation with an outcomes-first approach

Some recent reading showcased two simple and powerful ways to boost organisational innovation. Both are proven in their own right; combined, they can offer a robust, end-to-end method for exploring the opportunity space.

I first encountered Amazon’s ‘Working Backwards’ process in this Inc.com piece last year, which I stumbled across again last week.

The Working Backwards framework articulates, through a series of exercises and artifacts, the desired outcomes for a given project or initiative. Characterised by a narrow focus on customer needs, it is an almost literal interpretation of Steve Jobs’ quote from 1997: “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.”

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos suggests that constructing representations of the outcomes the product will deliver is a better initial investment than any line of code. It forces those outcomes to take centre stage, as a prerequisite to any discussion of implementation.

Done correctly, working backwards is a huge amount of work. But it saves you even more work later. The Working Backwards Process is not designed to be easy, it is designed to save huge amount of work on the backend, and to make sure we are building the right thing.” – Jeff Bezos


Similar themes emerged in another forum a few days later. I was in conversation with Jim Kalbach about his book ‘The Jobs To Be Done Playbook’ for UX Belfast.

As with Working Backwards, the power of Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) lies in a deceptively simple premise. Rather than assume that everyone involved knows the fundamentals around a project or initiative, it demands that any assumed knowledge is set aside, and insights rebuilt through the lens of customer goals, or ‘jobs’.

Typified in Levitt’s famous quote “No one wants a quarter-inch drill bit they want a quarter-inch hole”, JTBD offers a refreshingly pragmatic alternative to an all-too-common approach where, armed with technology, enterprises go looking for a problem to apply it to. To use a second tool-based metaphor, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

JTBD requires that an organisation shifts from a mindset of “how can we sell our technology to customers’ to “what outcomes are customers trying to achieve and how can we adapt to become more valuable to them?”. The book presents multiple techniques for reframing challenges in this manner.

Kalbach states: “Before creating solutions, define the value you’re going after. Regardless of the starting point for innovation in your organization – either with a need or with a technology – you’ll need to align around value creation.”

Mapping customer ‘jobs’ requires understanding their intent, their ultimate aims, and then strategically positioning your own solution into the process.

The two frameworks are eminently compatible. JTBD can provide the ‘true north’ for Working Backwards to navigate to.  And these are just two of many frameworks which can be combined to unlock innovation in an organisation.

I have shelves and devices filled with books and articles on thinking frameworks, gathered over the last dozen or more years. If these tools share a common trait, it is one of simple, structured questioning. So simple that it is often a challenge to have them accepted as a credible route to progress.

Asking basic questions can be seen as facile, but more often as an unnecessary obstacle as everyone rushes to get into the weeds.  It is significant, then, that Amazon and increasing numbers of groundbreaking tech companies give store to these techniques.

There may be no silver bullet for success, but there is a sure-fire route to failure – the inability or unwillingness to ask fundamental questions.

  • “What value are we creating?”
  • “Is this solving a real problem?”
  • “What assumptions or limiting beliefs are we working with?”
  • “What outcomes do customers want us to provide? What do those look like?”

Without the capacity to stop and address these kinds of topics, companies are doomed to pursue a ‘build it and they will come’ strategy. Sometimes that works out. Many times it does not.

The irony of the ‘Working Backwards’ moniker is that it makes much more sense than trying to create something from the ether, armed with nothing but assumed knowledge, some smart technology, and marketing muscle.

As suggested in the Bezos quote above, asking hard questions is not easy. Many enterprises bypass this completely and head straight for a comfort zone of technology first. Recent history is rife with impressive innovations that led with technology but failed to solve a real problem or deliver a desirable outcome. Just ask Segway, or Google Wave, even Google Plus. 

Both Working Backwards and JTBD encourage teams to forget the technology and instead focus on what customers want to achieve, and where value can be created.

Unless such fundamentals are addressed, there is no credible foundation for product development. And yet so many are prepared to take the risk and just build.

It’s hard to imagine anything more backward than that.