Here’s the biggest business mistake I’ve ever made: as a young marketer, I spent millions of dollars in advertising money to grow a kitchen towel brand—because my job description said: do kitchen towel marketing. It worked. People bought more. I got the promotion. In reality, we had just thrown cash at a highly unprofitable business. It would have taken a calculator and 15 minutes to figure out: this money will never return (the company later sold the business for 1$).
Like the young me, too many people follow their job descriptions and miss the purpose. United Airlines crew stowed a bulldog in the overhead bin, ultimately killing the Puppy. Because their job description said, “Luggage goes in the overhead bin” (passenger dogs included, they thought). And if Bob Liodice, CEO of the US Association of National Advertisers (ANA) is right, marketers are wasting 75% or more of their digital budget through wrong targeting, an annual loss of $20bn, because their job description that says ‘do some digital’.
Here’s the crux with job descriptions: people take them at face value. Say you put a talented manager in charge of Instagram. She works hard. Her campaigns get buzz. She asks for more budget, because she wants to excel on Instagram. It’s in her job description. But will she ever ask whether Instagram makes sense in the first place? Take a guess. Many job descriptions have turned into job restrictions.
Why job descriptions fail
It all started in 1922, when Morris Viteles invented the job description. A researcher, he observed the auditing department of a railway company. At the end of each day, the conductors would turn in the cash and tickets sold. The clerks would separate the two, calculate receipts, issue invoices, and prepare statistics. Viteles counted and codified 19 different jobs done by the clerks. The job description was born. Now the firm could hire, train, promote and pay clerks in exactly the same way each time.
Almost a hundred years on, we still love the job description. We check people’s performance against them. We can add fancy new competency requirements. We can even have HR write them, so we don’t have to worry about talent.
The job description works, with one condition: that customer needs don’t change. If customers keep buying the same things, at the same price, in the same place, the job description is the perfect tool. But this is not our reality, and job descriptions have become massive progress barriers.
We are in the middle of a revolution. In the past, firms made products and tried to find customers. And when everybody had everything, we chased the unique selling point, the so-called ‘Purple Cow’ – the stuff that stood out in the moment, so people would take it home. We basically perfected the one-night stand.
But big changes are underway. Thanks to technology, we can finally understand and serve customers at a much deeper level, at scale, time and time again. Call it the subscription economy, the end of ownership, or software as a service (SaaS). Whatever the words, for those who get it right, the one-night stand starts turning into a relationship.
Amazon aims to cover your complete shopping list and hooks you in with Prime and Alexa. Tortoise Media has just broken Kickstarter records by promising journalistic content for members only. L’Oréal cosmetics has built an e-commerce empire in China with millions of direct customers, bypassing the retailer. Porsche, a true former Purple Cow, now offers Porsche Passport, a monthly car subscription. Netflix ploughs through millions of data points to invent Stranger Things and airs it wherever and whenever you want. And a relationship it is: I know a few people who would rather spend a Saturday with their Netflix account than their partner.
In times of change, nobody’s job description fits.
How do we get millions of executives to create customer relationships, to embrace technology, to push bold business ideas? By rewriting every job description? Forget it. No firm has that time. The customer transformation must start on the shop floor, led by people who are brave enough to face the only guaranteed result: push-back.
Want to make a start? Ask yourself: in a relationship economy, what’s the one big thing I could do to help make my firm move forward? What’s my real job?
Once you know, scrap your job description – and do what’s right.
(A version of this article first appeared in Marketing Week. Updated Jan 2021 with new facts)
Perhaps you’ll enjoy this keynote video. It’s a version of my job description talk. I only wrote this for one conference. But it turned out to be the highest rated gig at several events. I make the case why job descriptions don’t work in the 21st century, and why executives need to step back, ditch their job descriptions, and do what’s right.