Jobs to Be Done Theory: Designing Retirement Planning Support That Earns Higher Engagement

By: Mathew Greenwald

Low engagement is a problem that haunts retirement plan providers and I think that a specific type of customer-centric research can be a key to overcoming this challenge. Despite the obvious advantages to offering retirement planning support at the workplace, where it has the employer’s (implicit at least) endorsement, employees often do not engage with planning support and tools that would clearly be beneficial to them. We believe the low engagement is frequently caused by the developers of these tools not asking the right questions during their offering’s design process.

There is a well-established approach, called Jobs to b be Done theory, which has led to a great deal of successful product innovation. This theory can be used to help in creating offerings that will attract more plan participant interest It can also lead to more effective education, planning systems, and tools because it forces a focus on the customers’ perspectives, not the experts’ perspective.

Retirement plan providers are, of course, experts on the retirement planning process and often develop planning support and tools which are designed to help plan participants complete key tasks that they as experts know are necessary for optimal retirement planning. However, this approach often does not lead to high engagement because there can be a difference in what an expert knows is beneficial to a plan participant and what a plan participant believes will be valuable.

Explaining Jobs to be Done Theory

The key idea behind Jobs to be Done theory is that customers “hire” a product or service to do a job that they believe will help them make progress in their lives. The theory directs attention to understanding the outcomes that buyers want from the product and specifies that there are emotional as well as utilitarian outcomes that are important.

The greatest value of this focus on the buyer’s desired outcomes is that it forces attention on the buyers’ perspective and narrows that attention to the key quality that will determine success: will potential buyers believe that the offering will produce an outcome that they value? Jobs to be Done theory forces companies to put themselves in their customers’ shoes. It is customer-centric thinking rather than prescribed solution thinking. Thus, if plan participants believe that using a planning system or tool will help them make progress in their own lives and produce an outcome they value, they will engage.

One statement has often been used to highlight the value of Jobs to Be Done theory. Harvard Business School professor Ted Levitt stated that people buying drills do not want a drill, they want a three-quarter inch hole. One company using this theory had the further insight that many drill buyers did not want three-quarter inch holes, they really want to attach something to a wall. This company developed an adhesive that attached furniture to walls and took market share from drill manufacturers. The key issue for retirement plan providers is to find out what outcome plan participants really want at the current time.

Applying Jobs to be Done to Retirement Planning

To explore the power of Jobs to be Done from a retirement planning lens, we spoke to some retirement plan participants about a tool that their plan provider offered, which was designed to help them calculate how much they should aim to accumulate by their target retirement date. From the perspective of the retirement planning expert, this tool is clearly very important. After all, how can you assess how much you need to save if you do not have an accumulation target?

However, from the perspective of the plan participants, this tool not only had no positive value, but some saw the potential for negative consequences. To them, a tool that calculated a target two decades or more in the future generated a number that was unreliable, because they believe so much could happen in the intervening years that would make this number meaningless; and unattainable, because they felt it would likely calculate a number they did not feel they could reach, reaffirming the belief (which did not want reaffirmed) that, despite their best efforts, they were not saving enough. This tool did not do a job the plan participants wanted to get done or create an outcome that they believed would help them make progress in their lives.

However, using questions based in the Jobs to be Done theory, we were able to get the specifications for a planning tool that most of the plan participants we talked to found interesting and thought would provide an outcome they wanted. Plan participants do want to prepare financially for retirement. They are receptive to tools and education that they think will help them.

Retirement plan providers have an important advantage: retirement plan participants strongly desire having a financially secure retirement. Higher plan engagement is an achievable objective. We feel the Jobs to be Done theory provides a road map for achieving this objective because it leads to customer-centric service, communication, and tool development.

If you want to learn more about our approach, contact Matt Greenwald at