Professor Clayton Christiansen of Harvard Business School virtually created a mini industry with his books and articles and media following the success of his book, The Innovators Dilemma. He may not have anticipated that he would have another powerful impact nearly a decade later when he wrote blog posts, an article and then a book entitled how will you measure your life? In both cases is timing was extraordinary.
As a professor at Harvard Business School, Christiansen was interested in the question why do successful managers, those who do all the right things and listen to their customers, run into trouble and often move from success to failure in changing markets?
What his research showed was that listening to your customers may be a virtue in normal times but in competitive technology driven industries it often leads to the fallacy of continuing to improve a traditional product by investing in sustaining technologies while competitors may be investing in nurturing disruptive alternatives. His insights lead the iconic technology pioneer and head of Intel, Andrew Grove to radically alter his direction. The head of GE wrote about disrupting himself.
Christiansen had a message for the leaders of big, complex organizations like Intel and GE at a time when technology was forcing them to rethink their fundamental directions. His strategies offered a pathway to those who saw the need for innovation and investing in disruptive futures but who faced all of the normal resistance from traditionalists.
But interestingly, his second message a decade later that everyone needed to think about how they were going to measure their lives came at an equally powerful time. Just as technology revolution stress tested the best management teams in the late 90s, a decade later, the world had begun to recognize that organizations had ceased to maintain their patterns of lifetime employment and individuals were far less loyal to careers in one enterprise – even the seeming lifetime employment of places like the Postal Service began to seem far less secure.
If success would not be defined by ascending the corporate, or law firm ladder, Individuals needed to revisit the traditional ways in which success would be measured. Christensen was speaking to many who were beginning to explore the existential uncertainties of such a marketplace.
Christianson teaches a course on innovation at the Harvard business school. In his last class, after studying models of successful entrepreneurs, he turns the focus around and asks the class to consider how they will measure themselves. In his articles, he tells several poignant personal stories about how his values and his professional and personal life have interacted at key points in his life.
He tells the story of having to miss the last basketball game of the tournament well he was a Rhodes Scholar and playing basketball at Oxford. He had made a personal commitment to his faith and the game had been scheduled for a Sunday. By refusing to play on Sunday he was clearly letting his team down and yet to this day he believes that his decision not to play (his conscience was eased when the team won without him) was one of the most important of his life. He had committed to the importance of standing by principle.
Later, as a Professor and increasingly famous business writer, he was invited by Andrew Grove to come and present his thinking at Intel. Grove said:
Look, stuff has happened. We have only 10 minutes for you. Tell us what your model of disruption means for Intel.” I said that I couldn’t—that I needed a full 30 minutes to explain the model, because only with it as context would any comments about Intel make sense. Ten minutes into my explanation, Grove interrupted: “Look, I’ve got your model. Just tell us what it means for Intel.”
I’ve thought about that a million times since. If I had been suckered into telling Andy Grove what he should think about the microprocessor business, I’d have been killed. But instead of telling him what to think, I taught him how to think—and then he reached what I felt was the correct decision on his own.
This experience that grew from standing by his principles was a defining moment for him in which he came to recognize that his personal capacity to have an impact in the world would be through teaching and influencing others to through his insights bringing them to act on their own.
What has become interesting to me in studying change settings has been the importance of clarity in the leadership message. The new media has created a 360 degree perspective on leaders. Apart from the way that Christensen’s question touches on the core insecurities of changing times, it also serves as a challenge to future leaders to define their personal leadership statement and to sustain it in the face of challenge.