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Clay Christensen's Life Lessons


Christensen with four of his grandchildren in Belmont, Mass.

Photograph by Thomas Prior for Bloomberg Businessweek

Christensen with four of his grandchildren in Belmont, Mass.

(Corrects number of employees and office locations of Innosight Ventures in fourth-to-last paragraph.)

On a warm April evening, Clayton Christensen arrived at his home in Belmont, Mass., desperate for a peanut butter sandwich. Christensen is diabetic, and with his blood sugar low, he seemed out of sorts. As he crushed the sandwich in a few massive bites, it had the effect on him that spinach does on Popeye. No longer confused about why a reporter had been waiting on his stoop, the 60-year-old Harvard Business School professor and celebrated author of The Innovator’s Dilemma began to form his thoughts with two distractingly huge hands. He said that he’d sometimes regretted calling his most admired theory “disruptive innovation,” because the disruptive part strikes some as more alarming than advantageous. He confided that he read the entire World Book Encyclopedia by age 12. And he shared two intimate encounters he’d had with God, including one on the eve of a “widow-maker” heart attack in 2007, the first of three life-threatening health issues in as many years.

At the turn of the century, The Innovator’s Dilemma became a surprise best-seller and a holy book for entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, where Christensen’s theory arrived ready-made to explain what Internet companies were going to do to established businesses. Andy Grove swore by it. Steve Jobs admired it, although Jobs’s biographer, Walter Isaacson, points out that Christensen predicted that if Apple (AAPL) kept on using only its own software, the iPod would likely remain a “niche product.”

Photograph by Thomas Prior for Bloomberg Businessweek

Pointedly, Christensen demonstrated that it wasn’t because of obsolescence or ineptitude that top companies falter, the way General Motors (GM) did after Toyota Motor (TM) rose up (and the way Toyota is now, under pressure from Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors). Rather, what caused executives and companies to fail was doing everything right. They listened to their customers, constantly improved their products and services, and maximized profits. Their undoing came from failing to do something counterintuitive: pursuing new opportunities at the low end of their markets. Hence, the dilemma of Dilemma: When do you cannibalize your own business in order to save it?

Since Dilemma was published in 1997, Christensen has worked hard to test his theories, collaborated on analyses of K-12 education, health care, and universities, and secured his reputation as one of academia’s biggest brains. Last November, for whatever these lists are worth, he topped the Thinkers50 index compiled every two years by the British consultancy CrainerDearlove,which declared him “the most influential business thinker on earth right now.”

Over the years, he also noticed that many of his former classmates at Harvard and University of Oxford, where Christensen was a Rhodes Scholar, had ended up deeply unhappy. “Something had gone wrong for some of them along the way: their personal relationships had begun to deteriorate, even as their professional prospects blossomed,” he writes in the prologue of his new book, How Will You Measure Your Life? Many of these folks stopped attending reunions, and Christensen sensed that they “felt embarrassed to explain to their friends the contrast in the trajectories of their personal and professional lives.”

Several screwed up royally. “One played a prominent role in a major trading scandal. Another ended up in jail because of a sexual relationship with a teenager who had worked on his political campaign. He was married with three children at the time,” Christensen writes. “I know for sure that none of these people graduated with a deliberate strategy to get divorced, or lose touch with their children—much less end up in jail.”

One of Christensen’s Harvard Business School classmates, Jeffrey Skilling, the former chief executive officer of Enron, became a poster boy for corporate bad behavior and is four years into a 24-year sentence at a federal prison in Colorado. This February, the youngest of Skilling’s three children, 20-year-old John Taylor “JT” Skilling, died of an overdose of prescription medication, reportedly after breaking up with a college sweetheart. “The Skilling I knew was a good man. Smart, worked hard, loved his family,” Christensen says, explaining why he decided to risk his standing as a management theorist with a self-help book. “I wanted to understand what had sent him in the wrong direction.” The book encapsulates Christensen’s best advice to keep high achievers from being disrupted in their own lives.

It’s easy to argue that now is the perfect time for a book promoting professional integrity. But can business management theories really apply to the pursuit of happiness, as Christensen suggests? And can you ever really teach profit-driven capitalists, much less Harvard MBAs, not to be evil?

There are tall men who, through some accident of posture or proportion, do not seem so very tall. Christensen is not one of them. He stands a broad-shouldered, boat-footed 6’8” and seems, if anything, taller. He’d make a terrific Jaws for Halloween, if he could summon the Bond villain’s campy menace. This is unlikely, given how utterly sincere Christensen is; it’s easier to imagine him taking a knee to console a frightened trick-or-treater than scaring one off his lawn.

On a tour of his home and backyard, Christensen shows off furniture he’s built over the years with his five children, some of it with the help of a lathe that was a gift from Nolan Archibald, the executive chairman of Stanley Black & Decker (SWK). A creek runs through the family property, braiding around Spencer Island—named for his fourth child—and downstream from Grandma’s Stairs to the Flower Patch, Grandma being the former Christine Quinn, whom Christensen met and wooed at Brigham Young University. They married in 1976.

Those who know him say Christensen's work with students sustains himPhotograph by Thomas Prior for Bloomberg BusinessweekThose who know him say Christensen's work with students sustains him

Christensen likes to say that he “left one half of my heart in Rose Park, one half in Korea, and one half at Oxford.” Rose Park is the blue-collar Salt Lake City neighborhood where he grew up, the second of eight children. He traveled to Korea for two years in the early ’70s to serve his mission with the Mormon church. It was while studying econometrics at Oxford, though, that he confirmed his religious faith.

“I’d been raised Mormon, but there comes a time where you are not following what you’ve been taught, but discovering for yourself if it’s true,” Christensen says. Each night from 11 to midnight, he huddled near a space heater in a pre-Columbian Oxford building, read chapters from The Book of Mormon, and prayed to know “if some charlatan had written this, or was it really from someone who talked to God?” While praying one night, he found himself enveloped in a feeling of love so profound he wept. This feeling stayed with him for an hour, and left him certain he was a son of God.

Christensen writes that he first aspired to be the editor of the Wall Street Journal. Instead, after completing his Harvard MBA, he helped establish the Boston Consulting Group’s strategic practice. He then served two White House fellowships, and, in 1984, just as he plotted to take up journalism in earnest, helped launch a company with a brilliant materials scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“We had the technical horsepower, but we needed help with the financials and strategy,” remembers Kent Bowen, the man who persuaded Christensen to lead his company, which specialized in high-tech ceramics. The company took a dive with the market in 1987, and, unable to secure a second round of funding, changed hands. The new owner fired Christensen to install his own CEO. Given the focus of his new book, it’s worth underscoring that Christensen, then 37, was newly canned, and once again a student (pursuing a Ph.D. with a family to support) as he embarked on what he considers his true career.

One of the rare doctoral dissertations to land—and stick—on the best-seller list, The Innovator’s Dilemma has become canonical. “It was such an original contribution,” says Christopher Meyer, a founder of Monitor Talent, a network of speakers and consultants on innovation based in Boston. “It’s second nature now, but it hadn’t been articulated before, and it still explains better than anything I’ve seen why even the smartest companies are resistant to new ideas.”

Bowen says working with engineers on the startup may have given Christensen an edge. “I think that he saw with the hard scientists that we weren’t into correlation,” Bowen says. “We go for the jugular: causation. To show causation—I think that’s what excited Clay, and really came through in his research.”

As he became a tenured and now chaired professor at the Harvard Business School, he also became a significant figure in the Mormon church of New England, and an unofficial member of the “Belmont mafia”—the post-grad management consultants who settle in the Hub’s suburbs and work for BCG, McKinsey, and Bain Capital. For years, Mitt Romney lived about a mile away. Christensen says that he and his kids helped move Mormon families and college students into homes, apartments, and dorm rooms for more than 20 years, including the Romneys at least once.

After his heart attack, which required immediate stenting, and treatment for follicular lymphoma, during the first half of 2010, there were some who wished he’d slow down; those close to him knew he wouldn’t. Then, on Sunday, July 18, 2010, lightning struck a third time. While Christensen spoke at a 6:30 a.m. church meeting, a blood clot lodged just behind his left ear. The stroke killed as much as a quarter of his brain and robbed him of nearly all of his verbal ability.

Christensen's sons shaved their heads in solidarity when he was undergoing chemotherapyCourtesy of Clayton ChristensenChristensen's sons shaved their heads in solidarity when he was undergoing chemotherapy

In the aftermath, he took long walks with Christine, some of which were dispiriting as he struggled to recall if leaves were green or orange. This was not a trick question. It was still August. “Finally, we hit on the idea of getting Rosetta Stone (RST) discs for English. I always thought of them for foreign languages, but, of course, they have English, too. So we drove out to Logan [International Airport], and I began relearning vocabulary with my youngest granddaughter, Madeline. She’s almost 8. She beat the pants off me.” He laughs. “But the brain is amazing. It began reconstituting language in new areas.”

During our interview, Christensen got to his feet and summoned me to his kitchen pantry, where he took a square of honeycomb wrapped in clear plastic from a shelf. “It’s like this is my brain,” he said. “And if I’m giving a speech I’ve given before, the sentences are sticking out on top. But if I’m trying to form a new sentence, I have to search in each cell for the word I need. And if it isn’t there, I have to try another.” Asked if he was terrified to be without language as a teacher and writer, he shook his head. “My only thought was I have to be grateful for the chance to get better.”

As his vocabulary improved, Christensen set to work in earnest on How Will You Measure Your Life? with two co-authors, James Allworth, 31, a former student and Harvard Business School graduate, and Karen Dillon, 45, then editor of the Harvard Business Review. Allworth had been in the audience in the spring of 2010 when, still bald from chemotherapy, Christensen gave his annual “last lecture” to departing students, during which he encouraged introspection and a search for meaning—not coincidentally, the seed of the new book. Like many before her, Dillon had a Road to Damascus moment after interviewing Christensen about the lecture for the Review. She decided to make her two young children more of a priority. She resigned from her job eight months later, and moved to the U.K. (her husband is British). Was her decision on his head? Christensen laughs nervously. “Well, she seems to be happy…”

More accessible than Steven Covey’s perennial The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, How Will You Measure Your Life? is provocative but reassuring: Peter Drucker meets Mitch Albom. Landing as it does at the nexus of two abominable genres, self-help and business how-to, it earns easy credit for being low on psychobabble and casually self-aware. “Walk into the self-help section of any bookstore and you’ll be overwhelmed with scores of choices about how you can improve your life,” the authors write, cheekily, of the competition. “You know, intuitively, that all these books can’t be right.”

There are some digressions typical of business books, such as a contemplation of why no one has copied Ikea. He includes at least one analysis drawn from sport. The Christensens are an athletic family. Christensen’s eldest son, 6′10” Matthew, aka “the Stormin’ Mormon,” played center for the Duke Blue Devils basketball team and was a member on Duke’s 2001 National Championship squad. Christensen faults “the coach for one of my favorite basketball teams” for not building better bench strength—so reserve players could be counted on when starters tire, a lesson that likely grew out of a dad’s all-too-human desire to see his kids get more playing time.

How Will You Measure Your Life? is sharpest on staying motivated in your career and, above all, on parenting. Drawing on the work of the late psychologist Frederick Herzberg, Christensen and his co-authors explain why it’s possible to love your job and hate it at the same time: Job satisfaction isn’t on a spectrum, it’s driven by independent factors, of which compensation is merely one. “Even those engaged in careers that seem to specifically focus on money, like salespeople and traders, are subject to these rules of motivation—it’s just that in these professions, money acts as a highly accurate yardstick of success.”

“To understand a company’s strategy, look at what they actually do rather than what they say they do,” the book quotes Andy Grove as saying. The same logic applies to one’s life. For example, ambitious people will reliably tell you that family, or being a mother or father, is the most important thing in their lives. Yet when pressed to choose between racing home to deal with a chaotic pre-bedtime scene and staying another hour at the office to solve a problem, they will usually keep working. It’s these small, everyday decisions that reveal if you’re following a path to being the best possible spouse and parent, the authors write. “If your family matters most to you, when you think about all the choices you’ve made with your time in a week, does your family come out on top?”

If there has been one knock against Christensen’s theories, it’s that they are better as analysis than as a course of action, something Christensen and an impressive network of co-authors and collaborators have worked hard to dispel.

“The theory is more descriptive than prescriptive,” says Larry Keeley, the co-founder of Doblin, a strategic consulting firm in Chicago, who considers Christensen a peer and a friend. “There are very few robust intellectuals working on innovation, and I don’t mean to take anything away from Clay’s accomplishment when I say this, but [the disruption theory] strikes me as an incomplete idea.”

In 2000, Christensen co-founded Innosight, a consultancy based in Lexington, Mass., to help corporations use his ideas to kill competitors rather than be killed by them. Innosight, which has 80 employees (15 overseas), hasn’t disrupted McKinsey or BCG yet, and he no longer has an ownership stake, but he says he’s determined to help the practice as best he can. In San Francisco, he and a few of his former students formed the not-for-profit Innosight Institute, to apply his theories to education and health care. Last year, with Henry Eyring, Christensen published a manifesto for improving colleges called The Innovative University. Notably, he criticizes the tendency of four-year institutions to model themselves impractically on Harvard.

Christensen has also helped establish two firms to apply disruptive innovation to investing and venture capital: Rose Park Advisors, a hedge fund in Boston now run by his son Matthew, and Innosight Ventures. Rose Park operates a $60 million fund and reports a compound annual growth rate of 12 percent since August 2007. It’s still early, but five of the six startups in Innosight Ventures’s portfolio appear as if they’ll survive—ahead of the survival rate of most venture firms. Harvard faculty can use one day per week for outside activities such as consulting, so Christensen has about 50 days a year to divide among these enterprises.

“It’s a grand experiment,” says Scott Anthony, managing director of Innosight Ventures for Asia. Anthony, the author of The Little Black Book of Innovation, says the experiment is going well, if slowly. “It’s taken us a good 10 years to really get [the consultancy]  to scale, so it’s hard—I’m not saying it’s not hard. But you can apply [disruptive innovation] with success.”

Michael Raynor, now a director at Deloitte Consulting in Toronto and co-author of Christensen’s second book, The Innovator’s Solution (2000), has heard various forms of Keeley’s criticism over the years, too. “First I have to say, Clay is always open to the possibility that he might have something wrong. He’s interested in the anomalies,” Raynor says. Together, the two investigated if hotels were—as they appeared—one industry exempt from disruptive innovation. “And maybe they were, until Airbnb,” Raynor says, referring to the Web-based service that allows people to rent rooms in private residences to tourists. “I don’t know that many good management books that have prescriptive theories, because that is the work the executives have to do,” Raynor says. “Clay’s goal has always been to provide the framework. Not to tell you what to think, but how to think.”

In conversation, Christensen puts it this way: “There is no single right answer or path forward, but there is one right way to frame the problem.” As to whether his advice in How Will You Measure Your Life? will save ambitious careerists from themselves, he’s circumspect. In his experience, when something isn’t going well—when, despite outward success, one’s life falls apart—“the vast majority of times it’s because someone hasn’t gotten causality right.” They aren’t necessarily bad people, they simply aren’t enacting a strategy for the life they really want. He has great faith in the capacity of overachievers “to change in ways that previously were unthinkable.”

Wieners is an executive editor for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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