Among the most profound experiences that Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen can recall is a meeting with Intel’s chairman Andrew Grove. Rather than explain to Grove what his model of disruption could mean to Intel, Christensen insisted on showing Grove how to think through the answer on his own. Grove came up with a strategy targeting the bottom of the market when launching the Celeron processor.
Regarded as one of the world’s top experts on innovation and growth, Christensen has helped companies make billions of dollars, in addition to launching four successful companies of his own, and authoring best-selling books such as The Innovator’s Dilemma.
Discussing his latest book, How Will You Measure Your Life, Christensen tells Arabic Knowledge at Wharton that the same principles and theories of management he has championed for companies can also be applied to one’s own life. Whether to achieve success and happiness, or to avoid pitfalls, Christensen says if a person applies theories of cause and effect and questions the purpose of their goals, they will be able to better manage the future outcomes of their actions. Two examples of lives that he pays tribute to are Apple’s Steve Jobs and Sony’s Akio Morita.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: In your new book, you write about your Harvard classmate, ex-Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, describing him as a good guy, but how something in his life went off track. How does one develop values that they can stick to?
Clayton Christensen: I would describe developing values in two kinds of sets. One is you can learn it in your head through seeing what happens to other people who hold certain values. You then make a decision that you lead a life following certain principles. But it’s a very different thing to have that conviction in your heart. The challenge of life is an unending stream of extenuating circumstances. Over and over again, you’re going to see a gray area in front of you and your instinct is, ‘Just this once, it’s okay if I don’t follow the rule.’ You’re [constantly] confronted with opportunities not to follow the standard that you set for yourself, and you can end up with a very different life than you intended.
The way you can steel yourself against that is to make a decision at the beginning that you will always follow certain rules 100% of the time. And then when these extenuating circumstances present themselves, you need to be able to say, ‘No, I already made that decision,’ as opposed to every time deciding if you’re going to stay with your convictions or depart from them. If you make that decision that you’ll always follow that rule, then your commitment to do it sinks into your heart. When you realize the benefits of having integrity time after time, it really changes your heart, not just your head.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Why is it important for managers and leaders to use the processes you describe?
Christensen: The core problem is that for whatever reason, when God created the world, he oriented us to always be looking into the future. He only made data available about the past. If we emerge into our careers as managers with a belief that we need to be data-driven and fact-based in our decision making, we’ll never be able to take action when it’s salient and always be reacting to things after the game is over. You need to be able to learn how to see into the future without data and evidence. The only way you can do that is if, as we did with [Intel CEO] Andrew Grove, you have a way to think, a set of theories that allow you predict in advance that if you take a certain action, this will be the result; or if you take this action, this is why it won’t work for these reasons. You can either guess at that, or if you have good theories of cause and effect, you can see the future outcomes of your present actions a bit more clearly.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Steve Jobs referenced the Innovator’s Dilemma as being greatly influential to him and how he ran Apple. What did you like about Jobs’ approach?
Christensen: What I love about the way he did his work is very similar to what Akio Morita did, who was the founder of Sony. During the time running Morita was running Sony, from 1955 to 1980, it was unbelievably successful in launching disruptive consumer electronics products time after time. The way Morita did it was that he had a policy never to do market research but rather he’d just walk around the world watching what people are trying to do. He’d try and understand the job they’re trying to get done. Once he really got a sense, he’d go back to work and say this is the kind of product we need to make and develop things like the Walkman and so on that people just never thought about before.
I think Jobs essentially did the same thing. He didn’t get his ideas from market research or surveying people, he essentially just watched what people were trying to do and questioned himself to figure out what he was really trying to do. If you have that kind of instinct to be observant and keep asking why people do what they do, I think that is by far the best way to do marketing. If you develop a product that gets what the customer is trying to get done, you don’t have to advertise; people will just pull it into their lives. I think the evidence is very strong for Sony during that era and for Apple under Jobs — they didn’t have to advertise until [the product] was already a success. They could advertise it so more people could realize that this does the job, but they didn’t have to create the demand which so much of marketing is focused on.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You know the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. How do you see strong values as having an impact on a presidency?
Christensen: I have known Mitt for 35 years and he really is a very smart man. He’s raised a remarkable family. It’s always hard to raise a good family but the most difficult situation to raise a family is if you have a lot of money and notoriety. Despite that he has very good kids. I’ve seen him in situations in our church where you have one of every type of human in your congregation from the richest to the poorest and he feels what the average person feels very deeply. He’s a good and honest man. So I would be quite happy if he were elected. Everything that I sense from President Barack Obama is that he’s similar. You don’t know the issues that you’re going to run into and so you’ve just got to hope that you voted women and men who are honest and smart, and I think both of them are that way.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Michael Horn co-founded the Innosight Institute with you to apply your theories to improve education and healthcare. What has the experience been like to groom others to pass on your theories and knowledge?
Christensen: It’s been very rewarding. A year ago Jeb Bush, the former Governor of Florida, and Joe Klein, who is very well-regarded and was the chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, came to see me because they couldn’t get on Michael Horn’s calendar. I thought, what an achievement that he has become so well regarded. I wish I could do that with everybody I work with.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You note that one of your most formative experiences was spending one hour a day reflecting on your purpose in life while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. What are the different pathways for people to do that?
Christensen: There are two pathways that you can follow. The significant majority of people have come to believe for one reason or another that there is a God. If you’re not sure about that, then one route is to assume there is a God and test that, going through the process that I went through. If you’ve already convinced yourself that there isn’t a God — and so you can’t even test that hypothesis — then you need to ask yourself, does that mean that everyone else is misguided? Or might there be a reason why they think there is one. The reason why I think that is a plausible option is because it’s an important enough question that you don’t want to leave the answer untested.
The other option is for whatever reasons, you are convinced that’s not for you, you can still look to individuals that are the kind of person you want to be like. Using what I offered as a template might make it easier for people to say let me just add one or two other things and once you understand that’s the kind of person you want to become, then you can work on what you need to do in life to become that. I think you need to start from somewhere and I hope that I offer a process by which you can get there.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You engage with students and those that you mentor. What drives you to take the time to invest in building other people?
Christensen: I had a very profound experience that helped me and it was shortly after I joined the faculty at HBS. For reasons that I could not understand, there were a few students in a course I was teaching that just didn’t like me. At Harvard, if you as a student don’t like something about the teacher, there is a student in the class called the education representative that you can complain to. It’s anonymous so without being able to go back to them, I invited my colleagues to attend class and listen to see if there was anything I was doing that would bother people and they couldn’t figure it out. In that context I was on a plane to Minneapolis and was sitting next to a Native American who lived there. We began to talk about what we did for a living and I told him my frustration of not understanding why I couldn’t satisfy these particular students. He said, ‘Professor, what you need to do is teach with love.’ That just took me by surprise because the words teach with love and the HBS case method never came across as a single thought in my heart before, but I realized he had to be right. I made a commitment that every time I would teach in a way so every student could feel my love for them through the way I conducted myself. As soon as did that, the problem disappeared. My hope everyday is that everyone I have a chance to visit with can feel it.
Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You write about the importance of humility and seeing the value in learning from every person no matter their age or status. What has your approach been in how you interact with others?
Christensen: I really try to live my life like Jobs and Morita in that just as a habit, wherever I go I just want to watch what other people are doing. If you really believe that you can learn something important from anybody, even when you’re with children, you ask what people are doing and you’ve got to ask yourself why. When people are writing a letter to someone or when they don’t write a letter to someone, what’s really going on there? You realize that maybe people aren’t communicating with other people because it’s too much time to write a letter. Is there a simpler way to communicate with people by distance? Watching what people are doing and what they’re not trying to do really helps you and allow you to learn from other people.
Just by analogy I have an image in my brain that up in heaven God has built these warehouses. On one of the shelves are packages with truth and the other are packages of answers, and he just doesn’t at will pick up answers and packets of truth and just throws them down at someone. What he does is he waits until I ask a question and then he’ll send down an answer because people will learn when they’re ready to learn, not when you’re ready to teach them.
When you’re talking to someone, if you always ask them questions about themselves and what’s going on in their life and what they’re seeing, you’ll learn so much. You can always have a wonderful conversation with anybody if you ask about them, because if you do that then everyone is interested in themselves; and if you’re interested in them too, than you have something to talk about. That’s why I think you can learn from anybody and you miss out on a lot of learning in life if you only focus your attention on a certain stature of people.
Clayton Christensen co-wrote How Will You Measure Your Life with James Allworth, an HBS graduate and Karen Dillon, formerly the editor of the Harvard Business Review. The book comes out on May 15th.