How Will You Measure Your Life?

Clay Christensen is one of the world’s authorities on disruptive innovation.  His book The Innovator’s Dilemma won the Global Business Book Award for the Best Business Book of the Year in 1997, and it went on to be one of the top selling business books for years.  Recently, Professor Christensen teamed up with a former student, James Allworth and the editor of the Harvard Business Review, Karen Dillon to write How Will You Measure Your Life?  It’s about applying business principles to create a better life.

You end your courses—and began this book—with a set of three fundamental “How can I be sure that…” questions.  Can you give us some background of how your thinking led to these three specific questions?

Clay: The questions actually emerged from two of my experiences at Harvard Business School. The first was as a result of being a student here. Every five years, the school hosts reunions and it’s a wonderful opportunity to catch up with old friends. At our first reunion — five years out from graduation — everyone seemed to be so successful, prosperous and happy: the promise of our years at school seemed destined to pay off. But at subsequent reunions, things started to change. Cracks in that promise started to become apparent.

Now, I don’t want to mislead you — many of my classmates have gone on to incredible successes, have happy families and have raised wonderful children. But more of us than I would have hoped seemed to have made choices that haven’t led us to those outcomes. That led to the questions: how can I be sure that I find happiness in my career, find happiness in my relationships, and be sure that I live a life of integrity? Those seemed to be the questions that some of us had either never thought to ask, or had lost track of.

Now, with that as context, the second source was the class that I teach today at the Harvard Business School. Using the business theory that we’ve gone through all semester, I’ve enlisted my students to help answer—both for my benefit, and for theirs—the questions that so many of my classmates seemed to have lost track of.

I asked James Allworth, who was in my class that day and very moved by the discussion; and Karen Dillon, who helped start the broader conversation as the Editor of the Harvard Business Review when we published the original How Will You Measure Your Life? article, to work with me to build out and deeply explore insights to these questions.

Having a stroke, hearing a cancer diagnosis, and starting chemotherapy obviously had a profound impact on you, your students and, through this book, the world.  You took the three questions to an entirely new and much more personal level by sharing your experience and applying your theories to life.  What has the response been so far?

Clay: Well, the response has been overwhelming. I’ve received so many kind notes and emails from people who I’ve never met before. I’m so grateful that the thinking has been able to help folks think through these questions.

My health issues did make these questions seem more urgent — the class in 2009, when I had been diagnosed and we didn’t have a good sense of how I was going to respond to the treatment — obviously, that was very emotionally charged, and I really wanted to make sure I helped everyone in that class to work through the questions with me. But I’d been thinking about these questions with my students for some time before I got sick.

What’s the advantage of finding, understanding and applying theories to guide decision making rather than simply using experience and accumulated expertise?

Clay: Well, it’s always very tempting to simply accumulate more data and more experience. We should learn all we can about the past, and data can provide valuable insight. However: there is a problem with relying heavily on this approach. When God made the world, he chose to only make data available about the past. There are too many times in life where if we wait until all the data is available, the game is already up — whether that’s in business or in life.

And that’s the value of theory. Good, causal theory allows us to look out into the future with incredible acuity.

There’s an example I love to share of mankind’s first attempts to fly. When our early aviators looked at the world’s “best practice” fliers—birds—they saw two things almost all these had in common: wings and feathers. So, they strapped on wings and feathers, climbed to the top of cathedral spires, jumped off and flapped hard. It rarely worked out well.

You see, wings and feathers were correlated with flight. But they didn’t cause flight.

The real breakthrough in human flight didn’t come from crafting better wings or using more feathers. It was brought about by Dutch-Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli and his book Hydrodynamica, a study of fluid mechanics. In 1738, he outlined what was to become known as Bernoulli’s principle, a theory that, when applied to flight, explained the concept of lift. We had gone from correlation (wings and feath- ers) to causality (lift). Modern flight can be traced directly back to the development and adoption of this theory.

Tell us why a hiring manager should pay close attention to the past tense verbs in a candidate’s résumé?

Clay: The past tense verbs represent experiences that a candidate has gone through. People tend to gravitate towards the names of firms and the positions that a candidate has had, and might correlate with future success; but we wanted to find a better way of predicting success in a future role. A bigger predictor of success for a future job is–given the types of problems that will need to be tacked in a new job–has a candidate had the opportunity to tackle those problems before? That’s why the past tense verbs are important, more so than where people worked, or what their role there was.

What’s the critical difference between incentive and motivation?

James: This is a great question, and I think a lot of people get them confused.

In a seminal paper published in the Harvard Business Review, psychologist Frederick Herzberg defined it thus: I give you an incentive when I want you to do something, but if you’re motivated, you want to do it all by yourself. Somehow, too many people have lost track of this in business today. They focus on extrinsic motivators like financial incentives to get employees to do what they want them to do. Now, there’s no doubt that having enough money to feed and care for your family is vitally important. But after that, the power of these extrinsic motivators rapidly declines. Managers have to offer ever-bigger incentives to get employees to do what they want them to do if they take this approach. And then, if someone comes along and offers them more, they jump ship.

Instead, intrinsic motivators — the opportunity to shoulder more responsibility, to work on something bigger than one’s self, to learn and grow — these are truly what make people enjoy what they do. Managers who rely on these will find that their employees don’t need to be pushed; they fuel their own engine at work.

One of the wonderful things about good theory is that it’s applicable at multiple levels; this theory of motivation doesn’t just apply to managers and employees, but it applies to each of us in our careers, too. And that’s one of the things Clay, Karen, and I dive deeply into in the book.

What’s the difference between deliberate strategy versus emergent strategy, and why are both necessary?

Karen: Emergent and deliberate strategy are two sides of the same coin.

Deliberate strategy is what most people think of when they think of strategy. When you hear of the bold plan being sent down from the top of the organization that management expects everyone to follow; that’s deliberate strategy. It’s deliberately conceived and executed.

Emergent strategy, on the other hand, could most easily be described as being “opportunistic.” In business, there are always problems and opportunities that you just can never have expected to encounter. Emergent strategy is about adjusting to take advantage of these.

Too often, executives have a natural tendency to rely on one or the other exclusively. They decide on the plan, and think that they should only deviate from it under extreme duress. Then there are those who lead with the mantra of, “Let’s just see what happens.”

The truth is, there’s a place for both approaches, but it depends on the circumstances you’re in. If you’ve found something that works, then executing deliberately can often be the difference between success and failure. But when you’re in circumstances where the path to success isn’t clear, then taking this approach can be fatal.

What insight do proposals for new projects and initiatives gain by answering, “What has to be true for this to work?”

Clay: The power of this is that it forces you to surface critical assumptions. This question is based off an approach outlined by McGrath and MacMillan known as Discovery Driven Planning. Too many organizations do strategic planning as an exercise in charades — they know what the hurdle rate is that a project must have to pass, so the team keeps tweaking the numbers until the numbers look good. At that point, an investment decision is made, and it’s only once the company is fully committed that you learn whether those numbers were accurate or not.

Discovery Driven Planning — “What has to prove true for this to work?” — reverses the process. If everyone knows the hurdle rate that the project has to meet, why go through the charade? Instead, you list out the assumptions in rank order weighted by two factors: impact and uncertainty. The assumptions with the greatest impact and the least certainty go up the top. Then, before green lighting any project, the team investigates and experiments to get the right answers to those assumptions. Investments can be made to test and find out what the impact of the assumptions will be.

And then, only once the most important assumptions have been tested, and the company has a good idea whether the investment is a good one or not, is the investment green lighted (or not). Of course, you can never get the planning process 100% right all the time, but this sure sets you up to have the best chance.

This approach can obviously be very useful not just for businesses, but for whenever you need to make big decisions in life, too.

Why should businesses—and individuals—judge the value of their products and services through the lens of “the job to be done”?

James: The “job to be done” emerged from an insight that people don’t buy products or services because of their demographics — nobody buys things because they’re a white 25-30 year old male with a college degree. Instead, people go about living their lives, and they come across a problem they need to solve — so they “hire” a product to help them complete it.

The real value of this insight is that it gives companies a mechanism to put themselves in the shoes of their customers. Too often, businesses want to sell to customers what they want to sell customers; this is a way of thinking that forces them to think about how customers are living their lives and whether their offering is going to appeal to a customer on that basis.

Why is it important to deliberately set the culture inside a business—or a family—rather than let it emerge on its own?

Karen: The thing about culture is it’s the sum of repeated problem solving. At some point, a problem emerges within a group of people, and they work out a way to solve it. If the solution works “well enough,” then the next time that problem emerges, the group will gravitate towards using that same solution. After enough times, they won’t even think about the best way to solve the problem — they will just use the same way of things that happened in the past.

The problem is, the way of solving a problem that emerges might not be the one that you want. In a company, for example, if shipping a product that had quality issues was what happened the first time the group encountered the situation of a deadline, and they get away with it, well, next time they encounter that same problem, then that’s what they’re likely to do. If that keeps working, then eventually they will do it without even thinking about it.

Now, if that’s the way you want your company to work, that’s fine. But if you want your company to have a reputation for quality, then it poses something of a problem.

The way to manage this is to make sure that the first time the problem is encountered, that you encourage the group — whether a business, or a family — to make the right decision. And if they don’t, then stop them and explain why it’s not the right way to go about the problem. Otherwise, you risk ending up with a very different culture to the one you want.

The component lessons in your book interlock to create a seamless whole, a solid plan for determining, setting, and driving the purpose and fundamental priorities in both business and life.  But what didn’t make the cut?  What ideas or content did you consider but ultimately reject when assembling this series of lessons?

Clay: There are lots of books out there which make all kinds of promises about what they’ll do for you if you follow their prescriptions. Just as there are no one-size-fits-all strategies that companies can implement to get to success, we don’t believe there are any one-size-fits-all approaches that people can take to get there either. What makes this book different from the others is that it’s all about asking difficult questions of yourself, and rather than giving you the answers, it gives you the tools to seek those answers yourself: rigorous theory on success from institutions like the Harvard Business School.

So while on this topic there were a lot of other things that each of the three of us wanted to talk about — including things in the original article that we all agree are important — we made the decision that we were not going to prescribe any answers. The theory was the basis for everything that’s in the book.


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