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May 8, 2013

How to Look Around Corners

Posted by Mohit Joshi (View Profile | View All Posts) at 6:20 AM

Clayton Christensen on How Will You Measure Your Life 

Read Clayton Christensen's How Will You Measure Your Life? yet? After the wild success of his book The Innovator's Dilemma in the late 1990s, this Harvard Business School professor seems to have delivered another hit because the author once again requires the reader to make some tough decisions about how one relates to one's surroundings.

I came across a recent interview with Christensen in which the professor discusses making life decisions based on full value rather than marginal value. What does he mean by this distinction? For example, making a decision based on expediency is often based on the assumption that you will pay a small, marginal cost. But Christensen warns that in the end, you always end up paying up for expenses you never thought you would have to face. "This goes on in your personal life just as much as it does when you invest in setting up a sales force," he says in the interview.

Suppose parents get into the expedient practice of doing their children's homework for them. Sure, says Christensen, the children are going to meet with success in the short run. Yet one of the fundamental roles of being a parent includes creating small challenges for their children so that they are prepared to take on large challenges later in life, he says.

He knows a thing or two about challenges in his personal life. Christensen has been public in his battle against cancer and suffering a stroke. His personal situation is one of the reasons he decided to expand his 'Innovators' franchise to reflect on life decisions. In his original book, Christensen warned companies that if they focused too much on their core business lines and their biggest customers, they were creating a kind of vacuum that would be filled with disruptive upstarts. He reasoned that younger, more nimble companies were more likely to think creatively, foster innovation, and address the needs of a market in ways that the larger, established firms could not. Christensen says that managing disruption in your private life is important as well. The secret to success, he says, is to not get saddled with minor day-to-day issues and instead to focus on long-term goals. He even speaks of the importance of building a strong personal legacy.

Christensen uses a fascinating example of how to disrupt your daily personal life in order to focus on larger goals. When he was an MBA student himself, he was in a marketing class busily taking notes about a case that involved a peanut butter manufacturer. Then it hit him: Why was he writing down the answers that his fellow students were giving? He based this startling revelation on two realities. The first was that he would most likely never work for a peanut butter company. Even if he did, he posited that he wouldn't be dealing with the same problems that the peanut butter company's management faced a decade before. The second reality was that he had to write something down because business school isn't exactly cheap. He might as well engage himself in the learning that was supposed to take place in this marketing class. So Christensen then began thinking about what kinds of notes he could take. One of his classmates made a brilliant comment. But instead of writing down what she said, he wrote a question that he thought she would have had to ask herself to make such an insightful remark.

From then on, Christensen made it a practice not to listen to what smart people gave as answers but rather to devise the questions that led to such remarks. After a while, some of those questions have limited relevance. Other questions, however, are always important. Christensen recommends that business leaders keep their attention focused on the questions they need to ask in the future instead of looking at data of the past days' performance.

Only then can someone, in life and in business, best anticipate what might be coming around the bend.

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