July 1, 2012

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Summer Reading

Clayton Christensen’s Latest Book Teaches Important Lessons

Natalie Gochnour

July 1, 2012

Summer is a great time for self-reflection and a good read. I combined the two by reading Clayton Christensen’s new book, How Will You Measure Your Life? In it, Christensen applies business theories to the making of a successful life. Read it and I guarantee you will re-order your thoughts, recalibrate your career and renew your commitment to friends and family.

Anyone familiar with Christensen’s work knows his magic well. He thinks and writes with crystal-clear clarity. Better still, he infuses his brilliance with pure goodness. For me, that combination is the true definition of greatness.

Raised in Rose Park, the genuine and humble neighborhood just west of downtown Salt Lake City, Christensen is a Rhodes scholar, co-founder of four companies, New York Times bestselling author and professor at the Harvard Business School. He is considered by many to be the world’s leading thinker on innovation. More than these accolades, he would want to be described as a man of faith and a devoted husband and father.

His new book is an instructive, mini-textbook (just over 200 pages) on how to examine and renew your life. Here is a sampling of the life lessons that spoke to me:

Don’t get caught up in rear-view mirror thinking. Business people are tempted to plan the future by collecting and analyzing as much data as possible and then making a decision. While data collection is important, it isn’t sufficient.                  

Christensen says too much focus on data and analysis is like driving a car looking only through the rear-view mirror. Data is only available about the past and the future can be much different. Instead, apply theories about how things work to your future. That way you can know things in concept before they happen. Christensen says, “Good theory helps people steer to good decisions—not just in business, but in life, too.”

Understand the difference between incentives and motivation. Christensen reminds us that incentive is not the same as motivation. Drawing from incentive theory and motivation theory, Christensen points out the powerful anomalies that incentive theory cannot explain—like why some of the hardest-working people on the planet work in nonprofits, charitable organizations and entities that don’t pay top dollar. He says, “True motivation is getting people to do something because they want to do it.” Status, compensation, work conditions and supervisory practices are important, but don’t underestimate how important personal growth, challenging work, recognition and responsibility are to work itself.

Many of Christensen’s student peers at Harvard Business School made career decisions based on the wrong motivators (pay and status) and in the end were left unfulfilled. They ended up chasing a mirage. Instead, direct your career energies toward the important things in life: making a meaningful difference in your community, personal development and valuable relationships.

Balance emergent and deliberate actions. Strategy—whether in business or in personal life—is made up of deliberate and emergent actions. Deliberate actions are those that follow your business or life plan. If you are satisfied, stay the course. But if you find your life wanting, then experiment, try something new. Learn from the experience and adjust as needed. Iterate quickly. Continue with this process until your strategy clicks. Christensen says, “Strategy almost always emerges from a combination of deliberate and unanticipated opportunities.”

Benefit from culture. Culture in a business or a family is the unique combination of processes and priorities that define your essence. Christensen says that he and his wife built a family culture around God, kindness and work ethic. He points out that culture develops whether you create it or not. Be smart and benefit from the power of a purposeful culture that guides decisions.

Christensen ends the book by reflecting about his recent physical challenges, including a stroke that left him unable to speak or write beyond just a few simple words. Christensen says that understanding your purpose in life is the most important thing you’ll ever learn. He reminds us that clearness of purpose—who you are, what you stand for, what you strive to accomplish—is vital. He says, “Clarity of purpose will trump knowledge of activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, core competence, disruptive innovation, the four Ps, the five forces and other key business theories we teach at Harvard.”

This quick summer read got me thinking about choices I can make to lead a more fulfilling life. I think it will do the same for you.

Natalie Gochnour is the chief economist at the Salt Lake Chamber.

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