Prof. Clay Christensen Reflects on Past and Future Endeavors

by on December 30th, 2012

This year marks Professor Clay Christensen’s 20th anniversary as a member of the HBS faculty. In those 20 years, Professor Christensen has forged a formidable legacy. He founded the consulting firm Innosight, the hedge fund Rose Park, and has authored nine books.

Christensen has also applied his research to many diverse fields through the Innosight Institute and developed new insights through the HBS-based Forum for Growth and Innovation. Prof. Christensen is an adviser to leading executives, entrepreneurs, and policymakers who turn to him for guidance in the realm of disruptive innovation and beyond.

Professor Christensen recently sat down for an interview in his office in Morgan Hall to discuss his motivations and resilience, his current projects, and the future of HBS.

You’ve been a professor at HBS for 20 years. What are some of the most important changes you’ve seen since you started in 1992?

CC: It’s really hard to believe it’s been 20 years already, and my relationship with HBS goes even farther back than that.  I came here as an MBA student in 1977. I just have to say, HBS is such a special place to be a student or a professor. I feel truly blessed to be a part of this great school, surrounded by such great people.

Looking back, I think that the diversity of the students, where they are from, and their experience has been a big change. When I started as a student, it was still primarily white men. I think it’s great that we are now celebrating the anniversary of 50 years of women at HBS, and that we now have such a diverse mix of races and nationalities. I can tell you it makes a huge difference in the amount of learning that happens in a classroom when you have students from such different backgrounds all contributing.

Another change I’ve seen is how much more globally-focused HBS has become. We didn’t used to have that many cases on non-American, non-European companies and protagonists. Now, I’m constantly blown away by how globally far-reaching the interests of our faculty are. I’m traveling a lot more as well to other countries to speak to business leaders. I always learn a ton from those opportunities.

You created the popular EC course, Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise (BSSE), in 1999. What do you hope students take away from the class?

CC: More than anything else, the one thing we’re focused on with BSSE is the study of causality: what causes what to happen, and why. Too often in business research, the focus is only on correlation. You can learn some interesting things from events that are correlated, but when you leave HBS and it comes time for you as a business leader to take the position of the case protagonist, if you don’t understand what actions will cause what results to take place, then you’re doing little more than throwing things against the wall and hoping that something sticks.

On the other hand, when armed with strong, causal theory, you’re able to see into the future with remarkable prescience. You will be able to say, “I need these results, and the theory tells me this is the action that I need to take to get there.”

It’s hard to overemphasize how powerful this approach is. That’s what all the students talk about when they finish the course, and they will often come up to me and talk about how helpful the theory has been as they’ve ventured out into their careers.

On that note, your most recent book, How Will You Measure Your Life?, offers lessons for readers based on applying business theories to life. HBS students are under a lot of pressure these days with recruiting. What is some advice you would give them?

CC: The thing is, the world is a nested place. Within countries we have industries, within industries we have companies, within the companies we have business units, within the business units we have teams, within the teams we have individuals. When you get the theory right, what you’ll find is that it doesn’t just apply at one of these levels, it can grant you insight into all of them. And that’s what the book is about. It’s about taking these same causal theories from our business research, but turning them around and looking at ourselves instead.

In terms of advice for everyone out there recruiting: one of the theories that we pull upon inside the course, and inside How Will You Measure Your Life?, is the theory of what motivates employees. It’s derived from one of the most popular Harvard Business Review articles of all time. In it, Frederick Herzberg describes the difference between what he terms “hygiene factors” and “motivators.”

“Hygiene factors” are primarily extrinsic factors—things like money, prestige, working conditions. When these are lacking, you’ll feel a sense of dissatisfaction with your work. But getting them right won’t make you love what you do. Instead, all it will lead to is the absence of dissatisfaction.

On the other hand, “motivators” are much more intrinsic in nature. They are things like the ability to grow, being given responsibility, and finding the work meaningful. These are things that, when they’re present, will give you a deep sense of satisfaction at work.

The things that will make you happy stem from asking questions like “Is this work meaningful to me?” and “Will there be an opportunity for me to shoulder responsibility?” and “Will I get to learn new things?” Hygiene factors like pay are important to satisfy but they won’t make you happy.

In the book, you called management a “noble profession.” What do you mean?

CC: There’s no other profession that offers you the same opportunity to have a positive influence on the lives of the people around you as management does. In the same way that when you go off and start the recruiting process you should be looking for motivators, management is all about helping the people you’re working with find exactly the same thing.

I had an epiphany about this when I was acting as a manager myself. We were at a company picnic, of all places, and I was getting to see the folks that I worked with in the fuller context of their lives, with their families. I imagined what it would be like for them to come home to their spouses and children having been frustrated at work, not feeling like they were making a meaningful contribution, not learning anything new.

I thought about that interaction. And then I compared it to a day when they came home with the feeling like they had really accomplished something important. The difference in the self-esteem of that very same person, and how that changed the interaction between the person and their partner and their children, for example. That difference was driven in large part by how well the manager—me, in this instance—was doing their job. It was an important lesson for me.

The last several years have been difficult for you. You had a heart attack in 2007, were diagnosed with cancer in 2009, and then suffered a stroke in 2010. You even had to re-learn speech and writing after the stroke. Yet, you continued to write and teach. What kept you going?

CC: It was tough, particularly the stroke, because my job here, which I love very much, obviously depends on my ability to speak and write. And the stroke lodged itself in the part of my brain responsible for speaking and writing. It was a cruel blow, and a very long path back. I spent a lot of time just relearning the English language. I even started doing the English Rosetta Stone with my 6-year-old granddaughter. And you know what? She beat the pants off me!

My doctors, even my family, were very keen on getting me to focus on getting better. But the more I focused on me, the worse I seemed to feel about everything. It wasn’t until I started focusing outwards, back to helping other people, that I really felt that things started to get better.

What are you thinking about and working on these days?

CC: This is a strange question for me to answer, because I don’t limit the scope of my research. And I don’t limit that scope because the theories I work with aren’t limited. You see, the way you can tell if your theory is a fundamental theory is if it applies in all levels of organization and across industries. And this is true for the theories I think about every day.

My colleagues and I continue to apply the theories to new areas to see what others might have missed. So, for example, we are employing the theories to study innovation in government, healthcare integration, disruption in professional services, the future of journalism, and the flaws in the election process, among other topics. We are lucky because the fundamental nature of the theories allows us to discuss all these topics in a single conversation, and for that conversation to feel perfectly natural.

How can students who want to work with you or learn more about your work get involved?

CC: Well, first off, try to take BSSE. I honestly believe we are so lucky to have such a fantastic group of professors teaching the course. I don’t think I’m anywhere near as good a teacher as the other guys are.

If you enjoy the course and you’re interested in taking things beyond that, we have a group here called the Forum for Growth and Innovation. We’ve had the good fortune to have some of our best graduates who are interested in developing the theory further or applying it in new areas stay on and work with us on that. It’s not in any way a typical researcher role; it’s normally structured around a problem or question that you’re interested in solving and you’re responsible for driving it forward.

Finally, the Forum and I are working on finding ways to help the best students in BSSE publish their work. I receive many business books every week, but I would say that the very best BSSE final papers just blow the socks off the average book about business. I want to show the world how good our MBA students are and how powerful good theory can be. So, we want to create a vehicle to get the top papers published and sent out to the alumni and general managers that the Forum is in contact with.

As you look ahead to the next 20 years, what do you think is in store for HBS?

CC: Management education is being disrupted; HBS and other business schools like ours need to adapt their business models to fend off these disruptive challenges. It’s a challenge, as facing disruption always is, but also an opportunity.

Why do I say we are being disrupted? Well, like most organizations at the top of the market, we are constantly improving the education we provide. It’s the same story as any other industry; the way to compete against ostensible direct competitors is to deliver better offerings and more of them. But that process inevitably drives up the price of an HBS education to the point where some people say it’s just not worth it for them. And, for those who do come, the cost of HBS becomes a huge investment on which they expect huge returns in the form of significant starting salaries and responsibilities upon graduation.

The problem is, in terms of the product we deliver, have we overshot what the vast majority of corporations and firms can afford and need? I’m not criticizing what we have done.  After all, this is how we stay competitive with other top-tier management schools. However, the cost has left a very big opening underneath us, where students and companies want more affordable, accessible ways to get management training.

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