Clayton M. Christensen was an academic and business visionary who developed the theory of “disruptive innovation.” He was known as one of the most influential management thinkers of his time and passed on his teachings at the Harvard Business School. As some of you may know, Christensen died in January 2020, and his many followers are still in mourning.
Christensen’s 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, took the business world by storm, capturing the essence of disruptive technologies and helping untold numbers of new and old companies compete and survive in today’s constantly changing markets. More recently, his 2010 article “How Will You Measure Your Life?,” affected me and many others personally. I have picked out a few themes and accompanying passages that I feel most relate to my life and work as a management accountant and a person.
FIND YOUR PURPOSE
“Clarity about their [students’] purpose will trump knowledge of activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, core competence, disruptive innovation, the four Ps, and the five forces.”
As a management accountant, I was extra interested (and amazed) that he mentioned ABC and balance scorecard, two areas of management accounting I’ve spent a lot of time researching. Although technical skills in management accounting are necessary, our research shows time after time that critical thinking and problem solving are still the most sought-after trait among hiring managers. Identifying clarity of purpose can be from the perspective of lifetime purpose to the purpose of a process or project level. We should always start with “Where do we want to end up here?”
SHOW, DON’T TELL
“If I had been suckered into telling Andy Grove what he should think about the microprocessor business, I’d have been killed. But instead of telling him what to think, I taught him how to think—and then he reached what I felt was the correct decision on his own.”
I’ve had similar feelings as both a professor and a parent. My biggest hope as a professor was to help students learn how to use various management accounting tools (like ABC and balanced scorecard) but then be able to apply them to different situations. Students often were upset when a problem on a test was “not just like the homework problems.” I would respond that thinking takes more than knowledge; it requires using that knowledge to solve new problems. As a parent, as Christensen points out, you can mostly control your kids in their early years, but when they are teenagers, that doesn’t work. Although often not pleasant for the parent, not having control is a good thing. You want to help them develop thinking and problem-solving skills to prepare for adulthood. Thus, you take on more of a consultant role, asking them questions or making suggestions to help them come to the best decision.
MOTIVATE YOURSELF USING PERSONAL GOALS
“One of the theories that gives great insight on the first question—how to be sure we find happiness in our careers—is from Frederick Herzberg, who asserts that the powerful motivator in our lives isn’t money; it’s the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements.”
This idea helps those of us who don’t make a ton of money feel successful, and I totally agree. I’m fortunate to have been a self-motivated person most of my life. And that helped me trudge through countless years of college, exams, certifications, and work experiences. I love to learn, so research is a perfect career for me. And I’m especially gratified to see former students, my kids, my former Boy Scouts, and people I work with be successful.
WORK-LIFE BALANCE IS VERY IMPORTANT FOR BEING SUCCESSFUL
“Allocation choices can make your life turn out to be very different from what you intended. Sometimes that’s good: Opportunities that you never planned for emerge. But if you misinvest your resources, the outcome can be bad. As I think about my former classmates who inadvertently invested for lives of hollow unhappiness, I can’t help believing that their troubles relate right back to a short-term perspective.”
Many years ago, when I told my wife that I would like to go back to school for a doctoral degree to become a professor, she lovingly but firmly said, “OK buster, you’ve got three years!” Now, that was understandable. We had 3 kids, and it was hard to be poor students again. But although I had a very busy academic program, I decided from the start not to work on Sunday, which was unheard of among my peers.
I feel very strongly—not just for religious reasons—that we need a day off. If your relationships with your family are important, you need at least one day a week to spend time with them. Besides, taking a day off from work also made me a lot fresher for the next day and helped me finish my doctoral degree in less than my three-year deadline.
CREATE A CULTURE AT WORK—AND AT HOME
“They embrace priorities and follow procedures by instinct and assumption rather than by explicit decision—which means that they’ve created a culture. Culture, in compelling but unspoken ways, dictates the proven, acceptable methods by which members of the group address recurrent problems. And culture defines the priority given to different types of problems. It can be a powerful management tool.”
It’s really a proactive choice about what types of activities you’ll take on, because creating a culture of integrity isn’t only about “Okay, I’m not going to do these things,” but also about, “So what things will I do?” In our family, we tried to establish a culture of service to others. It isn’t that you’re dishonest if you don’t do the service, but it’s a far better culture, I think, when you proactively choose to do good activities that can help others and take your mind off of your own problems.
One Christmas, my family did a Sub-for-Santa exchange for a single mother from Mexico. She had several children, didn’t speak English, and was having a tough go during Christmas. My wife, three kids, and I put together some bags, and my wife and daughter dropped them off at the mother’s house. As soon as they got to the door, all the kids were speechless. Luckily, my wife speaks Spanish and was able to communicate with the mother. Later my daughter said, “I didn’t know everything that was being said, but I sure heard gracias a lot.” And that had a lasting impression on her.
STAY TRUE TO YOUR PERSONAL CULTURE
“The lesson I learned from [not using ‘In this circumstance, just this once, it’s OK’] is that it’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time. If you give in to ‘just this once,’ based on a marginal cost analysis, as some of my former classmates have done, you’ll regret where you end up. You’ve got to define for yourself what you stand for and draw the line in a safe place.”
Even good people can end up in jail by making one bad choice, because one bad choice often leads to another and to another. I decided early on in my career—with guidance from professors who helped me prepare for dealing with ethical situations—that I wouldn’t do something that wasn’t right. And I think if you make that decision ahead of time, you won’t only stay out of jail, but you’ll actually be far more highly regarded and successful in the long run. Being known for integrity can last forever, but you can lose it with one bad choice.
STOP AND SMELL THE ROSES
“This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.”
This article hit me because these themes are something that I’ve been personally struggling with recently. I am a goal-oriented person. If I’m not careful, I tend to set too many goals for myself and then get stressed because I can’t meet all of them. After reading this article, thinking about what Christensen said about taking a step back, and identifying my life purpose has helped me simplify my goals and make sure they fit better with my life goals.
It can actually be a stress reliever because you try to make sure that you’re spending your time on the things that are most important instead of making yourself too busy. You may end up thinking that you’re accomplishing a lot, but in reality, you aren’t accomplishing the things that are most important to you.