The Secrets to Clay Christensen's Success

This week marks the release of Clayton Christensen's highly-anticipated book, How Will You Measure Your Life (with co-authors James Allworth and Karen Dillon). The book expands on Christensen's McKinsey-award-winning HBR article, drawing life lessons from the models that form the basis of his business-oriented writing.

I first heard the germs of those ideas in late 2000. At the time I was one of Christensen's students at HBS. Like all professors, Christensen used his final class lecture to share broader observations and reflections. The speech resonated with me, so while serving as his lead researcher in 2001 and 2002, I returned to his classroom to hear it again.

Ahead of the book launch, I had a long discussion with a reporter about Christensen. The reporter's question was basically: Why him? He's smart, but so are many other people. He's a great storyteller, but there are lots of great storytellers in the world.

My own view is that there are three secrets to Christensen's success:

1. An eternal quest for truth. Christensen's mission is to help leaders make decisions using robust, well-grounded theories. His basic two litmus tests for a good business theory are something that explains the different circumstances facing managers and the causal connection between an action and a result. His disruptive innovation theory, for example, says that incumbents that listen to their best customers — when their offering has already overshot the mainstream — leave themselves susceptible to attack from companies armed with simpler, more affordable solutions. Past experience as a consultant and practicing manager ensure Christensen focuses on high-impact issues, and his work manages to be both robust and usable.

2. The belief in basic goodness. One of Christensen's core beliefs is that people are generally well-intentioned and smart. So he often frames questions like this: "Why is it that a smart person did something that was so obviously wrong in hindsight?" While people will never use these precise words, a more typical framing is this: "Why are people so dumb that they miss things that are obvious to people with much higher intelligence." That belief in basic goodness helps to identify hidden root causes, and makes Christensen and his ideas appealing and approachable.

3. Persistence. When I first met Christensen he was certainly well known due to the 1997 publication of The Innovator's Dilemma, which won the Global Best Business Book award. Christensen could have stopped there and had a nice decade-long run repeating the messages from that book. But since then he has written seven mass-market books, some aimed at general audiences and some targeting specific industries such as health care and education. He penned an additional 13 Harvard Business Review articles, including three that won McKinsey awards (giving him a lifetime total of four award-winners among his 15 articles). And he's given countless speeches. As a glowing profile in The New Yorker noted, he is so dedicated to his mission of bringing his ideas to as many people as possible that he pours himself into stories he has told thousands of times. This persistence — coupled with his famously strong faith — has helped him in his remarkable recovery from a series of illnesses (well documented by Forbes last year).

From working with Christensen for more than a decade, I am happy to report that the press reports about his kindness and generosity match up with reality. He is a wonderful human being who has brought great clarity to many of the mysteries of growth and innovation. Twelve years after first hearing the message, I agree with Forbes' description that How Will You Measure Your Life is "one of the more surprisingly powerful books of personal philosophy of the 21st century." Recommend the book to friends and family who have no connection to the business world. They will thank you for it.

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