How Will You Measure Your Life? By Clayton M Christensen
IT IS prudent to pause every now and then and ask yourself important questions, such as how should I measure the quality of my life?
Is career success the indicator of life success and if so, how do I measure career success? Is it the asset base I have acquired, or the level in the organisation to which I have risen, or the fulfilment my career provides?
Is the measure a function of the quality of my family life or my reputation among my peers and community?
Professor of management Clayton Christensen first came to prominence with his 1997 book The Innovator's Dilemma, which looks at how companies benefit from disruptive technologies.
In 2010 he addressed Harvard Business School's graduating class on the question of how to measure one's life, and he offered a series of guidelines for finding meaning and happiness.
The speech was later produced as a Harvard Business Review article and is now expanded into a book.
In the opening chapter of the book Christensen uses his former Harvard Business School classmate, Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, as an example.
This uncommonly talented man's career started well and ended by destroying the wealth and careers of many, with Skilling's conviction on multiple federal felony charges.
Skilling clearly never intended this to be his career trajectory.
Christensen cites a hardworking, decent neighbour whose family life ended in divorce and with children who rarely see him. The neighbour clearly never intended this to happen either.
What makes people's life plans go so spectacularly wrong?
To deal with these lofty questions, Christensen applies theories of causation - if you do this then you get that - drawn from business case studies and some economic and financial theories.
There are references to what we know of the fortunes of big brands including Dell, Netflix, Honda, Ikea and Motorola among others.
The justification for using business to learn life lessons lies in the rigour with which businesses are studied, and Christensen's belief that "the causal mechanism is the same, but how it manifests can be very different".
He cites Professor Amar Bhide's conclusion that 93% of all companies that ultimately became successful had to abandon their original plan because it proved unviable.
Most of those that failed, in contrast, spent all their money on the original plan.
The theory of good money and bad money frames Bhide's assertion. When the winning strategy is not clear in the early stages of a new business, good money from investors needs to be patient for growth but impatient for profit.
This will force the entrepreneurs to find the right strategy fast and with little investment. Once a viable strategy has been found, investors should become impatient for growth and patient for profit.
Honda entered the American motorcycle market intent on competing with the large US bikes, but the company was so cash-strapped that it had to change course when this failed to take off immediately.
The company shifted focus to small engine bikes just to survive, which allowed it to later grow up the power bike ladder and take a significant share of the motorbike market.
It is all too easy, says Christensen, to devolve to the bad money approach in our lives too. Keen to get ahead in our careers so we can provide for our families, we start to think our jobs require our total investment of time and attention.
We expect the people who are closest to us to accept that our schedules are simply too demanding to make much time for them.
The same consequences that businesses face for failing to retain enough money to invest in the future applies to our personal lives.
Family and friends don't intentionally desert us, but having been deprived of attention for so long, they just don't feel close to us any more.
In similar vein, Christensen shows similarities between marketing theory and enriching relationships. To ascertain the customer's real need for a product or service, he asks: "What is the job that the product does that the customer needs done?"
Charged with finding a way to grow milkshake sales for a client, he turned from the demographic analysis and the taste improvement route to ask "What is the job of a milkshake in the morning in the life of a commuter?"
The answer turns out to be to provide a long-lasting treat to provide joy on a long commute. As such, milkshakes to this market need to be thick and the straws thin so that they can only be drunk slowly.
What is the job your wife needs you for at the end of the day, when the house is in a mess and the children have been her sole focus all day? Is it tidying up or adult conversation?
Rather than telling the reader what to think - the style of so many self-help books - Christensen looks at how to think about the issues.
He avoids offering the illusionary comfort of the "you can do it too!" exhortations, focusing rather on the reality that life, while rewarding, is hard.
He leads the reader to an awareness of the care with which we need choose what we do to avoid unintended impact.
The book is worth reading for the business insights alone. The approach to self-reflection is certainly novel, even if there is little new in either the questions or answers.
Readability: Light+---- Serious
Insights: High --+-- Low
Practical: High +---- Low
* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy.