29. April 2021

How to innovate your private life

Clay Christensen, Harvard Professor and bestselling author, has been certainly one of the most influential innovation management researchers worldwide. We know him particularly for his book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and his theses about disruptive innovations. What might be less known is how he once asked his students to apply the insights, models and theories studied in their program as well to their own life decisions, which was later summarized in an HBR article.

Management theories and models are worth more than only being learned for exams – they can help to fuel important life decisions. In this article Christensen takes us on a very personal yet innovative journey to showcase how management theories and models can be of great guidance for important personal life questions, such as: How can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? How can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? How can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail? He demonstrates how applying theoretical models can help in finding answers, underpinning it with his own personal life experiences.

How can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career? When it comes to job decisions, he reminds the MBA student to look through the lens of the theory of Frederick Herzberg. Herzberg proposes that the most powerful motivator in life is the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others’ lives, and be recognized for achievements, not money. Following that lens, for managers who reduce their jobs to buying, selling, investing and making deals might not experience their career as a source of happiness. He reminds us that the true measure of a successful management career is the deep reward that comes from building up people. Instead of worrying about our level of individual prominence and achievements, we should instead measure our lives by the individual people whose lives we have touched and have helped to become better people.

How can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness? Looking through the lens of strategy theories, it’s the type of initiatives that management prioritizes which determines the strategy of a company. And its successful execution requires a consequent resource allocation. Christensen advises us to reflect on our life purpose early on and to make our resource allocation decisions accordingly. Most people tend to postpone their reflection of a life purpose to later, suddenly ending up in 70-hour working weeks and/or in separation or divorce from their families, who once mattered most to them. When studying root causes of business disasters, we mostly detect the same underlying patterns as well in private disasters: Allocating resources to what offers immediate gratification instead of what matters most to us.

How to live a life of integrity (staying out of jail)? When it comes to integrity decisions, Christensen opts for sticking to 100% commitment always, as it is easier than only sticking to 98%. We often believe that the “just once” exception is affordable, e.g. we can afford to drive too fast just once (marginal cost theory). However, as we can’t predict the future, making an exception – despites its marginal costs – lets us repeat it in other moments too. This will substantially increase our risk to land in jail.

This article is a wonderful, humble and honest piece of wisdom from a dedicated teacher who wants to inspire us to recalibrate and innovate our private life design consciously, along these main three questions. Additionally, by sharing very personal stories, he graciously provides an opportunity to get to know Clay Christensen from his most intimate, personal and vulnerable side. Above all, it’s a wonderful showcase that theories are not only worth learning for exams. There are helpful lenses which unfold innate wisdom in our daily lives. Enjoy reading these insightful reflections from one of our greatest sources for innovation insights!

Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Dr. Eva Bilhuber
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