Mormon professor named world's top management thinker, delivers emotional speech

Published: Sunday, Nov. 17 2013 12:25 a.m. MST

Clayton Christensen is photographed at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Oct. 29, 2010.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Thinkers50 measured Harvard professor Clayton Christensen's life over the past two years and named him the world's most influential living management thinker at an Oscars-style event last week in London.

This is the second straight time at the top of the Thinkers50 list for the bestselling author, a Salt Lake native and Mormon described by a British reporter as "perhaps the nicest man ever to lecture at Harvard Business School."

"Christensen was controlled, thoughtful, sincere and provocative" during an emotional acceptance speech, Financial Times blogger Andrew Hill reported.

Christensen turned to the central message of his latest bestseller, "How Will You Measure Your Life?" — which earned a nomination for the Thinkers50 best book award — and urged those at the banquet to put their families first.

"If you find you’ve spent 60 hours in a week trying to advance in your profession and you wonder whether you should spend another 20 hours, that’s a bad trade-off," Christensen said.

Hill referred to the respect Christensen, 61, had among those in the banquet hall, writing that Christensen closed by saying, "Thank you for being my friends.”

"It sounds hokey," Hill wrote, "and perhaps you had to be there, but as they say at the Academy Awards, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house."

Christensen created the influential business theory of disruptive innovation, that successful, established organizations fail to adapt even when they can see a disruption in their industry occurring all around them. He described his theory in the 1997 bestseller "The Innovator's Dilemma," which The Economist has said belongs in a canon of six business classics published in the past 50 years.

The immediate relevance of his theory was on clear display before the banquet Monday night, when Christensen joined a Thinkers50 panel about the future of business education.

“Half of U.S. business schools will be out of business in five to seven years because of online disruption,” said Roger Martin, a business professor at the University of Toronto, according to BloombergBusinessWeek.

“The advent of online learning,” Christensen said, "and the propensity of more and more companies to bring teaching of management in-house, versus outsourcing it, makes disruption a very big deal for business schools."

BloombergBusinessWeek's Oliver Staley reported that Christensen said business schools may need to disrupt their own models by allowing students to choose courses they need rather than maintain a one-size-fits-all curriculum. Not even Harvard will find it easy to adapt.

“I hope that we’re scared stiff,” Christensen said. “What we have to do is quite clear. Whether we can do it is another question.”

Last month, Christensen questioned four decades of business-school convention wisdom that management's job is to maximize profits, according to an Inc.com story. That leads to "efficiency innovations" that burnish a company's bottom line, he said, at the cost of the greater long-term benefits to the economy of "empowering innovations." (Think research and development.)

The loss of empowering innovations in the American economy over the past few decades at the expense of efficiency innovations could have dire consequences.

"If you want to know what the future of America looks like, just look at Japan," he said. "You can feel the same thing happen in the United States, and I worry a lot about that."

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