Clayton Christensen: Just a guy from Rose Park

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 6 2015 9:38 a.m. MDT

Clayton Christensen (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Clayton Christensen (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Clayton M. Christensen is fond of asking unusual questions. So here is one for him: How can an internationally-renowned business guru from Harvard Business School and a faithful member of the LDS Church who doesn't like country music be a fan of Toby Keith's song "I Love This Bar," a honky-tonk ode to "chain smokers, boozers ... blue collar boys and rednecks"?

As a non-alcohol-drinking Mormon (he served as an area Seventy), Christensen probably isn't enamored with the bar and the drinks. So what is it? Does the song embody his "disruptive innovation" business theories that make the nation's top CEOs sit at his feet at conferences and in private consultations? Does it provide a framework for the type of counterintuitive thinking that made the Deseret News ask him to be on its editorial board? Does it describe the path from growing up in a modest home in Rose Park to respect in the halls of Harvard Business School and on bestseller author lists? Notwithstanding recent health challenges that would have knocked most people out of the game, he still moves forward at a breakneck pace, applying his theories in ways that could solve problems from reforming health care and education to — in his forthcoming book — looking at the future of universities.

Clayton Christensen (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Clayton Christensen (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

A life of privilege

"Big portions of my life were spent in obscurity and poverty. Other portions have been prominent and had more money," Christensen said recently while visiting Salt Lake City. "And I greatly prefer poverty and obscurity. It's just a lot easier to raise your children."

That "poverty and obscurity" is a bit of an exaggeration if you apply it to his childhood. Christensen was born in Salt Lake City, the second of eight children. The modest home on 1500 West near Riverside Park in Rose Park that Robert and Verda Mae Christensen provided for their eight children was rich in many ways. Christensen's father worked at ZCMI in the grocery and foods division and often had his children helping out with stocking shelves and the like. His mother was a high school teacher and was a video and television writer and producer. She inspired him to get the best education possible.

"I remember her teaching me that 'the more you learn Clayton, the more talents you develop, the more ways God can shape you to be useful in building his kingdom,'" Clayton said at a speech at BYU-Idaho in 2004 — a month before she died.

Both his parents set an example of service and of accepting volunteer work in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His dad was a stake president and his mother spent 11 years as a member of the YWMIA board which oversaw activities and programs for young women in the LDS Church.

"My parents were willing for us to reach out on our own and be a little more independent and try to teach us to think for ourselves and do for ourselves," said his brother Carlton, who works as a community development representative at Zions Bank and is a member of the Salt Lake City Council.

Christensen's parents trusted him to do things on his own — such as building his own pool table or forming his own yacht club when he was just a boy. The Jordan River Yacht Club's charter members were Christensen and his older brother Elliott along with friends Scott and Lloyd Steenblik when they were about 13 or 14 years old.

One day in Aug. 1964, Christensen's dad dropped the boys off with their homemade canoes and kayaks at Utah Lake. Their plan was to follow the Jordan River back to their homes in Rose Park on Salt Lake City's west side. Sometimes they had to carry their boats, but after three days they reached their goal. Making goals and adapting along the way became a way of life for Christensen.

When Christensen was a kid, he even read the World Book Encyclopedia from A to Z.

"Just because he thought it would be an interesting thing to do," his brother Carlton said. "And he always set goals like that — odd goals that no other person would do."

Christensen graduated from West High School, where he was student body president, and set his sights on BYU.

"I remember going as a freshman to BYU and just like being a kid in a candy store," he once said, "looking at that course catalog and reading about all these interesting courses, and I wanted to take every one."

Christensen interrupted his studies to go on a Mormon mission to Korea from 1971 to 1973. "Korea at the time was the poorest country in all of Asia. And yet all these people that I lived with were the happiest and most wonderful people I could have imagined," Christensen said. "I got the sense that happiness has nothing to do with money. Absolutely nothing to do with money."

Ironically, he would spend his life studying how businesses make and lose money.

Rhodes Scholar

After his mission, as a senior at BYU, Christensen was selected as a Rhodes Scholar to study at Oxford University. "It was very clear that it was going to be inconvenient to be a Mormon in Oxford," he said. The local LDS Church leader asked him to be young men's president in charge of local youth, but he knew it would take a lot of time. He studied until 7 p.m. every night, then spent the rest of the evening working for the church.

About this time, he learned his father was dying from Hodgkin's disease. As Christmas of 1976 approached, Christensen got permission to come home to visit his father for one last time before he died. He spent this last time together helping his father put together his life's history. After his father died, he returned to Oxford and the cold, damp room at Queen's College.

Christensen added another responsibility to his available time by playing on the university's basketball team. The team did very well with him as its center. The final game for the championship was scheduled for Sunday. He had made a decision when he was younger to never play on the Sabbath and thought that, at first, this game might be an exception. But ultimately he told his coach he couldn't play, and went to church instead — praying for their success.

Oxford won.

"Which must mean I wasn't as important to the team as I thought I was," he said with a laugh. In his talk to BYU-Idaho, he said this decision was important because, "my whole life has turned out to be an unending stream of extenuating circumstances, and had I crossed that line just that once ... it would have been so much easier to cross the line again."

President Thomas S. Monson of the LDS Church recently retold Christensen's story in the church's General Conference. "The lesson he learned," President Monson told the church, "is that it is easier to keep the commandments 100 percent of the time than it is 98 percent of the time."

Experimental pancakes

According to his younger brother Carlton, Christensen wanted to shape up before he got married.

"He was marrying this very high-class girl from Bountiful," Carlton said with a laugh. Her name was Christine. Christensen even made a deal with his younger sister Nancy to slap him in the face every time he did one habit he was trying to conquer.

After they got married and children came along (Matthew, Ann, Michael, Spencer and Katie), Christensen liked to make breakfast including pancakes.

"I made it different every time. Every place else in the world if you want to get pancakes it is always the same. Why grow up our kids without teaching them to experiment?" Christensen said. One time he was thinking about how much he liked peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. "Instead of taking all the time to spread peanut butter onto your pancakes or onto your toast, let me mix it right into the batter. It tastes the same and it saved time. And I thought it was just fantastic, but the kids rebelled a little."

His son, Matthew, may still be rebelling a little. He said most of the pancake experiments didn't work out and joked that his dad's taste buds are "in the bottom of his stomach."

Bailing out

"I always wanted to be a teacher," Christensen said, but financially it didn't make sense. So he continued working in the business world as he had, and he thinks that was the right decision at the time.

After Oxford, and after graduating from Harvard Business School with an MBA, he worked as a consultant and project manager with the Boston Consulting Group and helped start a company with several MIT professors. In between, he had a stint in Washington D.C. working as assistant to U.S. Transportation Secretaries Drew Lewis and Elizabeth Dole.

But then he hit the big 40th birthday and thoughts of teaching came back.

"My gosh!" he thought, "If I'm ever going to do it, I better do it. So with Christine's support, I decided to bail out."

He returned to Harvard.

"He got through the whole doctoral program very quickly. I think he did that as fast as anybody has," Christensen's son Matthew said. "I think it reflects how focused he is and how original his research was."

That research was the beginning of his theories on disruptive innovation which became the basis for his future success. The year he graduated with a doctorate, 1992, he was hired as a junior faculty member.

Only six years later — and one year after he published a bestselling book on his theories, he was given full tenure — the fastest path to full tenure than anybody ever had at Harvard Business School. "When you think about all the smart and gifted people who have been professors there I think that is really impressive," Matthew said.

Innovation rising

Clayton Christensen's work at Harvard established him as the king of the counterintuitive. His doctoral work and his subsequent books came out of the questions he asked during his research. He wondered how it could be that the best run, most promising, uber-successful companies often failed? What did these brilliant CEOs and managers of the best businesses do wrong?

"The answer, oddly, is that actually these people did everything right," Christensen said. "It is good management that sows the seeds of every successful company's ultimate demise."

He calls this process "disruptive innovation," a very specific term of art that describes the innovative business models built around technology. These business models bring new and simpler products to the bottom of markets where whole new customers can afford and use them. Then slowly they move up to the top of the market.

Christensen's theories on disruptive innovation were a smash hit in the business world with the publication of his influential 1997 breakout book "The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail."

That book, and the subsequent invitations to speak, present, advise and write, raised Christensen to be one of the business world's most sought after consultants. Nolan Archibald, the CEO of Black & Decker for 24 years and now Executive Chairman of the Stanley Black & Decker Corporation, remembers Christensen giving a seminar to 200 of the nation's top CEOs. "The respect and reverence that these CEOs had for this college professor Clayton Christensen is, I think, unparalleled."

Christensen's brother Carlton remembers asking his brother to come speak at his work. Christensen told him he couldn't because Bill Gates was having him speak to about 100 CEOs at his home for a few days. He then continued on in the conversation as if it wasn't a big deal.

"I think very few people would argue that he has had less than a huge impact on management practice," said Willy Shih, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. "I'm guessing a lot of people would aspire to have that impact."

"I thought he put his finger on issues and the solutions better than anybody I had ever seen before," said Ken Riff, M.D., vice president of strategy for the Cardiac Rhythm Disease Management Division of Medtronic, the world's largest medical device manufacturer. Riff was talking about the book Christensen wrote with Jerome H. Grossman, M.D. and Jason Hwang, M.D. called "The Innovator's Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Health Care."

"Clay's prescription is exactly what U.S. health care needs," Riff said.

But Christensen's success hasn't changed the boy from Rose Park much. "Clayton is one of the finest men I have ever met in my life," Archibald said. "He is extremely bright, he is truly an intellectual. And yet … the way he treats people and the way he acts he is one of the most humble, unassuming people that I know. ... He makes everyone around him feel like they are the superior one, that they are the focal point. And you never get the impression that the world revolves around Clayton."

Sharing his faith

"One of the things I admire about Clay is that he manages to be very comfortable in articulating his faith and what he believes in while still reaching out and being inclusive and embracing," said Clark Gilbert, President and CEO of the Deseret News and a former student of Christensen's. "His voice is not just a voice of strategic insight, but a voice of faith and values to a much larger community than just his immediate LDS circles."

An macro-example of this was Christensen's Harvard Business School speech titled "How Will You Measure Your Life?" The speech was printed in the Harvard Business Review and was one of the most popular articles to ever appear on its website. In many ways, it was a slightly less religious version of his speech to BYU-Idaho. Slightly. It took examples of the decisions he made in his life and the impact they made — like not playing basketball on Sunday.

An example on the other end of the scale is Connie Zhang, a former student of Christensen's who now owns her own consulting business called Riley Creek Advisors.

Zhang came to study at Harvard Business School from Beijing, China, and took Christensen's class on innovation theory in her second year. Although her husband, Andrew Feng, was a member of the LDS Church, she was an atheist.

Then Christensen and his wife Christine spoke to Zhang and a group of students in their home about the history of various Mormon pioneers in the New England area. The thing that struck Zhang was that a professor who was supposed to be smart actually believed in God.

"In China, our idea is that only people who are really weak ... believe in religion. Strong people don't believe in religion," Zhang said. "He was such a wonderful man and he believed in religion, so that triggered me to want to know more."

After the fireside was over, Zhang walked over to Christensen and said, "I am quite interested in what you and Christine talked about. I would like to know more about the church."

Christensen punched his fist into his palm and said with a big smile, "You've just made my day!" He told Zhang that he and his wife had been praying to have someone who they could teach about their faith.

"Clayton Christensen totally changed my life," Zhang said of her baptism into the LDS Church. "My life, my new life wouldn't be like this. I wouldn't have the happiness I'm enjoying and the eternal perspective."

The biggest test

A friend suggested to Christensen that perhaps he could write an article explaining what he had learned by going through all his health challenges. "That's the worst thing I could ever do is to write an article on what I have learned," Christensen said, joking with him, "because if somebody e-mailed a copy of that up to heaven, God would look at it and say, ‘Dang, the guy, he still doesn't get it, does he?' And then he's going to zap me with something else."

Christensen has had diabetes, a massive heart attack, and non-Hodgkin's follicular lymphoma cancer. He was recovering from the cancer in July this year and was training a church group when he suffered a stroke. A neurological radiologist in the group recognized the symptoms and he was taken immediately to Massachusetts General Hospital where he was given the clot-busting drug TPA. Two days later he walked out with a cane, but with "expressive aphasia." His ability to think and reason were intact but his ability to connect to the right word was affected.

"It has clearly been the biggest test of his life," his brother Carlton said, "because his love is writing and teaching and speaking. This goes to the heart of what he loves to do the most."

At the end of September, Archibald went to the 40th reunion of his Harvard Business School class. Christensen spoke to about 200 alumni for more than an hour.

"He started off by saying that he had this stroke, that he was having difficulty bringing out some words and that there might be some hesitation," Archibald said. "But his knowledge of the subject matter and his great teaching ability was so evident, that when he was done … it was one of the most effective, instructional and inspirational meetings I have been in."

"I'm grateful that I made a commitment to God when I was in the middle of all this, if, by his measure, I could do more good in the next life than in this one, I'm ready to go," Christensen said. "And I just felt very grateful that I could say that."

His life wasn't over, and his next book, written with Henry J. Eyring, tentatively titled "University DNA: The Evolutionary History and Future of Higher Education," is getting ready for publication. Like all his books, the questions are the important thing, the thing that recasts the debates and shifts policy among the powerful. But to Christensen, there are questions that are even more important, they are the ultimate questions he has tried to answer with his life:

"When I have my conversation with God at the end, whether I was a stake president or whatever position I had or didn't have in the church and in my life, actually won't come up in God's conversation with me because he just doesn't think that way. He's going to say, 'Ok Clay, so I put you in that situation. Let's just talk about the individual people whose lives you helped. And then I stuck you in that situation. Tell me about the lives you helped there.'"

The song

Which brings us back to the song "I Love This Bar." Christensen's brother, Carlton — who is the person who said the song was his favorite — said he liked it because: "There's this whole myriad of people and they just come together. He is a person who is not looking for a homogeneous make up in his friends. He loves the variety of people that there are and finds a lot of joy and interest in how people can be different, not necessarily on how they can be the same."

But maybe this is the wrong question. Maybe the real question isn't "Why does he like this song?" Maybe the question is, "What is in this song that everybody should like?"

Is it the celebration of diverse people? Is it the commonality of community? Is it an expression of societal disruptive innovation? Is it a hearkening back to a westside neighborhood? Is it the expression of unjudging love for all humanity?

Christensen's son Matthew doesn't think so. "He loves the lyrics (in country music). He just thinks they are hilarious." Matthew said his father thinks Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places" is "a riot" and that he also likes Alan Jackson's "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere."

Could it be that Christensen just likes Toby Keith's song because it makes him laugh?

Sometimes, even in the life of a deep thinker, there isn't something deeper going on. Sometimes a song is just a song and a professor from Rose Park is just another guy.

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com

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