Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center
Clayton Christensen: On Work and Purpose

Clayton Christensen: On Work and Purpose

About three years or so ago, I had the privilege of co-teaching a graduate course with Jeff Burkhardt, PhD., a professor in Rawls College of Business (now retired).  The class was populated primarily by MD/MBA candidates, PharmD/MBA candidates, and some students earning the MBA with a health organization management concentration.

We used as our primary text The Innovator’s Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Health Care by Clayton Christensen, PhD, a professor at Harvard Business School. But, even before that experience, a dear friend of mine had given me another book by Christensen entitled How Will You Measure Your Life?  It is a book that causes one to pause and think about your purpose, your work, your relationships, and your values.  Christensen, a Rhodes scholar, studied econometrics at Oxford University and was a graduate of the Harvard Business School.  He also played basketball, which at his height of 6-foot-8, is not surprising.

So, after these two books, and watching Christensen lecture on YouTube, I felt like I knew the man.  And I respected him. Clayton Christensen died on Jan. 23, 2020, at the age of 67. I consider that young. Of course, it was a loss to his family and to academia, but also to society.  His writings influenced a lot of people.

For example, in The Innovator’s Prescription, he warns that large established entities often run into problems. It happens this way: such companies (or entities) tend to develop products to satisfy the demands of their most sophisticated customers while ignoring the needs of other customers. Therefore, what happens is an upstart company introduces a simpler product that is cheaper and thus becomes more widely adopted.  This is what he called a “disruptive innovation.”  In health care, it might be having the latest in medical technology, but ignoring primary care.   In which case, the chain pharmacy on the corner will be glad to fill that need.  Or maybe the telemedicine service.
Among the many things I enjoyed about Christensen, he was a good storyteller.  He told about the disruption of  minimills in the steel industry and the sad fate of Digital Equipment Corporation that was disrupted and had dozens of other examples. Uber, of course, is a classic. 

He also asked the non-business “big question” in his writings and lectures. In “How Will You Measure Your Life?” he tells about reunions of graduates of Harvard Business School, and while many had risen to the top of their fields, they left behind a trail of misery for both themselves and their families.  I never perceived that he was trying to be judgmental; rather, he was asking the reader (and his current students at Harvard) to consider this question: what are you leaning your life’s ladder against—is it rock or is it a shadow?  Good stuff to consider.  

We get to interact with so many people here at Texas Tech University School of Medicine—it is important to develop relationships, and when we can, to encourage each other to think about some of these values matters, without coming across as meddling.  Christensen did that at Harvard and many people responded to him with great appreciation for his example and questions.  He left a good legacy.