Personal Life Meets Business Strategy

An MBA curriculum includes at least one course on business strategy. Like most business school courses, students are assigned cases to read and encouraged to draw insights that improve their decision making. At London Business School, Professor Dominic Holder encourages his strategy students to apply the insights to their professional and personal lives as well as the situations faced by their organizations.

As a student in this class, I was impressed by how useful these insights could be to my personal life. Work life balance is always a hot topic, and as recent as this month there is a cover story in the Atlantic Monthly entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All which probes the issues that continue to impact women in the workforce. I am married with three children, and there never seem to be enough hours in the day. The issues that I face a perhaps different than those presented in the article, but the topic resonates.

Much has been written on the topic, but much of it boils down to time management. While time management is an essential part of balancing work and life, it isn’t all of it. What is often needed are strategic insights to help one conduct one’s personal life rather than just thinking how to balance it with work. One of the giants of business strategy is Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. He is known primarily for his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, but he has published numerous other books and articles including his book Disrupting Class which analyzes how technology will impact education in the coming years. Christensen’s latest book, How Will You Measure Your Life, which he co-wrote with James Allworth and Karen Dillon, undertakes to apply business strategy to personal life directly. Using “cases” from his own life and the lives of others, he reviews the main themes of business strategy and applies them to personal situations. He touches on everything from spousal relationships to child rearing.

As an example, in the language of business strategy as outlined by Christensen, organizations have capabilities. These capabilities fall into one of three categories: resources, processes, and priorities. Dell ran into significant issues when it outsourced too many of these capabilities to others and faced challenges as its suppliers turned into its competitors. Parents can think of resources as classes, tutors, computers etc. that they provide for their children. However, Christensen stresses that resources alone are not sufficient. Processes are required for children to transition from passively absorbing knowledge from others to actively creating new knowledge on their own. For Christensen, giving a child an iPad and teaching them how to program is an example of providing a child resources. The child’s ability to use those tools to solve a new problem depends on how well the child has developed the processes required to do so. Deciding which new problem is worthy of the time to solve is determined by a child’s priorities. One of Christensen’s main concerns is that as a society, we are investing heavily in providing children with resources (which is relatively easy for the affluent), but we are not creating opportunities for children to develop solid processes or proper priorities.

Generally, Christensen does a good job to avoid moralizing about what are the “proper priorities,” but he does do a fair bit of, “If you do [insert behavior here], do not be surprised when [insert outcome here] happens.” Overall, for those interested in developing a more thoughtful strategy to manage their personal lives, I highly recommend the book. I found it to be much more useful than much of what I have read about managing work-life balance. His discussion on the merits of having a good strategy at the beginning of the book is enough to get the reader hooked.

It is always dangerous to venture into the realm of the personal. Human’s are after all less than consistent beings. However, I feel that the main take away from the book was that whatever your particular set of values, know and applying good strategy can raise the chances that you achieve your personal goals. Christensen’s thought-provoking primer on strategy provides an excellent foundation upon which to build.