The 3 lessons I value most from Clayton Christensen

written by  Ryan Seamons

Building products and being a parent are both tough jobs that require immense amounts of influencing skill. Each week I share what I learn about the people side of product management to help leaders at work and at home go from unsure to unstoppable through influence.

What I’ve been learning

Clayton Christensen is a hero of mine. He was a mentor and inspiration. Getting to meet him when he came to speak to the organizational behavior conference while I was a student at BYU was one of the highlights of my MBA experience.

I have a list of people I want to be like and he was on that list.

His ideas have impacted the way I work as a product manager, the way I build a business, the way I act in my marriage, and the way I parent and homeschool.

Given the love and respect I have for him, I’ve read a lot that he’s published. My copy of “How Will You Measure Your Life” is well worn and marked. I took the weekend to peruse my notes from all his writing. Here are the 3 lessons I value from Clayton’s teachings (and they aren’t about his most famous theory, disruptive innovation):


1. Talk to your customers

Many products fail because companies develop them from the wrong perspective. Companies focus too much on what they want to sell their customers, rather than what those customers really need. What’s missing is empathy: a deep understanding of what problems customers are trying to solve.

The Jobs to be Done theory is related to user stories or job stories, but with some key differences. It’s easier to answer the question “What job are you hiring this product to do?” and get an insightful answer vs the plug and chug the other methods encourage.

The story about the milkshakes is one of my favorites because a typical business answer would be to run a survey and adjust the milkshake according to the results. But in-person observation and interviewing found 2 distinct use-cases that could then be optimized to serve those customers.

There is no one right answer for all circumstances. You have to start by understanding the job the customer is trying to have done.

The first rule of product management is to be obsessed with your customers. In a world that encourages in-person relationships less and less, Clayton was an advocate for getting out of the room and being with the people.

2. Don’t outsource the core, especially with parenting

We all recognize the importance of giving our kids the best opportunities. Each new generation of parents seems to focus even more on creating possibilities for their children that they themselves never had. With the best of intentions, we hand our children off to a myriad of coaches and tutors to provide them with enriching experiences—thinking that will best prepare our kids for the future. But helping our children in this way can come at a high cost.

As a general rule, in prosperous societies we have been outsourcing more and more of the work that, a generation ago, was done “internally” in the home. (131)

Figuring out what capabilities you will need in the future is the most critical job of leaders in a dynamic world. This the right question to be asking about your children is:

Has my child developed the skill to develop better skills?

Children will learn when they are ready to learn, not when we’re ready to teach them. (137)

… If you find yourself heading down a path of outsourcing more and more of your role as a parent, you will lose more and more of the precious opportunities to help your kids develop their values—which may be the most important capability of all.

3. Beware of prioritizing only the immediate and tangible, especially when it comes to family and faith

“The danger for high-achieving people is that they’ll unconsciously allocate their resources to activities that yield the most immediate, tangible accomplishments.”

“Work can bring you a sense of fulfillment—but it pales in comparison to the enduring happiness you can find in the intimate relationships that you cultivate with your family and close friends.”

“The time when it is most important to invest in building strong families and close friendships is when it appears, at the surface, as if it’s not necessary.”

“From these parts of my life, I distilled the likeness of what I wanted to become: A man who is dedicated to helping improve the lives of other people A kind, honest, forgiving, and selfless husband, father, and friend A man who just doesn’t just believe in God, but who believes God.”

I believe the biggest problem most people face in life is believing that worldly success will bring them happiness. Clayton was an advocate for finding true fulfillment in things that are harder to measure than paychecks and promotions.

I am grateful to Clayton for his life’s work and example. I desire to be a great husband, father, and servant to others like him. RIP.

What I published

How to deliver remarkable results more frequently (video) // To help teams and myself work faster, instead of focusing on perfection, I recall the story of the pots.

Reasons you should be embarrassed by your work (video) // It takes courage to launch a product quickly. Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, said that “If you’re not embarrassed by your first version, then you launched too late.” It’s easier to hold onto something trying to perfect it because you’re worried about people’s reactions, but it’s ok to feel embarrassed by your first version.

ryanseamons-1922613Ryan Seamons @ryanseamons

@allenholub Yep. As you know the problem is that teams think they are agile, but still do all those non-agile things.

Leaders who don’t understand what agile even looks like are easily the biggest blocker to potential success their teams could experience.

What have you been learning about?


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About the Author

Ryan Seamons
writes about more human approaches to modern management.

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