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Building A Strategy For Your Career

Clayton M. Christensen|Author, "How Will You Measure Your Life?"
Wednesday, 23 May 2012 | 11:13 AM ET

Adapted from “How Will You Measure Your Life?” by Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon, published May, 2012 by Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins.

How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton M. Christensen
Source: Amazon
How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton M. Christensen

I’m always struck by how many of my students and the other young people I’ve worked with think they’re supposed to have their careers planned out, step by step, for the next five years.

High-achievers, and aspiring high-achievers, too often put pressure on themselves to do exactly this. Starting as early as high school, they think that to be successful they need to have a concrete vision of exactly what it is they want to do with their lives.

Underlying this belief is the implicit assumption that they should risk deviating from their vision only if things go horribly wrong.

But having such a focused plan really only makes sense in certain circumstances.

In our lives and in our careers, whether we are aware of it or not, we are constantly navigating a path by deciding between our deliberate strategies and the unanticipated alternatives that emerge. Each approach is vying for our minds and our hearts, making its best case to become our actual strategy. Neither is inherently better or worse; rather, which you should choose depends on where you are on the journey.

Companies experience this tension all the time.

For example, many people think that Honda cleverly entered the US with a winning strategy to create a market for smaller, off-road motorcycles—which were, at the time, unknown in America. But that’s not what happened at all. Honda originally intended to compete against the likes of Harley Davidson with big, highway motorcycles. But Honda’s big bikes weren’t good enough; the strategy was destined for failure and the company struggled to stay alive. During this period, an employee took one of Honda’s lesser-known small motorcycles into the Los Angeles hills to work out his frustrations.

And a new opportunity emerged.

People hiking in the hills saw the employee on the bike and wanted to know where they, too, could get one of these small bikes. Priced at a quarter of the cost of a big Harley, Honda’s Super Cubs were sold not to classic-motorcycle customers, but to an entirely new group of users that came to be called “off-road bikers.” Ultimately, Honda’s management recognized that the new opportunity actually represented Honda’s best chance in America.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The chance idea of one employee releasing his frustration in the hills that day created a new pastime for millions of Americans who didn’t fit the profile of a traditional touring-bike owner. Had Honda stuck steadfastly to its original strategy, it never would have created the wildly successful strategy of selling the smaller motorcycles through power equipment and sporting-goods stores, instead of traditional motorbike dealers.

Understanding that strategy is made up of two disparate elements—deliberate strategic plans, and unanticipated opportunities—and that your circumstances dictate which approach is best, will better enable you to sort through the choices that your career will constantly present.

If you have found a career that you truly love, then a deliberate approach makes sense. Your aspirations should be clear, and you know from your present experience that they are worth striving for. Rather than worrying about adjusting to unexpected opportunities, your frame of mind should be focused on how best to achieve the goals you have deliberately set.

But if you haven’t reached the point of finding a career that does this for you, then, like a new company finding its way, you need to be emergent. This is another way of saying that if you are in these circumstances: experiment in life. As you learn from each experience, adjust. Then iterate quickly.

Successfully strategy almost always emerges from the coalescence of the deliberate and the unanticipated. It’s rarely a case of sitting in an ivory tower and thinking through the problem until the answer pops into your head. This makes it important to get out there and try stuff until you learn where your talents, interests, and priorities begin to pay off. And when you find out what really works for you, then that’s the time to flip from an emergent strategy to a deliberate one.

Clayton M. Christensen is the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts on innovation and growth. James Allworth is a graduate of the Harvard Business School, and worked formerly at Apple Inc and Booz & Company. Karen Dillon was formerly the Editor of the Harvard Business Review and Deputy Editor of Inc Magazine. Their latest book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?”(HarperCollins, May 2012), aims to teach readers how to think—about life and purpose—by sharing powerful research theories about success and failure.

Adapted from “How Will You Measure Your Life?” by Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon, published May, 2012 by Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins.

Email me at bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks

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