A Legendary Harvard Professor On How to Craft Goals You’ll Actually Achieve

'Innovator’s Dilemma' author Clay Christensen on what questions to ask before you get started—and once you’re on your way.

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Clay Christensen has literally helped create the vocabulary that describes the way business works. The Harvard Business School professor coined “disruption,” a term that took over Silicon Valley before taking over the world. He authored The Innovator's Dilemma, a bestseller detailing the stunning predictability of how companies get wiped out when they’re not built to adapt. (Spoiler alert: don’t fixate on products; focus on customer needs—ask Blockbuster, Nokia or Kodak.) Most recently, he wrote Competing Against Luck, which asks companies to think about what customers are “hiring” their products to do, and How Will You Measure Your Life?, a book that examines the strategies that can help create a fulfilling, sustainable career, and how to avoid the scandals and personal crises that punctuate so my outwardly “successful” people’s lives.

Thrive Global reached out to Christensen over email to learn more about the specifics of goal setting, what questions we should be asking ourselves more regularly and why it's so easy to lose track of what matters most to us.

Thrive Global: What are the qualities of an expertly crafted goal?

Clay Christensen: When I have tried to do too many things, I make a little progress on a lot of things but no real headway on anything. The times when I feel I have achieved the most, I have been able to do it with a strong focus on something. Goals that are well-focused and accompanied by deadlines are an extremely effective way to begin making progress.

TG: What exercises help leaders set out their goals? Can that be systematized and replicated, or is it more of an "ah-ha" moment kind of thing?

CC: You can talk all you want about having a vision and goals, but ultimately, this means nothing if you do not align those with where you actually expend your time, money and energy. In other words, how you allocate your resources is where the rubber meets the road. As you’re living your life from day to day, how do you make sure you’re heading in the right direction and realizing the outcomes you intend to pursue? Watch where your resources flow. If they’re not supporting the goals you’ve decided upon, then you’re not accomplishing your goals at all.

TG: How do our values show themselves in our work and our lives?

CC: One of the most important lessons I discuss with my students is the importance of figuring out their life’s purpose. If you discover that, all of your decisions will be much easier. That will guide your goals, your choices and your life. But if you don’t take time to think about it, fast-paced careers, family responsibilities and tangible rewards of success tend to swallow up time and perspective. If we just sail off into life without a rudder—our purpose—we’ll all get buffeted in the very rough seas of life.

With every moment of your time, every decision about how you spend your energy and your money, you are making a statement about what really matters to you. Gloria Steinem framed it this way: “We can tell our values by looking at our checkbook stubs.” Our values get manifested in our lives through hundreds of everyday decisions about where we spend our resources.

TG: From a practical perspective, what are some of the best ways to keep track of the progress you’re making toward goals?

CC: There’s a tool that can help you test whether your strategy will be a fruitful approach, and how to monitor your ability to achieve progress over time. It forces you to articulate what assumptions need to be proved true in order for your strategy to succeed. Ask yourself “What has to prove true for this to work?” In a company, managers seldom think about whether to pursue new opportunities by asking this question. Instead, they often unintentionally stack the deck for failure from the beginning. They make decisions to go ahead with an investment based on what initial projections suggest will happen, but then they never actually test whether those initial projections are accurate. So, they can find themselves far down the line, adjusting projections and assumptions to fit what is actually happening, rather than making and testing thoughtful choices before they get too far in.

The same is true in our lives. When you decide to take a course of action in pursuit of your life’s goals, ask yourself, what has to prove to be true in order for this to work out? And then constantly check back in against your assumptions—are they, in fact, correct as you are living into your choices? If they’re not, it’s time to reassess before you go too far into a course of action that you can’t take back.

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