Christensen Taught Intel CEO How To Think And Why It’s Important

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It was a normal day at the Harvard Business School when professor Clayton Christensen received a surprise phone call and an opportunity of a lifetime from Intel CEO, Andy Grove. 

Clayton picks up the phone, 

“Look, Clayton I’m a busy man and I don’t have time to read drivel from academics but someone you told me you had this theory… and I’m wondering if you could come out to present what you’re learning to me and my staff and tell us how it applies to Intel”

Christensen ecstatic from what he just heard, accepted the offer and hopped on a plane out west to meet with the Intel team. Soon after arriving at Intel’s offices to speak, he was greeted with a gruff response from Grove: 

“Stuff has happened to us, but look we only have 10 minutes for you, so tell us what your theory means for Intel.”

Christensen pushed back saying,

“Andy I can’t because I have no opinion about Intel but my theory has an opinion… so I have to describe the theory.”

Andy Grove sat back impatiently and after 10 minutes of Christensen explaining his theory, he impatiently interrupted again, asking what it meant for Intel and Clayton pushes back again: 

“Just give me five more minutes. I have to explain how this process of disruption worked it’s way through a totally different industry, just so you can envision what can happen to Intel”

Christensen explained how integrated mills were disrupted by mini mills at the low-end of the market with rebar and then the story finally clicked for Grove at a level where he could explain the theory himself. (You can watch the full interview at the end of the post)

Christensen didn’t teach Andy Grove “what to think” but “how to think” and here’s why this is incredibly important: 

Teaching How To Think versus What To Think - EDGE Mentoring

Teaching someone what to think, provides value for a limited, finite set of circumstances and variables.

Teaching someone how to think fosters a belief system or theory that transcends different circumstances and provides value in seemingly different situations and environments.  

There is no data available when looking into the future but if we are able to recognize patterns from previous data, then we can more accurately anticipate future variables and make connections that are valuable in unrelated environments.

Ford Motor Company and Apple present two case studies that highlight how the world changed because two great innovators learned how to think.

How pigs and desks changed the world - EDGE Mentoring

How pigs and desks changed the world – EDGE Mentoring

By learning how to think, Ford employee Bill Klann was able to see the similarities from a “disassembly line” at a Chicago slaughterhouse, and make the connection between the inefficiencies they were experiencing in making the Model T. The efficiency of one person performing the same task on the same part of the animal caught his attention. 

He told his boss,

“If they can kill pigs and cows that way, we can build cars that way” .

Ford was able to cut the costs of producing the Model T from $825 to $575 and eventually to $280. Ford doubled it’s market share in just a few years and it’s cars became famous around the world. 

In another example, Steve Jobs was able to change the world because he learned how to think. He was able to help the average consumer understand an extremely complex system (computer systems in the 1970’s and 80’s) by relating its components to something everyone understood, a physical desktop. 

By way of a graphical interface that Jobs first encountered on a field trip to Xerox, he finally understood that you could also display a computer’s functionality through folders, documents, trash cans, scissors, cutting and pasting through virtual means. 

If he only understood the concept in light of printer interfaces, the practicality of the interface would have held little value as it related to punched cards.

The Greatest Innovators like Clayton Christensen, Andy Grove, Bill Klann and Steve Jobs all understood the critical value in learning how to think versus simply what to think. 

Being able to make connections that transcend specific circumstances, situations and environments is the key to delivering truly transformational innovation.

Here at EDGE Mentoring, we’ve similarly observed this trait among truly great mentors as well.

A great mentor will rarely give their mentees the answers they’re seeking but they find ways to get them thinking, questioning and processing the topics they’re inquiring about. 

The next time you’re seeking answers to a particular problem, you should ask yourself, Am I learning how to think about this problem? Or just what to think about it? 

If you would like to hear the story about Andy Grove from Clayton Christensen, you can watch it here – 3:48 it starts.

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