The innovators dilemma is a theory that describes how rational, well run companies, kill themselves in the relentless pursuit of profit. Or the profit motive. GM getting displaced by Toyota. Companies like Amazon and Apple re-inventing themselves before someone else does.

What I find interesting about this theory is that is applies not only to companies, but to people also.

How will you measure your life

For example, nobody got up one morning at GM, and decided they should go off and get killed. Yet that’s pretty much happened. Who made that decision? Nobody. It was an incremental, person-by-person series of actions, in the pursuit of going up market. They implemented a strategy they did not intend to pursue. It was inadvertent.

What Clayton and his students discovered, was that same thing can happen in our lives. MBA students, when they leave school, have a strategy to have a happy family and home. Yet when look back, a large portion of them are divorced (sometimes two or three times), their spouses remarry, and another man or woman is now raise their kids.

Not a single one of these students went out of school with the intention of marrying and then getting divorced. Having children and then alienating them. Yet a large portion of them (like GM) have implemented a strategy they did not intend to pursue.

And it turns out it’s the very same mechanism that is the relentless pursuit of achievement. So if you have a high need for achievement, on a day-to-day basis, you probably often ask yourself:

“What can I do that will provide to me the most immediate evidence that I have achieved something.”

And if you frame that question in this way, our careers always offer more tangible and immediate evidence of achievement. So I finish a product. I ship a product. I close a deal. I get paid. I get promoted. And because our careers provide tangible and immediate daily evidence of achievement when we have this extra amount of time and energy we choose to do that.

And the reason is that investing in our family, cultivating a closer relationship with our family, raising great kids, on a day-to-day basis provides no evidence of achievement. The children misbehave every day. And it’s not till 10 or 12 years later that you can look at your children and put your hands on your hips and say. “Boy did we create a good person here.”

But on a daily basis it doesn’t provide immediate evidence of achievement. And so we invest our time and energy (over invest in our careers) just like General Motors did on making big SUVs and pickup trucks. Because to general motors the low-end of the market provided no evidence of improved profitability and in our personal lives its the very same mechanism, with is the pursuit of achievement that causes us to do the very same things.

Motivation, money, something has gone wrong there.

This insight by Clayton and his students was stunning to me. Not only do companies suffer from the innovators dilemma – we do to.

Luckily Clayton and his students wrote a book on the subject. I haven’t read it yet. But I plan on shortly. I am hoping my family will benefit from this insight.