BSSE Reflections, by Miho Sakuma, HBS Class of 2020
Miho took the BSSE course with Chet Huber during the Fall Term of 2019

At Harvard Business School, how do we learn to make a difference in the world? Multiple factors contribute to this, the school’s mission, but one course in particular helped me to reflect more on this question and to feel confident that after I graduate this May I will indeed make a difference. That course was Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise (BSSE), which I took last semester with Chet Huber. In BSSE, which was developed by Clayton Christensen, the emphasis was always on teaching us how to think, and not what to think. Throughout the term, we analyzed various cases through the lenses of the course theories – such as Disruptive Innovation and Jobs To Be Done – in order to better grasp causality. Our natural tendency is often to come to conclusions based on superficial attributes and correlations, but this course pushed us to understand underlying mechanisms and the relevance of specific circumstances.  The frameworks that we learned in BSSE provide managers with a way to better understand and predict what causes what, when, and why. For example, disruption theory explains why Netflix was able to disrupt Blockbuster, even though their initial service offering was much worse than Blockbuster’s, in terms of both speed and selection. A mere analysis of product features would not have been able to explain this phenomenon, but it is a classic case of disruption coming into play. Learning the BSSE theories was valuable for me because they gave me the ability to ask the right questions and to correctly frame issues, which is critical to reaching an optimal decision on how to proceed in any given situation, and oftentimes with limited resources and/or time.

In BSSE, on the last day of class, we were also given the opportunity to apply the theories from the course to our own lives. For me, BSSE’s spirit of understanding causality/mechanisms (rather than correlation/attributes) allowed me to turn judgement into curiosity and understanding. That is, rather than judging others by superficial, observable attributes (e.g. school, job, or that one comment they made in class), I came to consider those factors that may have caused them to make certain decisions or to take certain actions in a given situation. Furthermore, looking inward at my own path, I came to better appreciate just how much small things in my daily life matter. For instance, when I was fighting through the first few years in my career and often felt that I had limited time and resources, I tended to deprioritize time spent engaging with my family and friends. To be honest, I thought that I could show my appreciation for my family and friends who lived far away only when I saw them a couple of times each year, rather than regularly nurturing those relationships by calling or e-mailing them. I knew that those relationships were important and that I wanted those people in my life, but I naively thought that I could make up for lost time down the road, when I was less busy with work and other commitments. Our class discussion on Professor Christensen’s book “How Will You Measure Your Life” served as a great reminder that I should hold to my principles 100% of the time and not give in to “just this once due to an extenuating circumstance.” Life is an unending stream of extenuating circumstances, and sacrificing one small thing could be the beginning of slippery slope. The BSSE theories are not something that we employ only when we make big decisions in a professional capacity – they are also lenses that we can helpfully employ as we navigate decisions large and small, and in both our professional and personal lives.

Finally, as I was exploring how I and others make decisions to go down certain paths, I developed my own theory, called the “theory of incongruence”, which might help to explain one aspect of how the HBS “magic” works. I believe that people make decisions and take certain actions in order to try to reconcile the incongruence between their current state and their ideal state. In order to do so, we need to be cognizant of our current state, including a recognition of why it isn’t our desired state; have a good sense of our desired state; and, finally, have a plan for how to reach this ideal state. I believe that HBS trains its students on all three of these aspects, and in terms of both short and longer-term timelines. One example of this from the perspective of the short term is contributing to a classroom discussion in a meaningful way. In order to do so, one need understand where the discussion stands, have an opinion on the issue, and then know how and be willing to articulate these thoughts in a public setting. An example of longer-term thinking is making decisions regarding our future careers. At HBS we consider where we currently are in our careers and how we got to be in our current position. We then think about our goals and are able to draw on resources, including networks and newly-acquired approaches to problem solving, to work towards reaching those goals.

Whether our actions are ultimately deemed successful do not matter as much as the processes we’ve acquired to help make decisions in our lives. My perspective in class may sometimes be flawed, and certain career decisions that I make might turn out to be failures, in a traditional sense – and that’s OK. We have discussed cases that focus on failed ventures, and the chance to “get in the head” of the protagonists often illuminates just how much we can learn from taking risks and failing. I believe that the daily reinforcement at HBS of these aspects of dynamic self-assessment – being cognizant of our current state, having an idea of what our ideal state might be, and then implementing a plan to reach that desired state – helps to create graduates who successfully make differences in the world, both small and large, and on a regular basis.

This brings me back to BSSE, a course in which future managers and leaders are taught how to think their way through important problems. Not only does the BSSE course integrate many of the things that we learned during the RC year, bringing it all together in one discussion, but it also helps us to establish a language to better articulate and frame problems, which we’re then better equipped to address. This focus at HBS, and particularly in the BSSE course, on teaching students not what to think but how to think will, I believe, remain a unique value add of the HBS campus experience, and one that will continue to bear fruit for decades to come after we graduate and leave HBS to take on new challenges, both personal and professional, making a positive difference in the world.