Chris Christensen: Legend of the Classroom

Professor C. Roland ("Chris") Christensen was the maestro of Harvard Business School's case method of teaching. Over a career spanning half a century, Christensen made his colleagues better teachers, and his students better leaders. From the HBS Alumni Bulletin.
by Deborah Blagg

In the opening minutes of the only classroom video ever made of the man widely recognized as the world's leading authority on case-method teaching, Professor C. Roland ("Chris") Christensen carefully arranges desks in an empty seminar room. In a voice-over, Christensen rhetorically intones, "How do you prepare to deal with the unexpected that's coming up? Get there early, set the place up. Read every signal you can get. So it's intuitive, but it's also systematic."

Those two qualities—systematic preparation, along with an intuitive sense of when and how to move a case discussion from one point to the next—are remembered often by the legions of MBA students, doctoral candidates, and faculty members Christensen taught during an HBS career that spanned half a century, from the 1940s until his death in 1999.

Experiencing Christensen in the classroom was, in the words of former American Association for Higher Education president Russell Edgerton, like watching "Rostropovich and Bernstein conduct a symphony." Six feet tall and loose-limbed, he was constantly on the move, scanning students' faces, cocking his head to listen intently, gesturing to emphasize a point.

"His hands perform a rapid-fire ballet of encouragement: palms outstretched to reassure the uncertain student, wrists moving in quick circles to urge onward the confident," noted a 1976 article in the Harvard Gazette. "The reply completed, Mr. Christensen gives the student a salute of approval, a smile of pleasure, a wink of appreciation." Yet, for all the apparent spontaneity, the same article observed, "His classroom performance is as meticulously mounted as a Martha Graham ballet, as punctiliously plotted as a Bobby Fischer chess game."

Christensen believed wholeheartedly in "the teachability of teaching" and that "a good class discussion can be developed, rather than merely left to the randomness of chance or genetics." He described the essential challenge of the case method as "exchanging the relative certitude of a planned lecture and an instructor-dominated question-and-answer period for the ambiguity of a hard-to-plan, free-flowing discussion driven by student ideas, which may well follow unusual paths and come to unexpected end points."

Educating Educators

Although his teaching and research activities were based at HBS, Christensen's influence and legacy extend well beyond the banks of the Charles and transcend the study of business administration.

When he received the School's Distinguished Service Award in 1993, Christensen was honored not only for his pioneering work at HBS in corporate strategy and case-method teaching, but also for his efforts, as the Robert Walmsley University Professor, to enhance the quality of discussion teaching throughout Harvard. He served at various times as a visiting faculty member at IMEDE (an international business school in Switzerland now known as IMD), MIT's Sloan School of Management, Harvard Law School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, the University of South Africa, and the Iran Center for Management Studies. His books on teaching, Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership and Teaching and the Case Method, are studied by educators across academic disciplines, as are the hundreds of cases he produced on what he called the "artistry" of teaching.

Inspired by Christensen's example, successive generations of teachers—in business, law, medicine, and other disciplines—continue to take up that challenge today.

"A good class discussion can be developed, rather than merely left to the randomness of chance or genetics." -C. Roland Christensen

"For many of us, Chris was the one who helped us understand, in a way that we could wrestle with and articulate, what this case method was all about," observes Willis Emmons (HBS MBA '85, PhDBE '89), director of the C. Roland Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning at HBS. "We welcomed 38 new faculty to the School this year and hope to have a similar number to come on board next year," continues Emmons. "Many of them have no prior experience with case-method teaching. As we engage in the task of supporting their development in the classroom, there is no doubt in my mind that the work Chris did is still vital and will be for many years to come."

Early Years

Christensen is most widely remembered for his contributions to case-method teaching, but that focus was actually the second of what he called "the two great adventures" of his career.

Born in 1919 in Tyler, Minnesota, Christensen grew up in Iowa City, where his father was a professor at the University of Iowa, and his mother taught at a small college in nearby Des Moines. In 1941, Christensen graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Iowa, where he met Dorothy Smith, his lifelong inspiration and future wife, who would become known to many friends at HBS as "Smitty." (Through the years, numerous students and young faculty enjoyed dinner, lively conversation, and encouragement at the Christensens' home in Lexington.) Christensen earned his MBA from Harvard in 1943 and shortly thereafter enlisted in the Army Quartermaster Corps, where he worked as a field research and development officer and an administrator in the office of the Quartermaster General, earning the rank of captain.

World War II had a significant impact on Christensen's career. The organizational challenges of warfare on a global scale encouraged the use of strategic thinking to accomplish management goals. Upon his return to HBS as a research associate in 1946, Christensen began working with Business Policy chair George Albert Smith to encourage students to examine companies' policies and strategies in relation to the requirements of their competitive environment—a novel concept at that time.

Over the next two decades, Christensen's academic career progressed under the influence of a number of distinguished HBS professors and mentors, including Fritz J. Roethlisberger, Richard Meriam, and Edmund P. Learned. After earning his Doctor of Commercial Science degree and becoming an assistant professor in 1953, he was appointed full professor five years later and was named the School's first George F. Baker, Jr. Professor of Business Administration in 1963.

One of Christensen's greatest strengths in research and case development was his ability to notice and analyze critical aspects of human behavior. HBS professor Kenneth Andrews, a close colleague of Christensen's at this time, once observed that this tendency "led to much closer study of company situations. The strong appeal of [his] cases and of his writing about them is embodied and reflected in his own sensitivity to the essential emotional context of business decisions," Andrews noted. "The addition of personal values and aspirations became an integral part of his philosophy of management."

Creating A Systematic Approach

As his interest and influence in the Business Policy area expanded, Christensen and several colleagues pursued seminal research on corporate strategy and business planning. Jeffrey Cruikshank, former editor of the HBS Alumni Bulletin and author of historical works about HBS, describes Christensen and his colleagues as "transitional figures" in the School's approach to management practice and pedagogy.

In previous decades, "aware that business practices changed faster than academia could hope to capture in any sort of grand theoretical system," Cruikshank observes, "HBS professors tended to talk in terms of 'currently useful generalizations.'" In contrast, Christensen, Andrews, and some of their contemporaries "began to talk about companies in terms of 'distinctive competencies,' charting a path that diverged from the thinking of their intellectual forebears—who resisted theoretical thinking—toward a more systematic approach."

By the mid-1960s, Christensen and Andrews embarked on a major effort to reorganize the Business Policy course around the concept of corporate strategy, which offered an analytical framework for examining decision-making within organizations. The redesigned course showed how organizational objectives were interrelated, thus giving students a better understanding of the strategic perspective they would need as general managers.

“The addition of personal values and aspirations became an integral part of his philosophy of management." -Kenneth Andrews

The course became a centerpiece of the HBS curriculum, the source of many pioneering case studies, and an inspiration for the next generation of strategy scholars. Its direct impact on practice could be seen subsequently in the work of The Boston Consulting Group and other firms that employed what became known as the SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) in addressing the challenges of client organizations. In 1987, the Academy of Management recognized Christensen's work in corporate strategy and business policy by giving him its first Outstanding Educator Award.

The Case Method

Christensen turned his attention to case-method teaching in the second half of his career at HBS.

Andrews and Christensen's pathbreaking 1965 book Business Policy: Text and Cases (coauthored with Edmund Learned and William Guth [HBS DBA '60]) codified their thinking about strategy formulation and implementation and established the two as leading authorities in the field. Christensen became head of the Business Policy area, his reputation spread, and he spent time teaching and consulting at IMEDE in Switzerland. It was also during this time that Christensen was singled out not just for what he taught but also for the impact he was having on his students.

Michael Porter (HBS MBA '71, PhDBE '73), now the Bishop William Lawrence University Professor at Harvard and an internationally renowned authority on competitive strategy, has vivid memories of his days as a student in Christensen's Business Policy class.

Speaking at Christensen's memorial service, Porter looked back on his struggles as a young, somewhat tongue-tied student with an engineering degree, "intimidated by all those articulate British students and all those history majors who were used to the give-and-take of case-method teaching." Christensen, who would become a close mentor and friend, sent him an encouraging note, sought him out for conversations before and after classes throughout the semester, and in Porter's words, instilled in him "an incredible desire to excel—to reach the kind of confidence and the standard" that Christensen set.

"Through some gift that I can only say was extraordinary," Porter noted, "Chris spotted something" in his students.

In 1968, Dean George P. Baker asked Christensen, whose courses were perennially oversubscribed and universally praised, to cochair a program that would help other HBS professors improve their case-method teaching capabilities. With roots at Harvard Law School, the case method of instruction had been a central feature of the HBS curriculum since the School's inception, but the quality of case-method instruction was sometimes variable. Christensen's charge, as he modestly described what was to become a ten-year undertaking, was "to observe, abstract, and articulate some of the skills discussion teachers must have to be effective."

“He made every student feel he or she was the most important person in the room." -Willis Emmons

Two years into that initiative, chairmanship of the Business Policy area passed to different hands under the School's new Dean, Lawrence Fouraker. For many years thereafter, Christensen continued to lead students in Field Studies in Business Policy, but he no longer taught in the MBA classroom.

Embarking in earnest on the "second adventure" of his career, Christensen channeled his time, talents, and energy into researching and writing cases designed to help teachers become more proficient at the distinctive skills—organization of course material, preparation for class, opening a class, gauging student reactions, calling on the right student at the right time, and transitioning from one point to the next—that are critical to success in case-method teaching. The cases Christensen developed over the years elicited candid discussion of some of the thorniest classroom issues faculty faced, including plagiarism, unresponsive students, antagonistic students, sexism, and racism.

Even when case discussions raised controversial topics, Christensen's leadership was informed by clarity and confidence. David Garvin, the C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration and faculty chair of the Christensen Center, is a former student who later became Christensen's coauthor and friend.

"More than anyone else," Garvin notes, "Chris genuinely trusted the case-method process. He had a different idea of what it was for a class to go well. Many instructors would say that a class comes out all right if their teaching plan materializes verbatim. Chris would say that things came out all right if his students learned something important."

Christensen's discussion leadership seminar for HBS doctoral students, which began in the late 1960s, served as the pedagogical point of entry for all new faculty for many years. Acknowledging that there is "no cookie-cutter formula" for successful discussion teaching, he nevertheless maintained that all HBS teachers need "to be able to pose questions to students, listen carefully to their replies, and respond—all within the context of the fast give-and-take of discussion."

In the mid-1970s, Harvard President Derek Bok asked Christensen to expand his instruction to include teachers from other parts of the University. In response, Christensen and his colleagues developed two influential course offerings: Developing Discussion Leadership Skills, attended primarily by Harvard doctoral candidates and young instructors; and Teaching by the Case Method, which attracted more senior professors from across the University.

A Legendary Presence

When asked to explain the transformational power of Christensen's seminars, his former students often talk not about what he taught but about the example he set. "Chris was a model," explains Garvin. "He had the ability to take 25 strong-minded people, simultaneously engage them in a collective conversation, but still make contact one-on-one."

Both as a teacher and as a colleague, Garvin remembers Christensen as "incredibly open," a trait echoed by Robert Bruner (HBS MBA '74, DBA '82), who served as a summer case-writing assistant to Christensen.

"He supervised me in the same way that he taught—he asked questions," recalls Bruner, now Dean of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. "I walked out of each meeting with him sensing that I had been told to figure things out for myself—but with a gentle, encouraging expression of how to do so."

For Willis Emmons, Christensen's teaching seminar offered lessons in "questioning, listening, responding, eye contact, and body language." "He was totally engaged and committed," notes Emmons, a senior lecturer at HBS in addition to directing the Christensen Center. "He made every student feel he or she was the most important person in the room."

Through President Bok, Christensen also became involved in the development of the Harvard-Danforth Center for Teaching and Learning (now the Derek Bok Center), established in 1975 to enhance the quality of undergraduate education at Harvard. The center's annual master seminar in discussion-leading skills for experienced faculty still bears Christensen's name. In the 1980s, he began working closely with Harvard Medical School Dean Daniel Tosteson and the HMS faculty on the "New Pathway" initiative, which moved instruction away from lecture-based teaching to a more case-based approach, and later influenced the curriculum at some 300 medical schools around the world. (The C. Roland Christensen Center, a teaching facility made possible by gifts from several of Christensen's former HBS students, opened at the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business in 2000.)

In honor of the School's 75th anniversary in 1984, a case-method colloquium organized by Christensen and colleagues Jim Heskett and David Garvin drew 85 participants from 60 universities around the world. That same year, Christensen was named to the Robert Walmsley University Professorship, one of a handful of special professorships at Harvard that acknowledge achievements beyond conventional limits of departments and specialties. Awarding the chair, President Bok said that Christensen's efforts had "helped instructors throughout the University to understand how the craft of teaching can be analyzed, understood, and improved. By so doing," Bok noted, "he has exemplified Harvard's commitment to the quality of teaching." HBS Dean John McArthur observed, "Chris has been at the forefront in the search for better ways for faculty to develop insight and judgment in their students and, not incidentally, in themselves."

Brushing aside the praise, Christensen insisted that he was simply "a student of teaching," adding, "We really know so very little about the teaching-learning process."

Not Quite Retired

Although Christensen retired in 1990, as an emeritus professor he continued to write, teach, and serve as case-method éminence grise for a number of years. His influential book Education for Judgment, edited with David Garvin and Ann Sweet, was published in 1992.

Until the closing months of his life in 1999, he kept an office in Cumnock Hall, and more than one current HBS faculty member still recalls that if the blinds were raised in Christensen's office window, it was a signal that he was in that day—and ready to talk about teaching.

About the Author

Deborah Blagg is a former editor of the HBS Alumni Bulletin and a freelance writer.