Clayton Christensen, guru of disruptive innovation and Latter-day Saint leader, dies at 67
Apple’s Steve Jobs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Netflix’s Reed Hastings and Intel’s Andy Grove looked to influential management thinker
SALT LAKE CITY — Clayton Christensen, whose theory of disruptive innovation made him a key influence on Silicon Valley powerhouses like Netflix and Intel and twice earned him the title of the world’s most influential living management thinker, died Jan. 23 at age 67.
His brother, Carlton, told the Deseret News that Christensen died Thursday evening of complications from cancer in Boston, Massachusetts, where he had been a notable part of the Latter-day Saint community for over 40 years. He was considered an equally robust spiritual thinker.
Christensen introduced disruptive innovation in the Harvard Business Review in 1995, but the theory and the term burst into the public consciousness in 1997 when he published “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail.” Soon afterward, Intel CEO Andy Grove stood up with a copy of the book at COMDEX in Las Vegas and declared it the most important book he’d read in a decade. The two men appeared together on the cover of Forbes magazine in 1999 — and both Christensen and the business world were changed forever.
Christensen initially used the term “disruptive technologies.” Grove dubbed it the “Christensen Effect.” After Christensen altered it to “disruptive innovation,” the term became ubiquitous. Five years ago, the Economist said it had long since entered the zeitgeist.
Though he coined the term, Christensen grew uncomfortable with it as he saw it overused and misapplied. He utilized it narrowly to describe innovations that upended existing markets, but only if they fit a certain pattern he had discovered. A true disruptive innovation, he taught, first appealed only to a niche market and appeared less attractive than the powerful incumbent it eventually usurped. In fact, the incumbent typically looked down on it as inconsequential until it ate up huge swaths of its market share.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings used “The Innovator’s Dilemma” with his team. The biographer of Steve Jobs said the book “deeply influenced” Apple’s co-founder. Jeff Bezos tells his Amazon executives to read another Christensen book, “The Innovator’s Solution.”
A masterful storyteller, Christensen was a perfect fit for Harvard’s case study method and the way CEOs thought and acted. He shared his case studies with roomfuls of CEOs. His story about the disruption of steel mills gripped Grove, for example.
Christensen’s timing was perfect, according to an exhaustive New Yorker profile.
“It was the turn of the millennium, dot-com businesses were springing up all over the place, Digital Equipment Corporation, a giant of the computer age, was disintegrating, and AOL was suddenly and inexplicably worth as much as Time Warner,” the author wrote. “Obviously, everybody had to be on guard, but against what? Into this chaos and uncertainty came Christensen, telling his story about the steel industry.”
Grove applied that story to help Intel ward off a disruption that could have undone the company. He did what flocks of CEOs would, bringing Christensen in to speak to vast teams at Intel. Grove then identified low-end personal computers as a potential disruptive innovation that threatened the high-end computer chip maker, and he instructed his managers and sales team to focus on them. Soon, Intel introduced the cheaper Celeron chip. Within a year, Intel owned 35% of the market share for chips in cheaper personal computers.
Grove, who died in 2016, credited Christensen.
“Clay created a way of thinking that gave others the tools and the framework to discover things that had never been thought of before, to see things they could never have seen on their own,” said Clark Gilbert, a Christensen protegé and president of BYU-Pathway Worldwide.
Christensen died nearly a month after Gary Starkweather, the man whose idea for the laser printer made Xerox a powerhouse. Eventually, the powerhouse printer company became the subject of another Christensen story on a disrupted industry.
“We were heartbroken to learn today of the passing of Clayton Christensen,” said Nitin Nohria, dean of the Harvard Business School, in a statement shared Friday with the Deseret News. “His loss will be felt deeply throughout our community. Clayton’s brilliance and kindness were equally evident to everyone he met, and his legacy will be long-lasting. Through his research and teaching, he fundamentally shaped the practice of business and influenced generations of students and scholars.”
Disruptive innovation became a ubiquitous term. Cable channels produced “disruptor lists.” Some observers said the term’s use added sophistication to any discussion. Others complained it was overused. Various forms of it regularly pop up in discussions about sports, for example. To his chagrin, users often apply it as a synonym for anything new or transformative, not understanding Christensen’s actual theory. The ubiquity worried him.
“If we call every business success a ‘disruption,’ then companies that rise to the top in very different ways will be seen as sources of insight into a common strategy for succeeding,” he once said. “This creates a danger: Managers may mix and match behaviors that are very likely inconsistent with one another and thus unlikely to yield the hoped-for result.”
He second-guessed the wording of the label, but never the theory. Even after he changed his terminology to disruptive innovation, he saw flaws.
“What we didn’t anticipate, and what in many ways was a fault of mine,” he told Quartz in 2016, “was that the term disruption has so many different connotations in the English language, that it allows people to justify whatever they want to do as, ‘Oh, this is disruptive,’ and they don’t ever read the book. The population of people where the fewest have read the book are venture capitalists. They are arrogant and smart and why do they need to read something?”
He wished he’d created something less expressive. He began to discuss type 1 innovations and type 2 innovations, with a nod to Daniel Kahneman, because he believed those terms were vague enough to force people to read and understand his work more closely.
“The misconception around the term is that it’s an innovation or technology that somehow is simply new and cutting edge, in the sense of that no one’s ever done it before,” said Gilbert, a former president of the Deseret News. “But a disruptive technology most often innovates in a way that looks inferior. A disruptive innovation appears inferior to incumbents and underperforms on traditional measures. Then the innovation evolves and actually opens up a whole new category of consumption to users and consumers who could never have consumed it before because it was either too expensive, or required too much expertise to consume. Many think it means newer, better, faster, but what Clay actually found was that a disruptive innovation doesn’t appear as a better product but as one that makes it more accessible or more affordable to a much wider audience.”
Grove told Christensen he mislabeled his theory. Instead of innovative technologies, Grove suggested, Christensen should have used “crummy technologies.”
“A disruptive innovation looks inferior,” Gilbert said, “but only to the incumbent organizations. Then it opens up the ability to consume something that never would have been possible without the innovation.”
Whatever the name, the theory itself galvanized Silicon Valley and Wall Street.
Apple’s Jobs regularly quoted “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” It received the Global Business Book Award in 1997 and the Economist named it one of the six best business books ever published. Three years ago, Quartz.com called Christensen “possibly the most influential management thinker in Silicon Valley.”
Criticism occasionally stung Christensen. However, he used it to fuel refinements to his theory, on which he never stopped working.
“There are criticisms that are very important,” he told one interviewer. “Never does a theory just pop out in complete form. But rather, the first appearance of the theory is half-baked. Then it improves when people say, ‘it doesn’t account for this,’ or ‘this is an anomaly and it doesn’t explain that.’ It’s very important to have people willing to criticize it for that purpose.”
He created the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation to continue refining his life’s work. He also founded Rose Park Advisors to invest in companies based on his theory.
The final dozen years of his life were marked by health concerns. In 2007, he suffered a heart attack. In late 2009, he was diagnosed with follicular lymphoma. While speaking in a church meeting in 2010, he suffered a stroke that left him with expressive aphasia. The storyteller still could think and reason but no longer had the ability to direct his mouth to express the words in his head. He worked ceaselessly and successfully to relearn how to speak, but he had trouble finding words the rest of his life.
Carlton Christensen said his brother had been under treatment for leukemia for the past year, a rare result of his previous cancer treatment. He was hospitalized Jan. 12.
In 2012, after Thinkers50 ranked him the world’s most influential living management thinker for the first time, The New Yorker published an 8,800-word profile titled, “When Giants Fail.” The title referred to the corporate titans taken down by disruptive innovations, but Christensen, too, was a giant at 6-foot-8. The New Yorker author referred to his height in the first paragraph.
His work will outlast him. Just last week, Forbes published an article titled, “It’s Our Choice, Solve the Innovator’s Dilemma or Perish.”
The regular use of disruption was illustrated last month when The Wall Street Journal published a special section reviewing the last decade under the banner headline “Decade of Disruption.” The story could have referred to Christensen because his continued work remained dominant. Thinkers50 released global rankings of management thinkers four times between 2011 and 2017; Christensen finished first, first, second and third. The final time, the list called him “the disruptive guru.”
Michael Horn, who co-founded the Clayton Christensen Institute, said it would remain committed to his legacy and continue his work.
“Clay leaves behind an incredible tree of researchers and acolytes and practitioners who will continue to not only spread what he learned in his lifetime but also continue to improve the theory, ultimately, and not only that theory but the other theories that Clay developed,” Horn said. “Clay was someone who believed that a theory was something you could continue to improve as more information and more understanding of the world came into view, and ideas shouldn’t stand still, in effect. It was more important get truth than be right. He leaves behind a whole slew of people, not just at the institute, but around the world, like Bob Moesta (CEO of the Re-Wired Group), Scott Anthony (Innosight), Clark Gilbert and others who will continue to perfect the ideas and put them into action.”
Christensen applied his innovation theory to self-help in a book titled, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” It began as a speech to the Class of 2010 at the Harvard Business School. The Harvard Business Review printed a version to acclaim. He gave a TEDx Talk on the subject in 2012.
The Harvard Business Review’s online version carries an editor’s note that says, “Though Christensen’s thinking comes from his deep religious faith, we believe that these are strategies anyone can use.”
Gilbert said his mentor had a unique capacity to bridge spiritual and secular dialogues.
“People who didn’t believe in God or who weren’t religious found themselves reflecting on spiritual ideas because of the conversations and writings of Clay Christensen. ‘How Will You Measure Your Life’ influenced so many people,” Gilbert said. “He had this ability to unapologetically and with deep conviction and courage talk about things of faith and of God with people who didn’t think they were religious. He found ways of not only engaging them personally but engaging them intellectually in a way that caused them to start to really actually think about spiritual matters in a way that they never would have without someone like Clay.”
Born in the Rose Park area west of the railroad tracks in Salt Lake City, Christensen as a child read the World Book Encyclopedia from A to Z. He served as a missionary in Korea for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1971 to 1973. After he completed a bachelor’s degree from BYU, he earned a master’s as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England, followed by an MBA and later a doctorate at Harvard. He had been a professor in the business school since 1992.
In addition to 10 books on business, he wrote about his Latter-day Saint faith, which he summed up in a document called, “Why I Belong, and Why I Believe.”
His book “The Power of Everyday Missionaries: The What and How of Sharing the Gospel” is a popular work on the topic. He was a driving force behind and wrote the foreword for Kristen Smith Dayley’s book, “For All the Saints.”
The late President Thomas S. Monson, 16th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recounted in both a BYU devotional and in one of the faith’s general conferences how Christensen sat out a championship basketball game while a student at Oxford University because the game was played on a Sunday.
His team won.
“Which must mean I wasn’t as important to the team as I thought I was,” Christensen once said.
Christensen served in a number of church callings, including bishop and Area Seventy. He also served as a member of the Deseret News editorial board.
He is survived by his wife, Christine, who accompanied him on most of his many trips to speak as an expert and consultant, and their five children, Matthew, Ann, Michael, Spencer and Catherine (Kate).