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Netflix CEO Reed Hastings honors Clayton Christensen, says company owes much of its success to his writings

Sen. Mitt Romney and others are honoring Christensen, the pioneer of disruptive innovation theory, in tributes after news of his death

FILE - Clayton Christensen gives his keynote speech at the Governor’s Utah Economic Summit at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 3, 2014. Christensen died Jan. 23 at the age of 67.
FILE - Clayton Christensen gives his keynote speech at the Governor’s Utah Economic Summit at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 3, 2014. Christensen died Jan. 23 at the age of 67.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Sen. Mitt Romney and others honored the pioneer of disruptive innovation theory in tributes Friday and Saturday after news broke of the death of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen.

“Clay was hugely influential on me as CEO,” Hastings said in an email to the Deseret News. “I owe much of our success to his writings.”

Christensen introduced disruptive innovation in “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” a book he published in 1997, the year Hastings launched Netflix. A former company executive once described how Hastings used the book and the theory at an executive retreat.

Netflix’s rise over the brick-and-mortar video rental business was a textbook example of Christensen’s theory. He said a disruptive innovation is one that starts off as a cheaper alternative with lesser functionality that goes unnoticed or scorned within its industry. The alternative grows and improves before the incumbents respond.

In 10 years, Netflix decimated Blockbuster. Triumphant, Hastings still stuck to Christensen’s lessons.

“Reed brought 25 or 30 of us together, and we discussed the book,” former Netflix vice president Neil Rothstein told CNBC in 2018 about the retreat. “We studied AOL and Blockbuster as cautionary tales. We knew we had to disrupt, including disrupting ourselves, or someone else would do it.”

The retreat was held in about 2009, Rothstein said.

Netflix pivoted to streaming video in 2010.

Christensen’s ideas began to enter the zeitgeist after Intel CEO Andy Grove used innovative disruption to create the cheaper Celeron computer chip. Grove initially badgered Christensen to tell him how Intel could avoid a disruptive death.

“If I’d been suckered into telling Andy Grove what he should think about the microprocessor business, I’d have been killed,” Christensen said. “But instead of telling him what to think, I taught him how to think.”

The tribute from Romney was more personal. Romney and Christensen were at Harvard together in the 1970s and attended the same congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Ann and I are deeply saddened by the loss of our dear friend, Clay Christensen, and offer our condolences to Christine and their children,” Romney said in a statement sent to the Deseret News. “Known as the father of ‘disruptive innovation,’ Clay’s theories and writings influenced generations of entrepreneurs and companies. In addition to a successful career in business and academia, he was a wonderfully kind person and leader in our church community for over 40 years. His contributions to the church and to the business management field will leave a profound and enduring legacy.”

The dean of the Harvard Business School also issued a statement. Christensen was not teaching this year, but other faculty are teaching multiple sections of the disruptive strategy course he developed.

“We were heartbroken to learn today of the passing of Clayton Christensen,” the Harvard dean, Nitin Nohria, said in an email to 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.”

Other tributes came in multiple forms, from Twitter to other online platforms.

Business Insider published a piece titled, “22 years after its publication, ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’ is still the best book on disruption ever written. Here are 5 key takeaways you may have missed on your first read.”

Christensen’s co-founder at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, Michael Horn, wrote a tribute for the Harvard Business Review.

“In the hundreds of instances I saw Clay speak, even after his first stroke hindered his speech, he would sweep the audience to its feet with the eloquence of his thoughts and insights,” Horn wrote. “It’s those words and thought patterns, but also his fundamental humanity, compassion, and humility that I will miss so much.”

Clayton Christensen, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, speaks with attendees after giving his keynote speech at the Governor’s Utah Economic Summit at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 3, 2014.
Clayton Christensen, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, speaks with attendees after giving his keynote speech at the Governor’s Utah Economic Summit at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 3, 2014.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The Harvard Business Review also published “The Essential Clayton Christensen Articles” with an introduction from its 2016 book, “The Clayton M. Christensen Reader.”

“Christensen’s work on disruption is nuanced and often misunderstood,” it said. “Not every hugely innovative technology is ‘disruptive’ (though you wouldn’t know that from the way journalists and tech enthusiasts throw the word around). Not every start-up will beat the incumbent. Not every big company is going to be disrupted. Reading Christensen’s original Harvard Business Review articles on disruption yields a more accurate picture of his theory and how businesses can prepare for and overcome the threat he describes.”

Colleagues and students also wrote tributes.

“The theory of Disruptive Innovation has been incredibly enlightening and useful to me — the theory of Jobs To Be Done has quite simply rocked my world,” Jay Gerhart wrote in a post on Medium.com titled, “Thank You, Professor Christensen.”

Others took to Twitter:

Here is Christensen’s own final tweet: