RIP Clayton Christensen

Clayton Christensen
Clayton Christensen

One of the most original and influential strategic thinkers of all time, Clayton Christensen, passed away last week at the age of 67.  Christensen was a professor at the Harvard Business School, a prolific author, dedicated philanthropist and moral philosopher, as well as being an entrepreneur himself before joining the ranks of academics.

Christensen is credited with inventing the concept of ‘Disruptive Innovation,’ first in a 1995 Harvard Business Review article, and then more completely in his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma.  The Economist has called disruptive innovation ‘the most influential business idea of the early 21st century.’

For those not familiar with the concept, the basic premise is simple: in any industry, incremental innovations tend to accrue to the established industry leaders, but disruptive innovations always come from new entrants.  To be disruptive, an innovation has to meet three criteria (I am paraphrasing):

  1. It starts with what the industry would view as ‘low end’ customers (sometimes not even in the market)
  2. It provides a simple solution to a problem that these customers are already trying to solve
  3. It changes the business model, not just the product – in fact, the ‘product’ is often assembled from pre-existing technologies, like the first i-pod

The concept has been applied across numerous industries, and the impact has been profound. Despite the broad awareness and usage of the term, to my knowledge, no one has produced a counter-example.  In fact, the concept has proved so enduring that Christensen spent the last 25 years not modifying it, but applying it to specific applications like health care and financial services, and re-explaining it to new generations so that the overused term was not mis-used.  Most recently, he clarified the original concept in the Harvard Business Review in 2015.

Christensen towered over other strategic thinkers not only because he stood 6 feet 8 inches tall (his 6’ 10” son played basketball at Duke), but because he developed and documented one single principle that has shown to be widely applicable and impossible to refute.  His work will stand among the finest examples of what all strategists should strive for: concepts that are elegant in their simplicity and endure even as markets and technologies evolve.  We are all better for his giant step forward in strategy as a discipline.

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