Clayton Christensen, the Harvard professor who elevated disruption into a fundamental force of modern business strategy, died last week in Boston. He was 67 and had been battling cancer.
It’s virtually impossible to overstate the impact of Christensen’s research and published works. For many years, it seemed as though every organization’s business strategy included at least one goal or objective designed to disrupt an existing market.
From my perspective, Christensen’s thought leadership was unparalleled. He genuinely captured the spirit of the times, and accurately described a phenomenon that would result in the astonishing success of tech giants such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Netflix and Amazon.
Christensen’s most famous book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” is truly one of the most powerful business books ever written. Andy Grove, the former chief executive of Intel, said “it was the most important book he had read in 10 years,” according to The New York Times.
Essentially, Christensen recognized a basic truth of modern business and explained it in terms that could be translated into strategy. That in itself is truly amazing.
From Christensen’s point of view, disruption was the result of a specific set of events and processes that occurred when an innovative newcomer identified a strategic weakness in an incumbent’s business plan and introduced a competing product or service that was substantially cheaper. If the new product or service proved successful, it “disrupted” the incumbent’s existing market and created a cascade of new opportunities for smaller firms.
The clarity of Christensen’s prose makes it seem as though disruption is a simple concept. But in reality, disruption is an incredibly complicated and risky process.
“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,” wrote Tad Walch in Deseret News.
Clayton Christensen was a unique voice in the technology community, and he will be missed. On behalf of the HMG Strategy community, we offer our sincere condolences to the Christensen family.