Remembering Clayton Christensen (1952-2020)
A giant in marketing theory died too soon.
Clayton M. Christensen, Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at Harvard University’s Business School, was an author, consultant, teacher and business leader. He has been quoted numerous times by myself and other Wiglaf Journal authors.
Photo Source: Harvard University
Christensen was best known for his ideas of “disruptive innovation,” which were presented in his greatest work, The Innovator’s Dilemma — The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business, first published in 1997 by Harvard University Press. The Economist has called the book one of the six most important business books ever written. It was published during the technology boom of the late 20th Century.
In the Dilemma, Christensen observed that the qualities that made companies succeed, such as investing in technology and listening to customers, were included in the same qualities that made companies fail. He maintained that these successful corporate giants that were so focused on doing things right that they were blindsided by the innovative, small, fast-moving innovator companies that could enter markets with “disruptive” products and services and grab huge market shares.
According to the various obituaries, Christensen was a great storyteller and he credited this quality as a major reason for his success. Steve Dunning writes in Forbes Magazine, “In Memoriam Clayton Christensen: Storyteller Extraordinaire”:
“Before I published The Innovator’s Dilemma, I got a call from Andrew Grove, then the chairman of Intel. Excited, I flew to Silicon Valley and showed up at the appointed time, only to have Grove say, “Look, stuff has happened. We have only 10 minutes for you. Tell us what your model of disruption means for Intel.” I said that I couldn’t. I insisted that I needed 10 more minutes to describe how the process of disruption had worked its way through a very different industry, steel, so that he and his team could understand how disruption worked. I told the story of how Nucor and other steel mini-mills had begun by attacking the lowest end of the market—steel reinforcing bars, or rebar—and later moved up toward the high end, undercutting the traditional steel mills. When I finished the mini-mill story, Grove went on to articulate what would become the company’s strategy.”
Christensen would go on to become a key Silicone Valley influence and a confidant of Apple’s Steve Jobs, Netflix’ Reed Hastings and Intel’s Andy Grove, among many others. He was often named the world’s most influential business thinker.
He credited much of his success to his ability to tell stories. The Wiglaf Journal, in an article by this author in 2011, expounded on Christensen’s idea of “milkshake marketing.” The concept evolved from a story about a fast-food store selling a large volume of early-morning milkshakes to job commuters in cars. The reason why, Christensen deduced, was that commuters wanted a long-lasting drink for the long commute. He then put forth of his theory of consumers “hiring” the product for a specific task.
Christensen, a lifelong Mormon, was born in Salt Lake City and did his undergraduate work at Brigham Young University. A Rhodes Scholar, he attended Oxford University for two years and received a Master of Philosophy Degree. He then went to Harvard for both his MBA and his doctorate. He became a full professor at Harvard in only six years.
He was a prolific writer of books and articles, and he also served a business consultant with the Boston Consulting Group and later through his own consulting firm. Often quoted, one is his most famous is:
“Breaking an old business model is always going to require leaders to follow their instinct. There will always be the persuasive reasons not to take a risk. But if you only do what worked in the past, you will wake up one day and find that you’ve been passed by.”
Harvard Business School Dean Nitin said about Christensen:
“His research and writings transformed the way aspiring MBAs, industries, and companies look at management. He was a beloved professor and role model whose brilliant teaching and wisdom inspired generations of students and young academics. Most importantly, Clayton had a passion for helping others be their best selves that permeated every aspect of his life. His loss will be felt deeply by many in our community and his legacy will be long-lasting.”