Remembering the Lessons of Clayton Christensen

He coined the idea of disruptive innovation, but his life teaches so much more

Aaron Schnoor


Image courtesy of Harvard Business Review

Clayton Christensen, an esteemed Harvard Business School professor and management expert, passed away on January 23rd, 2020. Remembered as a kind and devout scholar, Christensen became popular in the early 1990s after coining the term “Disruptive Innovation.”

Since its creation, disruptive innovation has become one of the most misused terms in the business world. As the Christensen Institute states, “Disruptive Innovations are NOT breakthrough technologies that make good products better; rather they are innovations that make products and services more accessible and affordable, thereby making them available to a larger population.”

Christensen warned large companies that they risked becoming too good at supplying products to “sophisticated customers.” In doing so, those business giants would overlook the larger market and allow smaller, flexible companies to “introduce a simpler product that is cheaper and thus becomes more widely adopted.” That cheap, widely-used product is an outcome of disruptive innovation.

Combating this threat requires diligence, Christensen wrote. As the professor penned, “To remain at the top of their industries, managers must first be able to spot disruptive technologies.” After spotting those disruptions, the company would have to discover independent ways to reach the needs of the market.

Not all of Christensen’s work focused on disruptive innovation.

The greatest goal of any manager, Christensen stated, is to find a clear purpose in life. As the professor once wrote, “For me, having a clear purpose in my life has been essential.”

Christensen taught that finding purpose required a careful allocation of resources. The professor wrote in a 2010 article titled How Will You Measure Your Life? that “Allocation choices can make your life turn out to be very different from what you intended. Sometimes that’s good: Opportunities that you never planned for emerge. But if you misinvest your resources, the outcome can be bad. As I think about my former classmates who inadvertently invested for lives of hollow unhappiness, I can’t help believing that their troubles relate right back to a short-term perspective.”

Christensen, who passed away at the age of 67 from leukemia, ended the article with this:

“Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.”

It is a lesson that we all can benefit from following.

© Aaron Schnoor 2020