Clayton Christensen, the management thinker who conceived and developed the idea of “disruptive innovation” and influenced generations of business students and entrepreneurs, has died, aged 67. Universally known as “Clay”, he passed away on Thursday as a result of complications from leukaemia.
Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School, where Christensen had taught since 1992, paid tribute to his “brilliance and kindness”.
Roger Martin, former dean of Rotman School of Management and a friend of Christensen, told the Financial Times, he was “unfailingly pleasant, kind and generous to everyone, and that didn’t change as he became more famous”.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, another Harvard colleague, paid tribute on Twitter to a “big thinker [and] good colleague”, writing “sadly, death is the ultimate disrupter”.
Christensen was best known for the ideas he laid out in his seminal book The Innovator’s Dilemma, published in 1997, which described how incumbents who neglected the lower end of their market could be disrupted by new and innovative products. One core example was how “mini-mills” sprang up to challenge traditional steel companies.
This central idea — including the suggestion that companies should disrupt themselves to escape the fate of complacent incumbents — inspired Silicon Valley’s innovators. Among admirers of his work were Andy Grove of Intel and Steve Jobs of Apple. Entrepreneur Steve Blank tweeted on Friday: “We all stood on [Christensen’s] shoulders. Today we lost a giant. RIP.”
The fate of large companies such as Eastman Kodak, swept away by the first round of digital disruption at the turn of the century, seemed to add further weight to the theory. But it also encouraged imitators to extend, distort and exaggerate the power of disruptive innovation, pursuing creative destruction for its own sake, in ways that made Christensen himself uncomfortable.
Christensen’s idea does not hold for all cases. Based on the theory, he initially thought Apple’s iPhone, a highly successful high-end innovation, would fail, for instance. He tried to acknowledge well-founded objections by evolving his idea in subsequent books and articles, to the frustration of critics.
He was wounded, however, when Jill Lepore launched an attack on the central idea and its consequences in The New Yorker in 2014. Characteristically, he tried to draw lessons from her critique. “It helped me realise that, Clay, you don’t have to be worried if you didn’t get something right because it just gives you an opportunity to improve the idea,” he told the Financial Times in 2016.
Born in 1952 in Salt Lake City, Utah, Christensen was a devout Mormon who became a prominent leader in his church — in all respects: at 6ft 8in, he towered over most people. He studied economics as an undergraduate at Brigham Young University and applied econometrics at Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar. But he wore his leadership and his intellectual power lightly and with an innate modesty.
Christensen was a gifted and sought-after teacher on Harvard’s MBA and executive education programmes, but unlike some prominent academics, he preferred not to preach. He enjoyed exchanging ideas as much as, if not more than, imparting them. Despite bouts of serious illness over the past decade, including a heart attack, stroke and cancer, he continued to produce new books — including about the organisation of the healthcare industry he came to know at first hand — helped by a devoted team. In 2013, he described his collaborators as “a group of people who aren’t bound by tradition but really are in pursuit of truth [about] the processes of management”.
His last book, The Prosperity Paradox, about how to use innovation to fight global poverty, was published a year ago.
In his tribute to Christensen, Prof Nohria talked of “Clay’s remarkable passion to help everyone find meaning and happiness in their lives and careers”. This was most evident in his 2012 book How Will You Measure Your Life?. Written with James Allworth and Karen Dillon, it built on a talk that Christensen used to give to students at the end of their MBA course, about how to manage their lives and careers. He had been struck by how many Harvard MBA contemporaries, including Enron’s disgraced chief executive Jeff Skilling, became mired in unethical practices, divorce and discontent. According to Prof Martin, if asked about how to live life, “though he would have never said it, [Christensen] would have been justified in answering ‘like me’”.
Despite his later health setbacks, Christensen continued to exude an easy-going charm and good humour, as well as a quiet pride in his family. He is survived by his wife Christine, and children Matthew, Ann, Michael, Spencer and Kate.