Opinion | Clayton Christensen’s legacy transcends management

A file photo of Clayton Christensen

5 min read
. Updated: 29 Jan 2020, 11:32 PM IST

Sundeep Khanna

His ideas can be imbibed by anyone, be it an entrepreneur, a professional or even a government

Clayton Christensen, who passed away last week, was one of the finest advocates of the free flow of ideas and thoughts across borders that marked the 1990s. Best captured by publications like Harvard Business Review (HBR) and elucidated in books such as Tom Friedman’s The World Is Flat, as well as Nayan Chanda’s Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, And Warriors Shaped Globalization, it was the acme of globalization. As business came to occupy centre stage in society, it became the subject of intense investigation and research, resulting in a rich body of what was called “guru literature” that leapt from academics into practice.

India was a rich ground for these new-age management philosophers as they criss-crossed the globe to spread their word. Men like C.K. Prahalad and Michael Porter had a deep and abiding influence on Indian companies as well as governments, as they grappled with the challenges of a business environment that had almost suddenly been thrown open to all comers. Indeed, in the rapid development of India’s economy after the liberalization of 1991, the work of strategy gurus and thinkers hasn’t been fully acknowledged.
Among the luminaries who lit up the world of ideas at that time, Christensen shone the brightest for the profound influence he has had on contemporary business heroes like Steve Jobs, Andy Grove, Jeff Bezos and Reed Hastings, but equally for taking the work-bench of management theory to the streets. Disruptive innovation, his seminal contribution to our lives, became equally relevant to a small struggling healthcare startup as it did to a Netflix when it upended the world of entertainment giants. His stature as one the world’s leading management thinkers seems almost mundane when set against the wide footprint of the impact of his ideas.
His masterpiece, of course, is his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma, which built on his dissertation as a PhD student at Harvard and presented what became the most famous of his management ideas, one that was hugely counter-intuitive, but amazingly simple at its core. Successful companies fail not because they do something wrong, but because in their zeal to keep doing the right thing, they get blindsided by disruptive innovators who come up with products and services for hitherto unexplored segments of the market. The essence of that one idea drives the spirit of Silicon Valley, and can be used to understand such entrepreneurial successes as Netflix and Airbnb.
Yet, it would be wrong to think of him as a pricey guru doling out advice to the high and mighty. His writing and lectures made him accessible to anyone, and, as he often said, it was his theory and not he the person that mattered. The five innovation skills (associating, questioning, observing, experimenting and networking) that he identified along with Jeffrey H. Dyer and Hal Gregersen after a six-year study of 25 entrepreneurs as central to the innovator’s DNA are available freely for anyone to use. In that sense, he was an early and unknowing proponent of the “nudge”, a skill he learnt from his mother who taught him to darn his socks and jeans instead of doing it for him, engendering both skill and pride. As he became the savant we knew him to be, he transmitted this to the public sphere with a gentle spiritual zeal.
In a moving tribute, Karen Dillon, former editor of HBR, writes about how a meeting with Christensen for an article forced her to introspect, “Whether I was actually allocating my own precious resources—my time and energy—to the things that mattered most to me? Did I have a strategy for my life? Did I have a purpose?”. Dillon went on to leave HBR and become a full-time author and speaker. There were many other women and men whom he influenced in similar ways, and few perhaps more famous than the late Andy Grove, Intel’s legendary boss back in the day and a man of whom Christensen once said, “I told him how to think.”
At a time when leaders in many parts of the world are posturing against globalization, it is useful to look at Christensen’s work as a common tool for mankind. The learning he sought to impart to students at Harvard Business School—where he taught for 28 years—as well as readers of his nine books and nearly a hundred articles, wasn’t meant to be restricted to just that narrow audience. It could be imbibed by anyone—an entrepreneur in search of a killer startup idea, a late career professional unhappy with the trajectory of her life, or even a government looking for a way to kickstart an economy gone into sleep mode. All that is required is an openness to other people’s ideas and a willing suspension of one’s own beliefs, even if just for a little while.
For a man who worked as a missionary for his church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in South Korea from 1971 to 1973, Christensen had deep and abiding faith in god even as his fame grew and his management thinking evolved. And though there was a loss of faith in the Mormon church towards the last few years of his life, he remained a deeply religious person. His spiritualism wasn’t contradictory to his profession as a consultant, a teacher and an investor. Rather, he saw it all as a manifestation of the same spirit of helping others. It is another lesson for us as we seek to pigeonhole each other in narrow “isms”.
In his death, we mourn the man, but also the very idea of Clayton Christensen.
Sundeep Khanna is former executive editor of Mint

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