A couple of weeks ago, the world lost one of its great minds: a player, an innovator, a father, a husband, a friend and above all a great coach and professor.
While these characteristics also fit in to the loss of Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest basketball minds and arguably one of the greatest basketball players of all time, this post isn't about the Black Mamba, this post is about Professor Clay Christensen. Professor Christensen was the founder of the Christensen Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think-tank dedicated to improving the world through disruptive innovation. He was also founder of a strategy consultancy firm named Innosight and of Rose Park Advisors. He was also a distinguished professor in the Harvard Business School.
I first came across his work when I read his famous book “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, which completely changed the way I thought about business and was one of the reasons I wanted to get into venture capital. In his book he says that “Companies stumble for many reasons: bureaucracy, arrogance, tired executive blood, poor planning, short term investment horizon, inadequate skills and resources and just plain bad luck. But this book is not about those, it is about the ones that keep their competitive antennae up, listen to their customers invest aggressively in new technologies and yet still lose market dominance. Precisely because these companies listened to their customers, invested in new technologies and carefully studied the market trends and systematically allocated capital to innovations that promised best returns, they lost that leadership. There are times when its right not to listen to customers, right to invest in developing lower performance products that promise lower margins and right to aggressively pursue small, rather than substantial, markets. This is the dilemma.”
Professor Christensen coined the phrase disruptive innovation in the Innovator’s Dilemma, which is a concept we, as as VC investors, use every day and have implanted into our DNA. He cleverly states, “Most new technologies foster improved product performance. These are sustaining technologies. Occasionally, however, disruptive technologies emerge: innovations that result in worse product performance in the near-term. They bring to market a very different value proposition than have been available previously. Disruptive technologies typically enable new markets to emerge and these new markets are that large. It is in these disruptive innovations, that we know least about the market, that there are such strong first mover advantages. This is the innovators dilemma.” He teaches us that disruptive technologies are disruptive because they subsequently can become fully performance-competitive within the mainstream market against established products. If those mainstream market incumbents do not move fast, if they lack vision and mobility to find new applications and markets for new products, then they will eventually fail. He writes, “It was as if the leading firms were held captive by their customers, enabling attacking entrant firms to topple the incumbent industry leaders each time a disruptive technology emerged.”
His very powerful, yet simple, messages captured me tremendously and I started to read more of his work. And of all his ideas, the one that I recommend the most is “How will you measure your life”, a book he wrote based on this article https://hbr.org/2010/07/how-will-you-measure-your-life he wrote when diagnosed with cancer. You can also see his Ted Talk on this subject here:
I never had the opportunity of meeting Professor Christensen, but I did have several professors at the Kellogg School of Management who really impacted me through their studies and their ideas in class. I now try to implement their (and obviously Professor Christensen’s) ideas in my class at the Universidad Iberoamericana, as to pass on their knowledge on to my students.
Clayton Magleby Christensen, a Rhodes scholar, an entrepreneur, a professor, and an innnovator, died at age 67. My deepest condolences to his family, friends and students. May he rest in peace.