Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School
He began his career in business. Spend a few minutes with him, and you'll understand why he switched to academics. Clayton Christensen is a born teacher. He's also both a theoretical and practical trainer helping companies discover markets that do not yet exist.
"The Innovator's Dilemma," Christensen's seminal work on disruption, turned 10 this year. When it was published, "the revolutionary book that will change the way you do business," became a bible for technology entrepreneurs and executives alike. His follow up book, "The Innovator's Solution," offered a framework for companies to achieve sustained growth.
Interestingly, it's only in the last year that Christensen feels his ideas have finally caught on to become broadly understood and applied beyond the technology industry.
Does he ever see himself returning to industry? "Probably not, but I really miss managing things," he says. "Academia tends to attract nerdy people who don't have sense of playing on a team. I miss that dimension. But it's a full, interesting, busy life."
Christensen has consulted to a number of industry giants including, Kodak, Intel and Intuit. After 10 years, he has accumulated many successful case studies. The firm he co-founded, Innosight, continues his work.
When asked what he's learned during the past 10 years, Christensen becomes introspective. "What I hadn't thought about deeply enough is that every academic in some way is a consultant," he says. "And part of the consulting equation is a training engagement." This is where Christensen sees a flaw with current innovation practices. "You don't change a company by giving them ideas. You change them by training them to think a different way."
He offers Intel as example. In the mid-90s, it was clear to Andy Grove and his senior management team that flash memory would disrupt flash drives. "They knew they had to launch the Celeron chip at the bottom of the market to aggressively build the flash memory business," says Christensen.
But instead of standing in front of his company and telling them "this is what we're going to do," Andy Grove took a different approach. He set up a training program with Christensen and walked 2,000 of their senior managers through a whole day of disruption and the subsequent threats and opportunities it would create for the company. "This year, Intel will ship $16 billion in products that emerged from that training process," says Christensen.
"At the end of it all, Andy Grove said ‘you know, your models didn't give us any answers but they gave us a common language and a common way to frame a problem so that we can get agreement on a counterintuitive course of action.'"
Yet today, Intel is back on the ropes. What happened? "All those decisions and training happened from 1996 to 1998," he says. "All those managers have moved on and the theories have moved on with them. The current management team is starting over it seems from scratch."
So is the roadblock for sustaining growth persistent training? "I'm starting to learn this lesson really well," says Christensen. "When you give people the right strategy, you haven't solved the problem. You've got to teach them over and over again," he says.
Christensen, who is also a Business Innovation Factory research advisor, is a theorist at odds sometimes with established academic practices. "Good theory is a very useful thing," he says, "yet academics are poorly trained in how to build robust theories that are useful. We've been teaching false principles for a long time. They're broadly believed in and it will take time to change them."
He's currently writing two new books that will be finished this year — one looking at the problems of why our healthcare system is so expensive and inaccessible and the other looking at why our public schools struggle to improve. Both books look through the lens of his research and begin with a description of what is theory.
Having the opportunity to shape new ventures outside the current model can be very useful. Christensen cites the Business Innovation Factory as an autonomous place where organizations can pursue alternative channels without hindering their current value network. "It's important that new ventures — both public and private — have a solid foundation for success," he says. "The Business Innovation Factory is a place where good theory can be applied in a safe, manageable environment."