Clayton Christensen

Say not in grief he is no more – but live in thankfulness that he was

If you’re reading my blog, odds are you know who Clayton Christensen was. He passed away this week and it was a loss to us all.

Everyone who writes about innovation stood on his shoulders.

His insights transformed the language and the practice of innovation.

Christensen changed the trajectory of my career and was the guide star for my work on innovation. I never got to say thank you.

Eye Opening
I remember the first time I read the Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997. Christensen, writing for a corporate audience, explained that there were two classes of products – sustaining and disruptive. His message was that existing companies are great at sustaining technologies and products but were ignoring the threat of disruption.

He explained that companies have a penchant for continually improving sustaining products by adding more features to solve existing customer problems, and while this maximized profit, it was a trap. Often, the sustaining product features exceed the needs of some segments and ignore the needs of others. The focus on sustaining products leaves an opening for new startups with “good enough” products (and willing to initially take lower profits) to enter underserved or unserved markets. These new entrants were the disruptors.

By targeting these overlooked segments, the new entrants could attract a broader base of customers, iterate rapidly, and adopt new improvements faster (because they have less invested infrastructure at risk). They eventually crossed a threshold where they were not only cheaper but also better or faster than the incumbent. And then they’d move upmarket into the incumbents’ markets. At that tipping point the legacy industry collapses. (See Kodak, Blockbuster, Nokia, etc.)

Christensen explained it wasn’t that existing companies didn’t see the new technologies/ products/ markets. They operated this way because their existing business models didn’t allow them to initially profit from those opportunities – so they ignored them – and continued to chase higher profitability in more-demanding segments.

Reading The Innovator’s Dilemma was a revelation. In essence, Christensen was explaining how disruptors with few resources could eat the lunch of incumbents. When I finished, I must have had 25 pages of notes. I had never read something so clear, and more importantly, so immediately applicable to what we were about to undertake.

We had just started an enterprise software company, Epiphany, and we were one of those disruptors. I remember looking at my notes and I realized I held a step-by-step playbook to run rings around incumbents. All I had to do is to exploit all the gaps and weaknesses that were inherent in incumbent companies.

We did.

Thank you, Clay for opening my eyes.

Christensen’s impact didn’t end there. For the last 20 years he inspired me to think differently about innovation and teaching.

Building better startups
After retiring I began to think about the nature of startup innovation and entrepreneurship. It dawned on me that the implicit assumption startups had operated under was that startups were simply smaller versions of large companies.  Over time, I realized that was wrong – large companies executed known business models, while startups searched for them.

I went back and reread the Innovator’s Dilemma and then a ton of the literature on corporate innovation. My goal was to figure out how to crack the code for startups like Christensen did for corporations. My first book The Four Steps to Epiphany was a pale shadow of his work, but it did the job. Customer Development became one of the three parts of the Lean Startup as Eric Ries and Alexander Osterwalder provided the other two components (Agile Engineering and the business model canvas.) Today, the pile of books on startup innovation and entrepreneurship likely equals the literature on corporate innovation.

Teaching a different kind of innovator
Unlike corporate executives, founders are closer to artists than executives – they see things others don’t, and they spend their careers passionately trying to bring that vision to life. That passion powers them through the inevitable ups and downs of success and failures. Therefore, for founders, entrepreneurship wasn’t a job, but a calling.

Understanding the students Clay was teaching gave me the confidence that we needed to do something different. The result was the Lean LaunchPad, I-Corps and Hacking for Defense — classes for a different type of student that emulated the startup experience.

Dropping the curtain on Innovation Theater
The next phase of my career was trying to understand why the tools we built for startups ended up as failing (i.e. Innovation Theater) in companies and government organizations, rather than creating actual innovation.

Here again I referred to Christensen’s work not only in the Innovators Dilemma, but the Innovators Solution. He had introduced the idea that customers don’t buy a product, rather than they hire it for a “job to be done.” And offered a set of heuristics for launching disruptive businesses.

I realized what he and other management thinkers had long figured out. That if you don’t engage the other parts of the organization in allowing innovation to occur, existing processes and procedures will strangle innovation in its crib. In the end companies and government agencies need an innovation doctrine – a shared body of beliefs of how innovation is practiced – and an innovation pipeline – an end to end process for delivery and deployment of innovation.

Thank you, Clay for all the inspiration to see further as an educator.

How to Measure your Life
For me, Clay’s most important lesson, one that put his life’s work in context, was his book How to Measure Your Life.

In it, Christensen reminded all of us to put the purpose of our lives front and center as we decide how to spend our time, talents, and energy. And in the end the measure of a life is not time. It’s the impact you make serving God, your family, community, and country. Your report-card is whether the world is a better place.

He touched all of us and made us better.

Thank you, Clay for reminding us what is important.

You left us way too early.

14 Responses

  1. I’m so so sorry for your loss and for his family’s loss. He was a brilliant and darling man who has definitely helped the world and those he loved tremendously and will be sorely missed. Feels way too soon! Bless you and the family –

  2. His books stop time for me, put me into a ‘thinking envelope” where I am able to visualize the success of a product idea, a company long before either are real. I am deep into my 4th or 5th startup with copies of all Clay’ books, marked up, full of bookmarks, pieces of paper and notes! Thank you and rest in peace knowing your intellect and work lives on through many of us.

  3. I agree with your testimonial and remembrance of Clayton Cristensen, Steve. He cut the new wood, as to the science of innovation.

  4. Great homage to Clayton Christensen. Many thanks,

    Belkis Niswonger


  5. *Comfort Ye….saith your Lord.*

    It is always “My People” that we serve….the ideas of dreams we must foster for better things—I am an “entrepreneur” because I can so believe in the dreams…As a young girl my life was change at a Van Gogh retrospective—it started with the brown Potato Eaters picture and ended with these huge canvases of purple Irises and Yellow sunflowers that hurt your eyes with their brilliance—and I was sobbing and trying not to fall on the ground prostrate in grief & anger—-Van Gogh died believing he had achieved nothing–barely sold a painting in his lifetime—and a Japanese buyer was going to take his Irises for $500M and put it in a vault as an investment…It was all so crazy as his journey painting his unique vision and suffering for it, yet here I was sobbing at its beauty at the Met—but he knew it not. At that moment I determined that I must support genius—the “artist” striking out in whatever form—-I must have the strength to be the knight vassal—I must be the good soldier heading into battle to take the day—and it is in entrepreneurship that I find this calling…I could support the effort…I make a good believer.

    I always read your stuff, but I try not to read too much—you can mess with passion and make it uncertain if you keep trying to re-train it—most of the passionate achievements in the world did not come with a user’s guide or a rule book—they just had painful failure and the will to get back up.

    I have 6 brothers that I mothered and helped to launch into the world—and it is never the right answers, it is only the love to keep trying. (and learn from mistakes—this is your gift to try to get us to learn without going through the meat grinder ourselves…)

    Thank god we have those with “the love to keep trying” so that we have a safe switch to turn on a light—and clean & safe food–drinkable water—money and ATMs—judges and justice as it is…the march of man is lovely, is it not?…We are such little bits of stardust for such great egos about our dreams!

    Here is something pretty to listen to as you remember Mr.Christensen I combine the noise of the wind and fire and storm: with the music of an angel humming on a hillside: PAX, Rita Martinez Solon Astrapi PS( You are on my mind as I just completed, on Friday, the I-Corp Hub at U of MD with Edmund Pendelton –but I am going to try for the NSF April I-Corp in San Francisco anyway—how is that for getting back up?!)

  6. Thank you, Steve. Beautiful words of wisdom that make us all pause and reflect… This is exactly why I recommended years ago to award you with the Nobel Prize in Entrepreneurial Economics! Here is what I said on above in my LinkedIn post from June 25, 2019, entitled: “Steve Blank – The Prophet Who Changed The Entire World Of Entrepreneurship”. See the excerpt below:

    “No matter how you look at it, the impact of Steve Blank’s contributions is measured in billions. Firstly, he correctly redefined the purpose of VC investments in startups – for all the world to see. No ifs, ands, or buts. And while doing so, he saved VC industry billions – that would have been … wasted.

    Now, Steve saves corporate entities even bigger expenses – and delivers a sound recipe for doing corporate innovation right. Am I surprised that the world hasn’t yet recognized his genius? Not really …

    After all, Van Gogh – never managed to sell even one of his paintings. Today, each of his works fetches hundreds of millions to a lucky few who can afford such. Similarly, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was considered “totally impractical and absurd”, and Mozart’s music was often described as having “too many notes”. Steve Blank is not alone …”

  7. Another great piece Steve! This week with the sad news I re-read “How to Measure Your Life”, making another self-reminder that I will prioritize for the important source of my happiness and make my time invested count, whether it’s my family, my teams at work, or my teaching. I also learned much more about you through your post, such as the tie between Clayton to your Hacking for Defense. I have been fancinated by your creativity in audience-focused teaching, and now I get a bit more of the behind-the-scene story. RIP for Clayton, now we get to carry on the journey, for the innovation and fulfilled life.

  8. We all owe Clay Christensen a lot 😎 whether we know it at this point in our lives or not.

    Thank you Clay, your’s was a life well lived and a legacy well left !

  9. If we did not come to this world for a purpose beyond self, we might have just remained where we were, in the……….

  10. what a beautiful remembrance of Clayton Christensen’s being and contribution, thank you

  11. Thank you Steve, for these wonderful words

  12. I discovered Mr. Christensen not so long ago, but he impressed me. It’s a big loss! As an entrepreneur trying to look things from another perspective, theire teachings was or still be, essencial.
    Hope more, entrepreneurs and profesors, could learn and get inspired in his work.

  13. What a wonderful tribute to Dr. Christensen. I wish he was still here to learn from. From his business mind to the way he treated people to his manner of explaining complicated principles. Hard to imagine having another one like him. Thank you for your words.

    • A gait, a pillar of innovation. Dared us all to be bold in exploring our extraordinary power of imagination.

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