For most people, Clayton Christensen is not a household name. But for those of us in the business world, he’s known as a disruptive thinker who helped pave the way for thousands of tech companies to innovate products and transform industries. Best known for his 1997 best-selling book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen recently passed away at the age of 67. The book—and the concept he coined called “disruptive innovation”—shot Christensen to fame back in the late 1990s, and introduced the world to approaches and strategies for sparking innovation that are still in use by today’s CEOs and business leaders.
Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation warns that larger, more established companies who serve only their most sophisticated customers—and ignore the needs of customers at the low end of the market—leave themselves open to disruption by new competitors and smaller upstarts that create simpler, more widely accessible products. Over time, these smaller, more nimble companies rise up with more customers and larger addressable markets, and “disrupt” the original larger companies.
While Christensen helped countless executives and companies overcome the innovator’s dilemma throughout his career, it’s a challenge that remains today—and will likely never go away. In fact, Christensen sat down with MIT Sloan Management Review in January, just before his death, to talk about innovation now and how many of the rules of the innovator’s dilemma still apply today.
Disruptions start out simple, accessible, and affordable
In the MIT article, Christensten had this to say about how disruption happens, “Disruptive innovations are not breakthrough innovations or ‘ambitious upstarts’ that dramatically alter how business is done but, rather, consist of products and services that are simple, accessible, and affordable. These products and services often appear modest at their outset but over time have the potential to transform an industry.” The key takeaway? It’s often the smaller, simple products that present the biggest threat to larger, more sophisticated ones.
Innovation is a process
In the MIT Sloan article, Christensen stressed the need for companies to look beyond events and moments to define when innovation happens. Disruption is not a new, shiny object. “Rather, disruption is a process. It’s intertwined with the resource allocation process in the firm, in the changing needs of customers and potential customers, and in the constant evolution of technology,” said Christensen.
The strategic questions are universal
While digital transformation, the Internet, and the rise of platforms have accelerated things, the “mechanics of disruption” are the same. The same challenges are there and the same questions apply, according to Christensen. Those questions include:
- Who are your best customers?
- What is your organization capable or incapable of doing?
- What “jobs” are you trying to help customers get done in their lives?
- In what circumstances should you integrate?
This list goes on…as does the quest to innovate and disrupt markets. And while Clayton Christensen is no longer with us, his ideas and his ways of thinking about how innovation happens will be with us for years to come.
You can read the complete interview with Clayton Christensen in MIT Sloan Management Review.