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Clayton Christensen: Disruptive Innovation

Clayton Christensen currently* styles himself as the ‘World’s Top Management Thinker’.  I don’t propose to either challenge or endorse his claim, but let’s at least take a look at his thinking and see what the source of that extraordinary claim is. It is about ‘disruptive innovation’ – the idea that new entrants to a market, with new ideas, can disrupt the market. Established competitors – even the best managed ones (particularly those, Christensen argues) will fail.

I confess I don’t have any of Christensen’s books on my shelves, but I do have ‘The Mind of the Strategist‘ by Kenichi Ohmae: ‘But to break out of a stalemate, the strategist has to take drastic steps.’  Christensen’s idea is not new: what he does is examine it in great depth.

Clayton Christensen

Brief Biography

Christensen was born in Salt Lake City in 1952, and took his first degree, in economics, at Brigham Young University. He then wen to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, to study applied econometrics, returning to the US to take Harvard MBA. He joined prominent strategy consulting firm Boston Consulting Group, did a spell in the Reagan White House, within the Transportation Department, and co-founded a high-tech materials science business, CPS Technologies Corporation, in 1984. He returned to Harvard in the mid-1990s to do a doctoral thesis in Business Administration, from which he joined the faculty. He is now Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School; and is regarded as one of the world’s top experts on innovation and growth.

In 2000, Christensen founded a consulting firm called Innosight, which applies his theories of disruptive innovation to help companies create new growth businesses. In 2007, he also founded Rose Park Advisors, an investment firm that seeks to invest in disruptive companies. His Innosight Institute is a non-profit think tank with a mission  to apply his theories to social problems such as healthcare and education.

He has written a number of books, which are discussed below.

Christensen’s Ideas

The Innovator’s Dilemma: When new technologies cause great firms to fail

The Innovator’s Dilemma was published in 1997. Its primary thesis is that large, well-established businesses in stable markets are frequently the victims of disruptive strategies from new, low-end competitors, seizing their markets with a lower cost, often technologically-enabled, service or product offering. Christensen argues that well-managed businesses are doomed to fail eventually, and that 80% of the corporations studied in business schools therefore teach students the secret of eventual failure.

The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and sustaining successful growth

The Innovator’s Solution was published in 2003. It built upon its predecessor and set out to answer the threat of disruptive insurgency by smaller upstarts. Christensen set out three ways:

  1. the corporation can spin-off a new, smaller, more agile, but well managed and resourced upstart of its own
  2. the corporation can acquire an existing innovative upstart business and nurture it
  3. the corporation can create a sand-box business i=unit, free of existing constraints, within which to build its own upstart

Seeing What’s Next: Using the theories of innovation to predict industry change

Seeing What’s Next was published in 2004 and took the story one step further, identifying three ways to spot the trends that will lead to disruption:

  1. identify the signs and portents that change is coming
  2. analyse the competitive environment and the conflicts it creates
  3. understand your strategic choices

Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (2008), and The Innovator’s Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Health Care (2009) followed. These extended Christensen’s ideas into the realms of education and healthcare respectively. He returned to the more generic thinking with…

The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the five skills of disruptive innovators

The Innovator’s DNA was published in 2011 and  sets out the five skills we need to develop if we want to be innovators:

  1. Associational thinking – synthesising new ideas by combining ideas and knowledge from multiple sources
  2. Questioning – asking the questions that less innovative minds fail to recognise
  3. Observing- noticing the world around them
  4. Networking  – seeking new people with new ideas, and testing out their own ideas with a wide variety of people
  5. Experimenting – seeing pilots, prototypes and experiments s the way to learn, develop and innovate more

It is important to note that, although Christensen is the leading thinker behind all of these ideas (as far as an outsider can tell), on all but the first of the books listed above, he collaborated with co-authors.


Recently, there has been a somewhat public spat between New Yorker journalist Jill Lepore and Clayton Christensen. Lepore wrote a highly critical analysis of the idea of disruption in general, and of Christensen’s work in particular: ‘The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong‘. Subsequently, Drake Bennet interviewed Christensen for Business Week and published a lengthy article with Christensen’s response: ‘Clayton Christensen Responds to New Yorker Takedown of ‘Disruptive Innovation’‘.

Make your own judgement.



* On his website, 23 June 2014.
The World's Top Management Thinker

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