Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor who coined the term “disruptive innovation” in his seminal 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, died on Jan. 23 at age 67. His work carries special significance for the Xinova innovator community. Christensen’s scholarship helped drive a renaissance in the understanding of innovation and disruption. Those lessons have been successfully extrapolated from the corporate context and applied living better lives as individuals, and to improving society at the national level.
Christensen’s work has influenced a who’s-who list of the world’s most disruptive CEOs and innovators, including Steve Jobs and Intel’s Andy Grove. They subscribed to Christensen’s theory that the greatest companies ultimately fail because they are too focused on the wrong people and things to properly develop or apply disruptive innovation until it’s too late; that even when disruptive emerging technologies are identified, incumbents fail to build new value networks and applications, from new customers to product design, that will achieve those innovations’ disruptive potential. In his own words (from a Fast Company article):
“An innovation that is disruptive allows a whole new population of consumers access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill.”
We think of disruption and innovation-as-a-constant to be obvious today, but Christensen’s work was itself disruptive in the late 1990s. Prevailing business school wisdom taught managers to guide product development based on feedback from their best customers and to focus innovation investment towards creating higher-performance, higher-quality, higher-profit products according to the desires and conditions of those customers in that market.
But disruption, he posited, came from lower-end markets and customers less flush with cash. That’s where scrappy startups would develop innovation that could provide a similar service cheaper and at good-enough quality for an audience different from the incumbents existing consumer base. It’s hard to see disruption coming when you’re talking to the wrong people and looking in the wrong places.
The innovator community mourns Christensen’s passing. It comes at the dawn of a new decade when we business leaders and innovators pause to scan the horizon for the next seeds of disruption. As we do, we will continue to draw inspiration from Christensen’s life and teachings. They will be remembered.
We’d like to take this opportunity to look back at a series of interviews we conducted in April of 2019 at the IRI Annual Conference in Pittsburgh with global R&D leaders. We asked attendees, “What’s your innovator’s dilemma?”
Here are their answers.
PO Box #30873
Seattle, WA 98113
Xinova Japan GK
Yaesu Mitsui Building 6F
2-7-2 Yaesu, Chuo-ku
Tokyo 104-0028 Japan
10th floor, Golfzone Tower
Seoul 06072, Korea
+82 2 6952 8840
Erottajankatu 5 A 4
Affiliate offices in Tel Aviv & Vienna