Economy & Business

Clayton Christensen, 1952–2020

Clayton Christensen at a TED Talks in 2012 (via YouTube)
The guru of innovative technology leaves a legacy that extends well beyond the business world.

Read through the marketing materials for a given startup, and one adjective will inevitably appear: “disruptive.” The term “disruptive technology” might induce semantic satiation nowadays, but the man who coined it, Clayton Christensen, is one of the godfathers of the modern technology industry.

Christensen died Thursday after a year undergoing treatment for leukemia. He was 67.

Standing six-foot eight and always wearing a suit, he did not look like the typical Silicon Valley guru. In the ethos of the tech industry in the 1990s — a time when software engineers were still called “hackers” — the Harvard Business School professor and devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could not have been more out of place. But his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma became the bible of Palo Alto.

The book argued that incumbent businesses fail to capitalize on innovation because disruptive technologies tend to provide low profit margins and often create new markets rather than compete in existing ones. It famously left an impression on several tech CEOs, including Intel’s Andy Grove, Apple’s Steve Jobs, and Netflix’s Reed Hastings.

Christensen was born to a working-class family in Salt Lake City. As a boy, he took to politics, closely following the Congressional Record, and in high school he made the all-state basketball team. As an undergraduate at Brigham Young, Christensen spent two years in South Korea as a missionary and received a Rhodes scholarship to study econometrics at Oxford. He went from Oxford to Harvard Business School before starting his career at Boston Consulting Group. In the 1980s, he founded an advanced-materials company called CPS Technologies, but his academic inclination led him back to Harvard as a business-school professor in 1992.

It was there that Christensen’s study of disk drives led him to undertake a wide-ranging survey of technological development. He discovered that, although new products tend to be inferior to their predecessors, their lower cost leads to mass adoption, driving a virtuous circle in which the new technology is rapidly improved and dislodges competitors. In industry after industry, from steel to microchips, the same trend emerged.

Christensen’s work caught the attention of Andy Grove, who invited him to the Intel offices for a meeting. After hearing Christensen explain his theory, Grove decided to focus on low-cost PCs, which ended up dominating the market. It was a time of rapid change in information technology, a time when storied firms were collapsing and newcomers were commanding astronomical valuations. Christensen’s narrative imposed order on an industry that sorely needed it.

To this day, entrepreneurs hate suits. The founder-CEOs of Silicon Valley view themselves as creative pioneers and management executives as mere profit-boosters. But alone among the stodgy crop of Ivy League MBAs, Christensen married the irreverent spirit of innovation to the staid pragmatism of the case study. His unique blend of analytical prowess, storytelling ability, and passion for innovation left an indelible mark on the tech industry.

Yet Christensen’s work had other applications. It could be interpreted as a philosophy of the well-lived life, one that prizes the durable and intangible, teaching the importance of deferred gratification. In an address at Harvard, Christensen argued that the short-term thinking that causes business failure also causes individual failure: “It’s really not until 20 years down the road that you can put your hands on your hips and say, ‘I raised a good son or a good daughter.’” Though his lessons have been most popular in the corporate realm, with such companies as Amazon proving that losing money in the short term is worth long-term value creation, Christensen’s legacy extends well beyond the boardroom.

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

The Last Trusted Prosecutor in Washington

John Durham may be the most consequential and least known figure in Washington right now. In May, U.S. attorney general William Barr selected Durham, a longtime prosecutor with a résumé so sterling it nearly glows, to investigate the origins of the special counsel’s probe into Russian interference in the ... Read More
Law & the Courts

The Last Trusted Prosecutor in Washington

John Durham may be the most consequential and least known figure in Washington right now. In May, U.S. attorney general William Barr selected Durham, a longtime prosecutor with a résumé so sterling it nearly glows, to investigate the origins of the special counsel’s probe into Russian interference in the ... Read More
World

WHO Failed

Since its inception 72 years ago almost to the day, the World Health Organization (WHO)  has been credited with the eradication of smallpox and the near eradication of other devastating illnesses, including leprosy and river blindness. This record of success makes the current corruption of the organization ... Read More
World

WHO Failed

Since its inception 72 years ago almost to the day, the World Health Organization (WHO)  has been credited with the eradication of smallpox and the near eradication of other devastating illnesses, including leprosy and river blindness. This record of success makes the current corruption of the organization ... Read More
Health Care

The Experts Lied to Us about Masks

When the stakes are highest, the truth counts the most. Or maybe when things get really serious, that’s when the people really can’t be trusted with the truth. It’s pretty clear which of these two ideas is the one that has been guiding elite medical, political, and journalistic institutions, isn’t it? ... Read More
Health Care

The Experts Lied to Us about Masks

When the stakes are highest, the truth counts the most. Or maybe when things get really serious, that’s when the people really can’t be trusted with the truth. It’s pretty clear which of these two ideas is the one that has been guiding elite medical, political, and journalistic institutions, isn’t it? ... Read More

The Trail Leading Back to the Wuhan Labs

It is understandable that many would be wary of the notion that the origin of the coronavirus could be discovered by some documentary filmmaker who used to live in China. Matthew Tye, who creates YouTube videos, contends he has identified the source of the coronavirus — and a great deal of the information that ... Read More

The Trail Leading Back to the Wuhan Labs

It is understandable that many would be wary of the notion that the origin of the coronavirus could be discovered by some documentary filmmaker who used to live in China. Matthew Tye, who creates YouTube videos, contends he has identified the source of the coronavirus — and a great deal of the information that ... Read More
World

A Curious Report from ABC News

Josh Margolin and James Gordon Meek of ABC News reported earlier today that the Trump Administration was warned in November 2019 about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan: As far back as late November, U.S. intelligence officials were warning that a contagion was sweeping through China’s Wuhan region, changing ... Read More
World

A Curious Report from ABC News

Josh Margolin and James Gordon Meek of ABC News reported earlier today that the Trump Administration was warned in November 2019 about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan: As far back as late November, U.S. intelligence officials were warning that a contagion was sweeping through China’s Wuhan region, changing ... Read More

The Eeyore Syndrome

In A. A. Milne's classic Winne-the-Pooh children’s tales, Eeyore, the old gray donkey, is perennially pessimistic and gloomy. He always expects the worst to happen. Milne understood that Eeyore’s outbursts of depression could at first be salutatory but then become monotonous. The outlook of the pessimist ... Read More

The Eeyore Syndrome

In A. A. Milne's classic Winne-the-Pooh children’s tales, Eeyore, the old gray donkey, is perennially pessimistic and gloomy. He always expects the worst to happen. Milne understood that Eeyore’s outbursts of depression could at first be salutatory but then become monotonous. The outlook of the pessimist ... Read More