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.