Clayton Christensen

Dr. Clayton Christensen died on Thursday January 23rd, 2020.

I was sad to hear the news. He was management thinker that changed how companies think about innovation. He created a consulting practice, an investment firm and a think tank to fully explore all of the implications of that ground-breaking research.

The best obituary I read was in the Salt Lake City’s Deseret News.

The best profile is Larissa MacFarquhar’s 2012 piece that ran in The New Yorker.

As an author, Christensen wrote ten books over his lifetime. His most famous was the cornerstone for all of it. If you are not familiar with it, here is my review of The Innovator’s Dilemma from The 100 Best Business Books of All Time:

“Many in book publishing have a romanticized view of the industry’s origin, beginning with Johannes Gutenburg and the movable-type press he invented in 1453. While that treasured form has changed little in the past five and a half centuries, the way the book is sold and distributed has changed dramatically in the last thirty years. Independent bookstores first struggled against the mall chains of Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, then the big-box retailers such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, and now the online superstore, Amazon. And these retail redistributions pale in comparison for the tectonic shifts that lie ahead in the form of print-on-demand and electronic distribution of books. In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen shows how management practices that typically serve executives will fail in the face of just such disruptive innovation.

Christensen begins by drawing a distinction between two types of innovation. In the first, everything from new products to customer service is designed to meet customers’ demands. In the normal course of business, customers pay the bills, and writing those checks gives them significant influence over an organization’s decision making. New ideas and new opportunities, evaluated on their ability to serve existing customers and earn the necessary margins to support the company, are called sustaining innovations and are always successful ventures for existing (and dominant) firms.

But sometimes, innovation creates a new technology or reveals a new way to organize a firm’s resources. This disruptive innovation does not offer the performance needed in the existing market, and entrant companies are forced to find a new set of customers who value innovation on a different set of metric than those of the traditional market. Existing companies disregard the disruptive innovation because of the lower margins, and the newcomers find a small beachhead outside the existing market, using that market space to develop further. As the performance of disruptive innovation outpaces the sustaining innovations, entrants move into established markets and their lower cost structures forces incumbents further up-market, forfeiting existing profitable markets.

Clayton Christensen provides an array of case studies in The Innovator’s Dilemma, including how the steel industry is still at the mercy of the disruptive innovation of minimills. Using scrap steel over iron ore, minimills require one-tenth the scale and can produce steel at 15 percent lower cost than traditional integrated steel mills. When minimills first emerged in the 1960’s, they were able to produce only low-quality rebar. The integrated mills were happy to cede this low end, price sensitive market. What the incumbents missed was the minimills’ desire to move further into their markets. With a completely different cost structure and technology that was improving faster than existing methods, minimills began producing structural steel and sheet metal. Minimills now account for 50 percent of the steel made in the United States, and here is the amazing part: at no point did an existing steel company using integrated mills construct a minimill to take advantage of the disruptive innovation.

To suggest that the integrated steel mills simply hid their heads in the sand would be too easy. Christensen says most markets that serve as the launch point for disruptive innovation are too small for large organizations to concentrate on. These emerging markets lack clear evidence that they will turn out profitable. When disruptive technologies are being developed, the applications for them are unpredictable, and worse, companies are misled when they attempt to use the same tools from their mature markets. In nearly every case, disruptive innovation, a new set of companies rises to dominate the industry.

For disruptive innovation to flourish, says Christensen, companies need to create the right organizational structure. Companies often start by promoting successful managers to lead new efforts, but without addressing the processes and values of the new group, the leadership will start to make decisions the same way it always has. Disruptive innovation requires an autonomous organization with the appropriate cost structure to address the emerging markets. In the 1970s, the motor controls industry was disrupted by programmable logic controllers (PLCs), and the only company to successfully traverse the disruption was Rockwell Automation. The Milwaukee-based company did so by investing in two smaller companies shortly after the introduction of PLCs and combining them into a separate division, which pitted them against its existing electromechanical division. Rockwell showed that it is possible to establish dominance during a period of disruptive innovation while maintaining market leadership in the traditional product.

While the innovator’s dilemma stems from uncontrollable external pressures, dealing with it is an internal dilemma. Managers lack the information and experience needed to make confident investments in disruptive technology. The tried and true resource allocation process favors current customers and their needs., starving incubatory projects of needed love and attention. And to survive the innovation pipeline, the disruptive technology needs the marketing leader to new clients who appreciate the current capabilities. As performance improves, the customers who showed no interest in the initial idea are exactly the ones who will be clamoring for it.”

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