Innovation is like the weather. It’s always changing and sometimes arrives in powerful bursts.

Disruptive Innovation

We lost one of the world’s most influential management thinkers, Clayton Christensen, to cancer on Jan 23, 2020. Christensen’s theory on “disruptive innovation” in 1995 made him a key influencer to executives at leading companies, including Apple, Amazon, Intel, Netflix and many others. Disruptive innovation describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.

The theory is that incumbents nearly always win when the pace of technological progress involves incremental or “sustaining innovations.” However, new entrants nearly always win when “disruptive innovations” occur which requires a combination of 1) enabling technology, 2) an innovative business model, and 3) a coherent value network to succeed.

A classic example is Cisco disrupting the telephony industry (Lucent, Nortel et. al.) by starting with lower value data networks, much as telephony did to telegraphs decades earlier. Google Docs has approached Microsoft Word in a similar fashion by targeting students and small businesses instead of large enterprises. Dell’s direct-to-customer model is one of many other examples.

How Do You Measure Your Life?

In 2010, Christensen gave a powerful speech to the Harvard Business School’s graduating class. Drawing upon his business research, he offered a series of guidelines for finding meaning and happiness in life. Christensen had just overcome the same type of cancer that had taken his father’s life. As Christensen struggled with the disease, the question “How do you measure your life?” became more urgent and poignant, and he began to share his insights more widely with family, friends, and students.

Christensen used examples from his own experiences to explain how high achievers frequently fall into traps that lead to unhappiness. We tend to spend our extra time on things that deliver the greatest evidence of achievement, our work, instead of making longer-term investments in family and friends. Christensen says that our lives are not measured by an aggregation of money, power and possessions but rather how we respond to help people in our individual situations along the way.