Steve Blank Clayton Christensen

Do not say in sorrow that he is no longer – but live in recognition that he was

If you read my blog, you probably know who Clayton Christensen was. He passed away this week and it was a loss for all of us.

All those who write about innovation stood on his shoulders.

His ideas have transformed the language and practice of innovation.

Christensen changed the trajectory of my career and has been the star guide of my work on innovation. I could never say thank you.

Eye opening
I remember the first time I read the Dilemma of the innovator in 1997. Christensen, writing for a corporate audience, explained that there are two classes of products – durable and disruptive. His message was that existing businesses are excellent at supporting technologies and products, but ignored the threat of disruption.

He explained that companies have a penchant for continuous improvement of sustainable products by adding more functionality to solve existing customer problems, and although this maximized profit was a trap. Often the characteristics of sustainable products exceed the needs of certain segments and ignore the needs of others. The focus on sustainable products leaves an opening for new startups with products "good enough" (and ready to initially take lower profits) to enter underserved or unserved markets. These new entrants were the disruptors.

By targeting these neglected segments, new entrants could attract a larger customer base, iterate quickly, and adopt new improvements faster (because they have less infrastructure at risk). They finally crossed a threshold where they were not only cheaper, but also better or faster than the incumbent operator. And then, they would move upmarket on the markets of incumbent operators. At this tipping point, the legacy industry is collapsing. (See Kodak, Blockbuster, Nokia, etc.)

Christensen explained that it was not that existing companies did not see new technologies / products / markets. They worked this way because their existing business models did not allow them to initially take advantage of these opportunities – so they ignored them – and continued to seek higher profitability in the most demanding segments.

Reading the innovator's dilemma was a revelation. Essentially, Christensen explained how disruptive people with few resources could eat the incumbents' lunch. When I finished, I should have 25 pages of notes. I had never read anything so clear and, above all, so immediately applicable to what we were going to undertake.

We had just started an enterprise software company, Epiphany, and we were one of those disruptors. I remember looking at my notes and I realized that I was holding a step-by-step game book to rotate the rings around the holders. It only remained for me to exploit all the gaps and weaknesses inherent in the companies in place.

We were doing.

Thanks, Clay, for opening your eyes.

The impact of Christensen did not stop there. Over the past 20 years, it has inspired me to think differently about innovation and teaching.

Build better startups
After I retired, I started to think about the nature of Start Innovation and Entrepreneurship. It occurred to me that the implicit assumption that startups operated was that startups were simply smaller versions of large companies. Over time, I realized it was wrong – big companies realized known business models, while startups sought for them.

I came back and reread Dilemma of the innovator then a ton of literature on business innovation. My goal was to figure out how to crack the code for startups like Christensen did for business. My first book The Four Steps to Epiphany was a pale shade of his work, but it got the job done. Customer development has become one of the three parts of Lean Startup, as Eric Ries and Alexander Osterwalder have provided the other two components (Agile Engineering and the business model). Today, the stack of books on innovation and entrepreneurship of startups probably equates to the literature on business innovation.

Teach a different innovator
Unlike business executives, founders are closer to artists than leaders – they see things that others do not see and spend their careers trying to bring this vision to life. This passion propels them through the inevitable ups and downs of success and failure. Therefore, for the founders, entrepreneurship was not a job, but a vocation.

Understanding the students that Clay was teaching gave me the confidence that we had to do something different. The result was Lean LaunchPad, I-Corps and Hacking for Defense – classes for a different type of student who emulated the start-up experience.

Drop the curtain on the theater of innovation
The next phase of my career has been to understand why the tools we have created for startups have failed (ie the theater of innovation) in business and government agencies, rather than create real innovation.

Again, I referred to the work of Christensen not only in the dilemma of innovators, but also in the solution of innovators. He had introduced the idea that customers are not buying a product, rather than hiring it for a "job to do". And proposed a set of heuristics to launch disruptive businesses.

I realized what he and other management thinkers had understood for a long time. That if you don't involve the other parts of the organization to enable innovation, existing processes and procedures will strangle innovation in its cradle. Ultimately, businesses and government agencies have doctrine of innovation – a set of shared beliefs about how innovation is practiced – and innovation pipeline – an end-to-end process for the delivery and deployment of innovation.

Thank you, Clay for all the inspiration to see further as an educator.

How to measure your life
For me, Clay's most important lesson, the one that put his work in context, was his book How to Measure Your Life.

In this document, Christensen reminded all of us to put the purpose of our lives at the center of our concerns when we decide how to spend our time, talents and energy. And in the end, the measure of a life is not time. It’s the impact that you are making in the service of God, your family, your community and your country. Your report is whether the world is a better place.

It touched us all and made us better.

Thank you, Clay, for reminding us of what is important.

You left us far too early.

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