Unless you’re an avid reader of the sort of books CEOs tote around, you may not have heard of Clayton Christensen. You have, however, felt the impact of his work. Christensen, who died at 67 on Thursday due to complications from cancer treatment, is the scholar responsible for coining the term ‘disruptive innovation.’ You know, disruption – the word all your favourite tech tycoons like to bandy about.
Christensen first published his disruptive innovation theory back in 1995 in the Harvard Business Review. It later picked up steam after the publication of his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. Put simply, the theory defines a ‘disruptive innovation’ as one that creates a new market by upending an existing one that came before it. Central to the theory is that disruptive innovations start off as cheaper alternatives that mostly appeal to a niche market, before eventually overtaking big-name competitors. A common example is the Ford Model T, which was the first accessible and affordable car to replace horse-drawn carriages. (Mass-produced automobiles, which started with the Model T, are considered disruptive under Christensen’s theory, but cars that came before it were so expensive, only rich people could buy them.)
The Innovator’s Dilemma quickly earned a spot on many tech CEOs’ reading lists. Intel CEO Andy Grove famously stood up at COMDEX, a trade show in Las Vegas, and touted it as the most important book he’d read in a decade. Steve Jobs was also a fan; according to his biographer Walter Isaacson, Christensen’s book was the only business tome on Jobs’s list of most influential books. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings reportedly had 25-30 Netflix employees discuss the book at a company retreat. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also had his top executives read another Christensen book, The Innovator’s Solution. Given how Silicon Valley basically worships this book and the phrase ‘disruption,’ you could call Christensen the OG influencer of influencers.
The rest, as they say, is history. Now you can barely go two seconds in a tech company’s press conference before some executive proposes disrupting something. That said, ‘disruption’ in common use has since morphed further away from Christensen’s original theory. These days, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and media have often used it incorrectly to describe “new” or “novel” technologies or products.
The term’s widespread misuse had reportedly left Christensen feeling chagrined. In a 2016 Quartz interview, Christensen lamented that the term disruption meant a lot of things to different people who then used it as justification to do whatever they wanted without actually understanding the theory or reading his book.
“The population of people where the fewest have read the book are venture capitalists,” Christensen told Quartz. “They are arrogant and smart and why do they need to read something.” When asked how he felt about being associated with the ‘powerful brand of disruption,’ Christensen replied, “I have never wanted to be famous.”
So next time you hear a tech bro use the term ‘disruption’ incorrectly, maybe do Christensen a solid and tell them why they’re wrong.
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