Clayton Christensen: Just a guy from Rose Park

Published: Saturday, Nov. 27 2010 11:24 p.m. MST

Bailing out

"I always wanted to be a teacher," Christensen said, but financially it didn't make sense. So he continued working in the business world as he had, and he thinks that was the right decision at the time.

After Oxford, and after graduating from Harvard Business School with an MBA, he worked as a consultant and project manager with the Boston Consulting Group and helped start a company with several MIT professors. In between, he had a stint in Washington D.C. working as assistant to U.S. Transportation Secretaries Drew Lewis and Elizabeth Dole.

But then he hit the big 40th birthday and thoughts of teaching came back.

"My gosh!" he thought, "If I'm ever going to do it, I better do it. So with Christine's support, I decided to bail out."

He returned to Harvard.

"He got through the whole doctoral program very quickly. I think he did that as fast as anybody has," Christensen's son Matthew said. "I think it reflects how focused he is and how original his research was."

That research was the beginning of his theories on disruptive innovation which became the basis for his future success. The year he graduated with a doctorate, 1992, he was hired as a junior faculty member.

Only six years later — and one year after he published a bestselling book on his theories, he was given full tenure — the fastest path to full tenure than anybody ever had at Harvard Business School. "When you think about all the smart and gifted people who have been professors there I think that is really impressive," Matthew said.

Innovation rising

Clayton Christensen's work at Harvard established him as the king of the counterintuitive. His doctoral work and his subsequent books came out of the questions he asked during his research. He wondered how it could be that the best run, most promising, uber-successful companies often failed? What did these brilliant CEOs and managers of the best businesses do wrong?

"The answer, oddly, is that actually these people did everything right," Christensen said. "It is good management that sows the seeds of every successful company's ultimate demise."

He calls this process "disruptive innovation," a very specific term of art that describes the innovative business models built around technology. These business models bring new and simpler products to the bottom of markets where whole new customers can afford and use them. Then slowly they move up to the top of the market.

Christensen's theories on disruptive innovation were a smash hit in the business world with the publication of his influential 1997 breakout book "The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail."

That book, and the subsequent invitations to speak, present, advise and write, raised Christensen to be one of the business world's most sought after consultants. Nolan Archibald, the CEO of Black & Decker for 24 years and now Executive Chairman of the Stanley Black & Decker Corporation, remembers Christensen giving a seminar to 200 of the nation's top CEOs. "The respect and reverence that these CEOs had for this college professor Clayton Christensen is, I think, unparalleled."

Christensen's brother Carlton remembers asking his brother to come speak at his work. Christensen told him he couldn't because Bill Gates was having him speak to about 100 CEOs at his home for a few days. He then continued on in the conversation as if it wasn't a big deal.

"I think very few people would argue that he has had less than a huge impact on management practice," said Willy Shih, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. "I'm guessing a lot of people would aspire to have that impact."

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