Disruptive Innovation & Life
September 20, 2010 § 1 Comment
by Clayton M. Christensen
Clayton is Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. Authority on disruptive innovation, a framework which describes the process by which a product or service takes root initially in a simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves ‘up market’, eventually displacing established competitors.
His seminal book The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997), which first outlined his disruptive innovation frameworks, received the Global Business Book Award for the Best Business Book of the Year in 1997, was a New York Times bestseller, has been translated into over 10 languages, and is sold in over 25 countries.
Disruptive Innovation & Intel
Before I published The Innovator’s Dilemma, I got a call from Andrew Grove, then the chairman of Intel. He had read one of my early papers about disruptive technology, and he asked if I could talk to his direct reports and explain my research and what it implied for Intel. Excited, I flew to Silicon Valley and showed up at the appointed time, only to have Grove say, “We have only 10 minutes for you. Tell us what your model of disruption means for Intel.”
I said that I couldn’t—that I needed a full 30 minutes to explain the model, because only with it as context would any comments about Intel make sense. Ten minutes into my explanation, Grove interrupted: “Look, I’ve got your model. Just tell us what it means for Intel.”
I insisted that I needed 10 more minutes to describe how the process of disruption had worked its way through a very different industry, steel, so that he and his team could understand how disruption worked. I told the story of how Nucor and other steel mills had begun by attacking the lowest end of the market—steel reinforcing bars, or rebar and later moved up toward the high end, undercutting the traditional steel mills.
When I finished the minimal story, Grove said, “OK, I get it. What it means for Intel is…,” and then went on to articulate what would become the company’s strategy for going to the bottom of the market to launch the Celeron processor.
I’ve thought about that a million times since. If I had been suckered into telling Andy Grove what he should think about the microprocessor business, I’d have been killed. But instead of telling him what to think, I taught him how to think—and then he reached what I felt was the correct decision on his own.
That experience had a profound influence on me. When people ask what I think they should do, I rarely answer their question directly. Instead, I run the question aloud through one of my models. I’ll describe how the process in the model worked its way through an industry quite different from their own. And then, more often than not, they’ll say, “OK, I get it.” And they’ll answer their own question more insightfully than I could have.
How can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career?
The powerful motivator in our lives isn’t money; it’s the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements – Frederick Herzberg
Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team. More and more MBA students come to school thinking that a career in business means buying, selling, and investing in companies. That’s unfortunate. Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people.
Over the years I’ve watched the fates of my HBS classmates from 1979 unfold; I’ve seen more and more of them come to reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children.
I can guarantee you that not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them. And yet a shocking number of them implemented that strategy. The reason? They didn’t keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy.
It’s quite startling that a significant fraction of the 900 students that HBS draws each year from the world’s best have given little thought to the purpose of their lives. I tell the students that HBS might be one of their last chances to reflect deeply on that question. If they think that they’ll have more time and energy to reflect later, they’re nuts, because life only gets more demanding.
For me, having a clear purpose in my life has been essential. But it was something I had to think long and hard about before I understood it. When I was a Rhodes scholar, I was in a very demanding academic program, trying to cram an extra year’s worth of work into my time at Oxford.
I decided to spend an hour every night reading, thinking, and praying about why God put me on this earth. That was a very challenging commitment to keep, because every hour I spent doing that, I wasn’t studying applied econometrics. I was conflicted about whether I could really afford to take that time away from my studies, but I stuck with it and ultimately figured out the purpose of my life.
Had I instead spent that hour each day learning the latest techniques for mastering the problems of autocorrelation in regression analysis, I would have badly misspent my life. I apply the tools of econometrics a few times a year, but I apply my knowledge of the purpose of my life every day.
It’s the single most useful thing I’ve ever learned. I promise my students that if they take the time to figure out their life purpose, they’ll look back on it as the most important thing they discovered at HBS.
Clarity about their purpose will trump knowledge of activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, core competence, disruptive innovation, the four Ps, and the five forces.
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