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Applying Christensen’s Work to Life and Business

Generations are influenced by his theories on disruptive innovation.

calendar icon April 3, 2020

Clayton Christensen passed away on January 23, 2020. His theories on disruptive innovation have had a huge impact on a generation of entrepreneurs and executives. Silicon Valley legends Andy Grove of Intel, Reed Hastings of Netflix, and Steve Jobs of Apple were deeply influenced by Innovator’s Dilemma. The theory of “Jobs to Be Done” has transformed the way scores of successful disruptors create products and services that customers want to buy. In the weeks since his death, there have been countless tributes to the profound influence of his work.

Count me among the many admirers of Clayton Christensen. I’ve spent the bulk of my career practicing innovation — as an entrepreneur and a venture capitalist. I’ve helped to build and guide emerging companies, learning from both the failures and the successes. As I reflect on Christensen’s life and work, these three refrains have most shaped my beliefs about leadership and entrepreneurship.

Humility first.

Christensen was himself a humble man, and wrote about the importance of taking a sense of humility into the world. In How Will You Measure Your Life, he encouraged us to see the value in learning from every person no matter their age or status. For successful companies at the top of their game, he advised leaders on how to keep listening, and to avoid the arrogance that often precedes a downfall. 

In my own experience, humility is the most important trait for survival in the disrupt-or-be-disrupted game. When enterprise executives stay humble, they avoid overestimating what they know about customers and markets, and develop a culture of receptivity to new ideas. When start-up founders are humble, they listen to feedback even when it’s uncomfortable, and acknowledge the interdependency and contributions of every team member, creating resilient and adaptive companies that endure.

Humility is key to being a good listener. Early on, I learned the value of listening over talking. I’ve been involved in countless investor meetings and start up pitches. There are those who want to be seen as the smartest person in the room, and those who ask the perfect, pointed question that helps frame and focus ideas. Humility is having the confidence to hear all views and to lift up the goals of the group, not the individual. 

Staying true to purpose is hard.

Christensen would say that clarity of purpose drives good decisions on where and how to invest resources.  Most start-ups are founded with a strong sense of purpose. At the outset, most people who start companies are fueled by an intrinsic motivation to find solutions to problems. 

But over time the pressures of staying accountable to investors, shareholders, employees and customers can derail purpose-driven decision making. As companies grow it becomes harder to stay true to purpose. The focus many times shifts to short-term goals like growth or stock price, and  purpose becomes more complex and “nuanced” (i.e., diluted). Yet it is the companies that continue to come back to purpose as a touchstone that seem to most consistently navigate challenges, maintain a strong culture and earn the loyalty of customers.

Collaborative innovation is more important than ever.

Christensen wrote the Innovator’s Dilemma over two decades ago — when the world was less connected; the Internet was still emerging as a backbone for global communication — it was before cloud computing and mobile ubiquity. These advances have made it possible for companies to reach consumers at a pace he could not have imagined in 1997, yet I believe his theories of disruption are more relevant than ever. 

Put customers first. What are the Jobs to be Done? Don’t rely on data alone and don’t mistake  correlation with causality. Look for the anomalies. Get outside the walls of your own organization (and your own mindset) to find new insights. These concepts are now part of our everyday toolkit, in part thanks to Christensen. 

The forces of disruption aren’t changing, just getting faster. That’s why it’s more important than ever to pursue innovation collaboratively. No one organization, team or leader is able to spot all the opportunities or detect every threat.

This frames our purpose at Startgrid. The world’s most pressing problems can only be solved through a blend of perspectives and approaches. We believe that a collaborative, connected innovation model is the best inoculation against the forces of disruption. There has never been a greater supply of brilliant technology in the world, nor has there been such strong demand for these breakthroughs. Connecting that supply and demand is the challenge we’re passionate about solving. Clayton Christensen’s insights guide that journey.