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 / Fourth Quarter 2001 / Issue 25(originally published by Booz & Company)


Clayton M. Christensen, The Thought Leader Interview

Lanky and soft-spoken, Dr. Christensen delivers his message with a dry wit that would be disarming were the message itself not so devastating. He emphasizes that understanding disruptive technologies is a highly valuable way for managers to frame how the world works and to create consistently innovative businesses. Companies that align their processes and values with the actions of innovators need not repeat the past, and can, indeed, seize wave after wave of new opportunities. And despite their power to bring down great companies, disruptive technologies serve the greater good, Dr. Christensen believes, noting that although established companies may suffer, customers usually benefit, as does humanity, in the broader context.

S+B: Let’s start way back, by talking about your observation of Digital Equipment in the late ’80s. What I found remarkable at the time was the speed with which it went from being on top of the world to being a disaster. How did you take a situation that seemed so extraordinary and extrapolate a more general rule for what happens to companies?

CHRISTENSEN: I didn’t know the answer at the beginning. But in my first career I had founded my own company, with a group of MIT professors, before coming to Harvard to finish my doctorate, and so I had a deep respect for the brains, talent, and dedication of managers. That made it hard for me to believe the attributions in the business press that stupid management was to blame. So I looked elsewhere for an explanation.

S+B: You went looking for an explanation for Digital’s rapid fall from grace and came up with a theory that appears to apply equally well to disk drives, excavation equipment, and consumer retail. How did you go about it?

CHRISTENSEN: Let me go back, if you wouldn’t mind, and give you a “theory of how theory is built.”

In the first stage of insight-building, all that researchers can do is observe phenomena. Second, they classify the phenomena in a way that helps them simplify the apparent complexities of the world so they can ignore the meaningless differences and draw connections between the things that really seem to matter. Third, based on the classification system, they propose a theory. The theory is a statement of what causes what and why, and under what circumstances.

Next, they use the theory to go back and say, “Now if this theory is right, when I go back into the world and look at more phenomena, under this particular circumstance, this is what I ought to see, and under that circumstance, that is what I ought to see.”

If the theory accurately predicts what they see, it confirms that it’s a good theory. If they see something that the theory didn’t lead them to believe, that’s what Thomas Kuhn calls an anomaly. The anomaly requires a revised theory — and you just keep going through the cycle, making a better theory. Ultimately, when you come up with a classification scheme that is collectively exhaustive and mutually exclusive, then the theory can become what Kuhn called a paradigm.

In the study of management, unfortunately, many writers have been so anxious to articulate a theory in the form of, “If you do this, this will result,” that they never go through this careful effort.

S+B: You mean they don’t take the time to observe the phenomena and derive a classification.

CHRISTENSEN: Right. Often they have a point of view based upon intuition and experience. They then offer a cadence of two-paragraph examples carefully selected to “prove” their theory, and then they write “one size fits all” books. The message is, “If you’d do what these companies did, you’d be successful too.”

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