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


Clayton M. Christensen, The Thought Leader Interview

One reason there are so many short-lived management fads is that their prescriptions were derived and advocated in precisely this way. So managers read about a fad and try it, find that it doesn’t work, abandon the effort, and move on to the next thing. In reality, it is usually the case that the faddish prescription was indeed sound advice in certain circumstances, but actually was poor advice in other circumstances.

Year after year after year, people write books about managing innovation or about leadership, for example, without ever going through the pain of saying, “This kind of leadership will cause this result in these circumstances and a very different result in those circumstances.” This is academic malpractice of the worst kind. I’ve concluded that getting the categories right is an absolutely crucial step to building useful management theory, and unfortunately too few writers do this. You’ve got to engage in serious scholarship, and then figure out how to write it in a way that lots of people can understand.

I was lucky enough to build on the work of a number of people who had already run laps around this theory-building track. The original classification scheme, years ago, distinguished radical from incremental change. The theory said that established firms managed incremental change well, but would be expected to founder when their industry encountered a radical change.

Then Rebecca Henderson, who teaches at MIT, studied the photolithographic aligner industry, where the leader had failed in each of three product generations. She observed that when the architecture of the product changed, the leaders failed. As long as the technological changes involved were at the component level rather than the architecture level, the leaders did fine.

She proposed a classification scheme and theory that asserted, “In modular change, the leader will succeed. But in architectural change, the leader will fail, because organizations are structured and people have learned to interact in patterns defined by the product architecture.” This is a simplification of her profound work.

S+B: From that theory you progressed to your concept of disruptive versus sustaining innovations?

CHRISTENSEN: Right. So I used Rebecca’s theory, and studied the disk-drive industry to see if her theory held up in another circumstance. If you want to make better theory, you’ve got to use the best that’s available and look through the lens of another discipline to see if you can uncover more anomalies. By looking at the phenomena of failure from the perspective of sales, marketing, finance, general management, and the equity markets, I was able to see things that Rebecca hadn’t. I owe her a huge debt.

When I was writing my doctoral thesis about disk drives, I could see that this related to the computer industry and Digital Equipment’s demise. But it wasn’t yet clear how robust this classification scheme of disruptive versus sustaining was for other industries.

S+B: Disk drives and computers are really two branches of the same industry. It’s much more of a leap to excavators or steel mills.

CHRISTENSEN: Absolutely. It took time for it to dawn on me that I had discovered something more general, and in many ways I was just lucky.

I remembered, for example, that [when I was] a child these huge cable excavators made by Northwest Engineering were moved in next door to dig a big ditch; and it hit me that Northwest, Bucyrus Erie, and all the other brands I remembered weren’t around any more. So I researched the industry and saw the same thing — hydraulic machines disrupting cable ones.

I then presented this to the faculty in our area, saying, “Hey, it looks like the same thing happened in hydraulic excavators as in disk drives.” One of my most trusted senior colleagues said to me afterward, “You need to get off this disruption stuff. If you’re going to get tenure you’ve got to do another research project.”

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