To Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, coauthor of How Will You Measure Your Life?, a primary task of leadership is asking questions that anticipate great challenges. Here is a brief excerpt from an interview conducted by Art Kleiner for strategy+business magazine, published by Bain & Company. To read the complete interview, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register for email alerts, please click here.
Photograph by Evgenia Eliseeva
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This is the second interview we’ve published with Harvard Business School professor and author Clayton Christensen. The first appeared back in 2001. Four years before, Christensen had published The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Harvard Business School Press, 1997). When his keenly original theory of disruption first appeared, it seemed like an audacious and counterintuitive view of organizational change. But it soon evolved into conventional business wisdom. And now he is applying it to a deeper question: “What is life for?”
In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen argued that as companies focus their attention on their best and most reliable customers, they can all too easily overlook the threat of disruption from young upstart competitors. Those competitors, exercising their creativity, develop innovative capabilities and reach customers that the incumbents ignore. Sooner or later, the upstarts steal the market with their better, less-expensive new ways of solving customers’ problems.
Christensen has always had an entrepreneurial bent, and this clearly colors his approach. Before arriving at Harvard Business School, he founded the CPS Technologies Corporation, a manufacturer of thermal management materials (originally called the Ceramics Process Systems Corporation), and he is a cofounder of a small Boston-based consulting firm called Innosight. His ideas are particularly valuable for established industries that seek to respond effectively to the disruption coming seemingly out of nowhere.
In recent years, he has applied this approach to healthcare (The Innovator’s Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Health Care, with Jerome H. Grossman and Jason Hwang, McGraw-Hill, 2008), education (Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, with Michael Horn and Curtis W. Johnson, McGraw-Hill, 2008), and, most recently, the personal side of leadership.
Written as a reflection on the fulfillment of life’s purpose after a series of severe medical problems (including cancer and a stroke), Christensen’s most recent book, How Will You Measure Your Life? (coauthored with James Allworth and Karen Dillon, HarperBusiness, 2012), has struck a chord with many business leaders. It links the discipline of managing disruption to the kind of long-term thinking that is necessary if one is to step past today’s pressures and build a strong personal and professional legacy. In late 2012, Christensen spoke with strategy+business by phone from his home outside Boston.
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S+B: How did you develop the concept of measuring your life?
Christensen: I had always aspired as a researcher to develop models that were robust enough to relate to any level in a hierarchy, from a national economy to an industry to a corporation to a business unit to a team. A good theory is really a fundamental statement of causality, and it ought to be as applicable to a business unit as it is to a nation, or vice versa.
In all my work, I’ve looked for universal principles—starting with my doctoral thesis in the early 1990s, which was the original study of disruption in the disk drive industry [which I wrote about in The Innovator’s Dilemma]. I was trying to explain why it was so hard for successful disk drive companies to sustain their success, generation after generation. I’d concluded that the success of their past practices made it difficult to react effectively to new disruptive competitors.
At first, when I finished, I thought I had a model that applied only to the disk drive industry. Then I remembered that during the Cuban missile crisis, which had happened when I was a boy in 1962, my neighbors hired a steam shovel to dig a bomb shelter in their basement. The steam shovel was manufactured by Northwest Engineering, a company that died in the early 1980s because its products were made obsolete by hydraulic excavators. So, later, when I knew someone who worked for an excavating company, I went over to see him one night and described what I’d found in the disk drive industry, and he said the same thing had happened with big digging machines. “There must be something to this,” I thought, “if it explains hydraulic excavators and disk drives.”
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
In my opinion, Crossing the Chasm (1991) and Inside the Tornado (1995) are most valuable when read in combination. In fact, I strongly recommend that they be read at least once a year, in combination, because Moore’s insights in both will become even more relevant as a global marketplace that both exands in terms of scope and depth and contracts in its of terms of engagement, especially focus on localities, niches, and analytics. Moreover, the relevance includes but is not limited to the high tech community.
Chasm “is unabashedly about and for marketing within high-tech enterprises.” It was written initialky for he entire high tech community “to open up the marketing decision making during this [crossing] period so that everyone on the management team can participate in the marketing process.” In Chasm, Moore isolates and then corrects what he describes as a “fundamental flaw in the prevailing high-tech marketing model”: the notion that rapid mainstream growth could follow continuously on the heels of early market success.
Moore defines a market as a set of actual or potential customers for a given set of products or services who have a common set of needs or wants, and who reference each other when making a buying decision. The final point may be the least intuitive, but Moore says, “the notion that part of what defines a high-tech market is the tendency of its members to reference each other when making buying decisions– is absolutely key to successful high-tech marketing.”
Many business plans are based on a traditional Technology Adoption Life Cycle, a smooth bell curve of high tech customers, progressing from Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority, and finally Laggards. In turn, this model becomes the foundation for a high-tech marketing model which says the way to develop a market is to work the curve from left to right, progressively winning each group of users, using each “captured” group as a reference for the next. Moore demonstrates that in fact, there are cracks in the curve, between each phase of the cycle, representing a disassociation between any two groups; that is, “the difficulty any group will have in accepting a new product if it is presented the same way as it was to the group to its immediate left.” The largest crack, so large it can be considered a chasm, is between the Early Adopters and the Early Majority. Many (most) high tech ventures fail trying to make it across this chasm.
Early Adopters are the rare breed of visionaries “who have the insight to match an emerging technology to a strategic opportunity driven by a ‘dream’. The core dream is a business goal, not a technology goal, and it involves taking a quantum leap forward in how business is conducted in their industry or by their customers…Visionaries drive the high-tech industry because they see the potential for an ‘order-of-magnitude’ return on investment and willingly take high risks to pursue that goal. They will work with vendors who have little or not funding… As a buying group, visionaries are easy to sell but very hard to please… because they are buying a dream…They want to start out with a pilot project, which makes sense because they are ‘going where no man has gone before’ and you are going with them. This is followed by more project work, conducted in phases with milestones, and the like.”
According to Moore, “You can succeed with the visionaries, and you can thereby get a reputation for being a high flyer with a hot product, but that is not ultimately where the dollars are. Instead, those funds are in the hands of more prudent souls who do not want to be pioneers”
The Early Majority are pragmatists who “care about the company they are buying from, the quality of the product they are buying, the infrastructure of supporting products and system interfaces, and the reliability of the service they are going to get… Pragmatists tend to be ‘vertically’ oriented, meaning that they communicate more with others like themselves within their own industry than do technology enthusiasts and early adopters… It is very difficult to break into a new industry selling to pragmatists. References and relationships are very important…Pragmatists won’t buy from you until you are established, yet you can’t get established until they buy from you….”
Moore notes that, “On the other hand, once a startup has earned its spurs with the pragmatist buyers within a given vertical market, they tend to be very loyal to it, and even go out of their way to help it succeed. When this happens, the cost of sales goes way down, and the leverage on incremental R&D to support any given customer goes way up. That’s one of the reasons pragmatists make such a great market: “They like to see competition… Pragmatists want to buy from proven market leaders because they know third parties will design supporting products around a market- leading products… aftermarket…
“Overall, to market to pragmatists, you must be patient. You need to be conversant with the issues that dominate their particular business. You need to show up at the industry-specific conferences and trade shows they attend. You need to be mentioned in articles that run in magazines they read. You need to be installed in other companies in their industry. You need to have developed applications that are specific to their industry. You need to have partnerships and alliances with the other vendors who serve their industry. You need to have earned a reputation for quality and service.
In my opinion, the best sources for those with a special interest in disruptive technologies are the books that Clayton Christensen has authored or co-authored, notably The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth, and Seeing What’s Next: Using the Theories of Innovation to Predict Industry Change.