The Essential Clayton Christensen Articles

Executive Summary

Clayton M. Christensen is best known for his theory of “disruptive innovation,” but he published a number of seminal articles on management, exploring everything from organizational structure to product innovation; financial tools to mergers and acquisitions. Here is a collection of 11 essential articles.

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Editor’s note: Clayton Christensen died on Jan. 23, 2020. Here we present some of his seminal HBR pieces through an adaptation of the introduction to the book The Clayton M. Christensen Reader.

Clayton M. Christensen is best known for his theory of disruptive innovation, in which he warns large, established companies of the danger of becoming too good at what they do best. To grow profit margins and revenue, he observes, such companies tend to develop products to satisfy the demands of their most sophisticated customers. As successful as this strategy may be, it means that those companies also tend to ignore opportunities to meet the needs of less sophisticated customers — who may eventually form much larger markets. An upstart can therefore introduce a simpler product that is cheaper and thus becomes more widely adopted (a “disruptive innovation”). Through incremental innovation, that product is refined and moves upmarket, completing the disruption of the original company.

Christensen’s work on disruption is nuanced and often misunderstood. Not every hugely innovative technology is “disruptive” (though you wouldn’t know that from the way journalists and tech enthusiasts throw the word around). Not every start-up will beat the incumbent. Not every big company is going to be disrupted. Reading Christensen’s original Harvard Business Review articles on disruption yields a more accurate picture of his theory and how businesses can prepare for and overcome the threat he describes.

Much of that picture comes from the case studies embedded in each article. Christensen was a deliberate storyteller, and his business examples serve as parables; compelling and memorable, they give readers the context to apply his ideas to their own industries. Those who know Christensen’s work are familiar with the success of steel minimills (disrupters!) and the fate of Digital Equipment Corporation (disrupted!); they know what goes into the creation of the best milk shake (a product with a job to do) and why the iPod was the MP3 player that really took off (an innovative business model). In “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Christensen reflects on his use of storytelling to persuade one powerful CEO to change strategy and go to the bottom of the market. “If I’d 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 [told him the story of the minimills and] taught him how to think.” Christensen’s articles do the same for readers.

Here we’ve collected the most essential and influential of Christensen’s HBR articles. In them, Christensen examines many different pieces of the disruption puzzle. Understanding those pieces is critical for strategy teams, product development units, and organizational leaders. They include:

The threat of disruptive innovation: the core theory of why bad things happen to good companies. “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave” is the big-picture “why is this a problem” article warning established companies that a seemingly rational concern with profit margins can have disastrous results. It outlines several classic examples — primarily disk drives, along with Apple and Digital Equipment Corporation — to show that there is a pattern big companies should pay attention to.

Organizational structure:Meeting the Challenge of Disruptive Change” describes how leaders can structure their organizations to allow the kinds of innovation that stave off disruption. Here Christensen runs Digital Equipment Corporation through his framework to show how it can be used to explain that company’s infamous reversal of fortune.

Product innovation:Marketing Malpractice: The Cause and the Cure” again asks why good managers struggle to innovate successfully, this time focusing on the discipline of product innovation itself, rather than on organizational and management structures. By understanding the tasks that customers look to a product for (the “job to be done”), a company can develop offerings — products, services, and whole brands — that customers truly value. Christensen uses the “milk shake” example to show how product developers should be considering their task.

The financial tools in the way: Established financial incentives often make it unattractive for companies to innovate. In “Innovation Killers: How Financial Tools Destroy Your Capacity to Do New Things,” Christensen and his coauthors target metrics such as discounted cash flow, net present value, and earnings per share, along with attitudes towards fixed and sunk costs. They suggest that leaders take up other methods for evaluating investments — ones that consider future value.

Business model innovation: Product innovations might be necessary, but to be truly disruptive, they often need to be delivered to the market through new business models. In “Reinventing Your Business Model,” Christensen and his coauthors describe how to determine if your company needs a new business model and what makes one successful, using examples ranging from Apple’s iTunes to CVS’s MinuteClinics.

The role of business models in M&A: To reinvent their business models, companies sometimes decide to merge with or acquire another firm. But the failure rate of M&A is somewhere between 70% and 90%. “The New M&A Playbook” explains that the failures often stem from a lack of clarity about why a merger or acquisition is being pursued. Companies need to consider whether they are really after business model reinvention or are simply looking to bolster their current model. These purposes demand very different implementations of a deal — from paying the right price to determining how employees and other resources will be handled.

Where your industry’s future growth lies: If disruption is predictable, we should be able to step back and look at markets as a whole to understand how disruption will change an industry over time. “Skate to Where the Money Will Be” describes a pattern of evolution of markets and industries that can help managers see where their next source of profits will be — so that they don’t find themselves outpaced by another company in that new sphere.

The extendable core: How do you know how big a particular threat to your business actually is? “Surviving Disruption” helps you calculate the strengths of your own potential disrupter’s business model along with your own relative advantages and determine what conditions could keep your disrupter from triumphing. Christensen and his coauthor build on the jobs-to-be-done theory and introduce the “extendable core” — the part of a disrupter’s business model that enables it to keep undercutting you as it creeps upmarket into your territory.

Disruptive innovation, revisited: The ideas summed up in the phase “disruptive innovation” have become a powerful part of business thinking in the 20 years since they were introduced — but they’re in danger of losing their usefulness, because they’ve been misunderstood and misapplied. In “What is Disruptive Innovation?” Christensen and his coauthors revisit the essential concepts, show the importance of using the term precisely, and share what they have learned from two decades’ application of the idea in the field.

What makes good management theory: By testing a business theory with the scientific method — by conducting a reality check — we can learn whether the theory will really help us predict the future. “Why Hard-Nosed Executives Should Care About Management Theory,” argues for a more rigorous testing of theories so that managers can gain a better sense of whether an idea is relevant to their specific situation.

A personal strategy: Christensen extends his examination to the personal realm, arguing that bad things sometimes happen to good people because those people lack a strategy for their lives. In “How Will You Measure Your Life?” he uses concepts from business to challenge readers to manage their careers and personal lives in a way that leads to lasting satisfaction.

To Christensen, the role of every general manager is to lay a foundation for future growth. To that end, managers need to understand disruptive innovation, the threat it poses, and how to lead their teams and organizations to create growth that can keep pace with ever-evolving technologies, industries, and customers.

This article is adapted from The Clayton M. Christensen Reader (Harvard Business Review Press, 2016)

Clayton Christensen, the Gentle Giant of Innovation

Executive Summary

Clayton M. Christensen viewed management as the noblest of professions — not because of managers’ ability to execute plans or make money, but because of their ability to impact the human lives of those they managed, writes his friend and coauthor Michael B. Horn. With his passing on Jan. 23, the world lost a luminary who leaves behind a treasure trove of writings, recordings, and influential relationships that will inspire innovators and thinkers in all fields for generations to come.

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It is said that Abraham Lincoln had a high-pitched voice with a shrill quality to it. When he began his speeches, the audience at first wondered if this tall man was indeed the great orator of whom they had heard.

But as Lincoln’s words washed over them and Lincoln fell into a rhythm, the audience was soon mesmerized — both by the words they heard and how they were delivered.

When Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen began a speech, it was similar. Instead of thunder and lightning, his speech was slow and methodical, soft and unassuming. But as Christensen — a tall man himself at 6′ 8″ — dove into his stories and began teaching how the world worked, he gained steam and cast a spell over a mesmerized audience.

When I shared this observation with Christensen — or Clay, as I called my mentor, friend, coauthor, and cofounder — he discounted it, with his characteristic humility. But that isn’t to say it wasn’t true.

In the hundreds of instances I saw Clay speak, even after his first stroke hindered his speech, he would sweep the audience to its feet with the eloquence of his thoughts and insights.

It’s those words and thought patterns, but also his fundamental humanity, compassion, and humility that I will miss so much. With Clay’s passing on Jan. 23, the world lost a luminary who leaves behind a treasure trove of writings, recordings, and influential relationships that will inspire innovators and thinkers in all fields for generations to come.

Clay was a master of using analogies from distant, seemingly unrelated fields to distill complicated problems to their essence and see solutions that others could not envision. He thought through diagrams and stories, which enabled him to develop a set of broadly generalizable theories that held explanatory power across different industries. He could tackle such seemingly unrelated challenges as a company’s growth, financial investing, education, health care, global prosperity, green energy, and more, because, from his vantage point, he had seen some of the very same problems elsewhere before.

As he worked across fields, rather than assume that inconvenient facts or observations were wrong, Clay saw anomalies to his theories not as problems or “statistical noise,” but as opportunities to refine and improve them — or correct how he had applied them. It’s why he had a sign outside his office that said “Anomalies Wanted.”

Clay of course had flaws, as all individuals do — and as with many individuals, those flaws were often endearing parts of his personality. Modest to the point of not interjecting a thought sometimes, he could allow misunderstandings to linger. When he told you that an idea you expressed was “interesting,” he was occasionally being genuine, but more often he was acting as a patient coach, helping you to discover where you were missing something.

He was the consummate Socratic-style professor — as the Harvard Business School teaches its faculty to be — seeking not to provide answers, but instead to ask questions to help people learn how to think, not what to think. He avoided conflict. Only rarely would someone, in his opinion, so cross the bounds of fairness or intellectual honesty that they deserved a rebuke, in which case few could be as withering and pointed in their criticisms. But for the most part, he met criticism with kindness, challenges as opportunities, and interactions as chances to inspire and praise.

It was from Clay that I learned the importance of crafting the right organizational structure when I communicated, as without it, the logic would be lost. Clay was fond of saying that he never knew how complicated something was until he tried to write about it, but writing could help untangle many of the challenges until it was time to implement, test, and learn.

Once you see the world through Clay’s landmark theories of disruption and innovation, you can’t un-see them. They pervade everything in your life. They are the lenses through which I think about everything I see in the world — so much so that at this point, much of my writing and speaking voice is in many ways inseparable from that of Clay’s. It’s just who I am.

Clay didn’t just impact me in this way. We often talk about coaching trees in football and basketball. In addition to the countless organizations, CEOs, and students he transformed, Clay leaves an impressive tree himself. From Bob Moesta to Scott Anthony and Michael Raynor, and from Karen Dillon and James Allworth to Efosa Ojomo and many, many more, Clay’s legacy isn’t just in what he produced, but in the people he affected.

Clay took a lot of pride in the people he helped launch. He spent significant energy on these endeavors — in part, I imagine, because he always believed that he had the best job in the world, where he got to learn more from his students than they learned from him. Clay himself said in “How Will You Measure Your Life?”:

I came to understand that while many of us might default to measuring out lives by summary statistics, such as number of people presided over, number of awards, or dollars accumulated in a bank, and so on, the only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people. When I have my interview with God, our conversation will focus on the individuals whose self-esteem I was able to strengthen, whose faith I was able to reinforce, and whose discomfort I was able to assuage — a doer of good, regardless of what assignment I had. These are the metrics that matter in measuring my life.

This is why he viewed management as the noblest of professions — not because of managers’ ability to execute plans or make money, but because of their ability to impact the human lives of those they managed — and, by extension, their families and friends — for the better. The ripple effect of one good act, but equally of one bad act, was profound.

In reflecting on his life, I’ll remember that Clay was moved by kindness. He always put people first as he sought to support them, learn from them, and improve the world with them.

How to Harness the Power of Empathy for Effective Leadership

Guest post from Maria Ross:
Let me ask you a question: What does a successful leader look like? Effective leaders are masters of business strategy. They are visionaries who know how to clearly communicate their vision to others. To climb the corporate ladder, you’ve got to make fast, difficult decisions at critical times. Successful leaders have persistence, tenacity, confidence, enthusiasm.
But what about compassion, kindness, and empathy?
Imagine: a leader who knows how to gain efficiencies, decrease costs, increase employee retention, and inspire customer loyalty based on taking another’s point of view? This is the power of empathy at work.
The POWER of Empathy?
Now, the types of leadership qualities that show up on list after list are there for good reason. Being strategic, being a visionary, being decisive, being persistent, tenacious, confident, and enthusiastic all propel individual success as well as an organization’s success.
It’s true. The business benefits of compassion, kindness, and empathy are less obvious, especially in an uber-competitive world. However, when you look closely, you discover that it becomes difficult to see empathy as anything other than essential for competent leadership. After all, I can think of no better foundation for a business model than recognizing the pain and suffering of others as a problem in need of a solution.
Empathetic leaders at all levels, including managers, HR professionals, consultants, and c-level executives, are more competent leaders because they understand the power of meeting people where they are:
     Empathetic entrepreneurs use their transformative experiences to empower others and fuel their businesses.
     Empathetic managers put their teams at ease and support their employees as they achieve mutually beneficial goals.
     Empathetic executives adapt to the inevitable shifts in business with calm confidence. They watch new ideas take root and recognize the value of developing products to meet customer needs.
If you see the power of empathy at work and are ready to unlock this power in your own leadership, I’ve got some good news: empathy is a skill you can exercise like a muscle. Just as you can learn to become more strategic, more of a visionary, and more decisive, you can learn to be more compassionate.
Here are seven simple ways to train yourself to lead more empathetically:
1. Practice Presence: When you learn to be more present with yourself, you’ll be free to be more present with others. Take five minutes—yes, just five minutes—out of your day to meditate or sit in silence. Avoid distractions. Don’t multitask.
2. Listen More, Stay Humble: Empathetic leaders listen with restraint to people’s experiences, stories, and perspectives. When you really listen, you pause, look for common ground, and offer constructive feedback that connects with the other person. 
3. Be Curious: Authentically empathetic people are always learning from others and the world around them. Because they’re constantly curious, they are open to new synergies and able to make surprising connections while planting the seeds of success.
4. Explore with Your Imagination: Getting inside the minds of employees and customers means getting inside the minds of human beings. You can do this outside of work too. Immerse yourself in films, documentaries, biographies, theater, art, or music.
5. Cultivate Confidence: It might seem counterintuitive for a leader to lack confidence. But many leaders forget to track their goals and celebrate their wins because they’re focused on the success of the company as a whole. Bolster your confidence so you can pass it on.
6. Get in the Trenches: If you deem a job “beneath” you or a “waste of your time,” consider the message you’re sending to those doing this job on a daily basis. Instead, try standing shoulder-to-shoulder with your salespeople or jump on a customer service call.
7. Find Common Ground: As an empathetic leader, you want to build a community, not simply lift up individuals. Look for intersecting experiences, abilities, and needs. At these crossroads, you’ll find opportunities to come together.
What do you think? Will you join me in rewriting the script about what gives businesses a competitive advantage? Let’s show the world what compassionately competitive, kindly ambitious, and empathetic, yet decisive leaders look like!
Maria Ross, the founder of brand consultancy Red Slice, believes cash flow, creativity and

compassion are not mutually exclusive. Maria has authored multiple books, including The Empathy Edge: Harnessing the Value of Compassion as an Engine for Success. She has spoken to audiences ranging from The New York Times to BlogHer and has written for numerous media outlets, including Entrepreneur.com.

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