Death of a Gentle Giant

When Harvard’s Clayton Christensen died last week, the business world lost one of its most influential thought leaders

Known mostly for his theory of disruptive innovation, Christensen was a polymath who wrote on a staggering array of subjects including big pharma, the American education system and even on finding your life’s purpose. He also founded several consulting firms.

The tributes were prolific. Many hailed Christensen for his supreme intellectual humility. All spoke of his brilliant if unorthodox, communication style. What can we learn from the latter? Write to discover what you know American author Flannery O’Connor once remarked that she wrote because “I don’t know what I think until I read what I say”. The very act of writing, suggests German researcher Martin Lotz, activates parts of the brain that are beyond the reach of speech. In other words, writing stimulates your brain into going deeper and more thoroughly into your argument. It lays bare your logic, exposing the disconnects and flaws in your storyline. This applies to everyone - even to a colossus like Christensen. According to Michael Horn of the HBR, “Clay was fond of saying that he never knew how complicated something was until he tried to write about it … writing could help untangle many of the challenges until it was time to implement”. There’s a chorus of agreement on this point elsewhere in Academia too: Professor Jordan Peterson recently opined that “the best way to teach people critical thinking is to teach them to write”. Meanwhile, a paper by Major Trent J. Lythgoe of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Ft Leavenworth Kansas links the deterioration of military strategy and problem-solving to a decline in writing skills. Before that next big presentation, consider stress-testing your storyline by writing it down. More than that, consider writing it down by hand. You will find that the slow and contemplative art of penmanship gives your brain more time to digest the facts and organise the argument. Use stories to communicate what you know A hallmark of Christensen’s lecturing and consulting style was his use of deftly crafted stories and analogies. Though meticulously backed by research, they were simple and memorable. One story, immortalised in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, described how insurgent low-cost minimills disrupted the American steel industry. According to Larissa MacFarquhar of the New Yorker, it was a story he told to thousands of people. Its genius lay in the insight that all cases of disruption, regardless of industry, shared similar patterns or trajectories and that these “signatures” could be applied to almost any disruption scenario. In one famous example, Christensen was urgently summoned to counsel Intel CEO Andy Grove who was grappling with the imminent threat of disruption in the semiconductor industry. Grove’s problem, writes MacFarquhar, was that he “didn’t have the language to explain it precisely to himself, or to persuade his people why they should worry about it.” Christensen’s “steel story” galvanised Grove and mobilised Intel to introduce a cheaper memory chip for low-end PCs which, within a year, captured thirty-five per cent of the market. Grove would later describe “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” as the most important book he’d ever read. Steve Jobs and Michael Bloomberg joined the growing multitude of fans while Bill Gates made the minimill story a mandatory feature of every funding presentation. Another Christensen “gem” is the famous “milk-shake story”, itself born from many hours of consulting experience with a fast-food giant. “They had just studied the milk-shake problem up the gazoo” recalled Christensen in a lecture at Harvard Business School. “Yet none of that understanding had any impact on sales or profits whatsoever”. Until, of course, Christensen’s team asked an intriguing question: “What job is the customer actually hiring the milkshake to do?” Christenson’s “jobs to be done” approach to understanding consumer motivation has become a staple of workshops and focus groups the world over. Stories are like flight simulators for the brain. And the special genius of Christensen’s “yarns” lay not just in their piercing strategic clarity but in their power to get people to navigate their unique strategic challenges. As Christensen himself once explained, “they’ll answer their own question more insightfully than I could have” Find common language to share what you know The Reformation, Christensen once observed, took 100 years to fully transform Europe. The barrier was a clamour of minor doctrinal differences that undermined common ground and which prevented a united Protestant front. “Had these leaders had been able to set these aside and explicitly recognize and define the broad issues on which they did agree, the Reformation could have moved much faster”. It’s the same in business, notes Forbes writer Steve Denning. Everywhere the spread and adoption of good ideas are hampered by differing vocabularies and conceptual models. Suppose we could overlook minor differences and adopt the same vocabulary? Said Christensen to the Drucker Forum in 2014: “Let’s take not just the best of each other’s ideas, but the best of each other’s language too. Rather than expanding the depth of our ideas, I kinda think we need to standardise what’s top of mind” “A great light has gone out”, was Shakespeare’s supposed response to the news of Christopher Marlowe’s death. We might say the same of Clayton Christensen.

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