Remembering an Innovative Thinker

The industry loses thought leader Clayton Christensen at the age of 67.

ON JANUART 23, the business community lost Clayton Christensen to leukemia at the age of 67. In his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma, the Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Business School professor introduced his theory of disruptive innovation, which held that even the most established incumbents can be overturned by upstart firms that target new markets with disruptive technologies. This theory would come to define the next two decades of business thought and practice.

In his keynote at AACSB International’s 2006 Deans Conference in San Diego, California, Christensen presented four traps that can catch and kill high-potential disruptive ideas: assigning responsibility to an incapable organization, using the wrong process for developing strategy, funding it with bad money, or assigning responsibility to people with the wrong skills.

At the same conference, Christensen applied his theory of disruption to business education. Business schools, he argued, would be transformed not as much by “low-end disruptors” such as evening and weekend MBAs as by “new market disruptors” such as in-house corporate training programs. And it was already happening, he said, noting that “applications to MBA programs are down 30 percent from the late 1990s.”

In the years since Christensen made these statements, many notable MBA programs have disappeared, falling victim not only to corporate training programs, but also to nontraditional shorter-format options such as stackable credentials.

In a commentary that appeared in BizEd’s May/June 2008 issue, Christensen pointed out that “this shift in the management education market began even while things were brightest for business schools.” The tactics that had worked to keep business schools on top for so long, he emphasized, were losing efficacy against new competitors and for emerging markets.

One day, he noted, “people will ask the same question about MBA programs that their professors taught them to ask about successful companies that ultimately failed: Why didn’t they see the wave coming?”

The Innovator’s DNA, which Christensen wrote with Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen in 2011, notes that innovation—done right—is the lifeblood of 21st-century organizations. “Imagine how competitive your company will be ten years from now without innovators,” they write. “Clearly your company would not survive.”