Christensen died last week at 67 of complications from leukemia. He was a generous and understated man who foretold the future by seeing business dynamics with unusual insight. As time passed, the world took up his ideas with a little too much enthusiasm and too little nuance, turning disrupt into a generic Silicon Valley buzzword. But thanks to Christensen’s work, CEOs understand what’s coming at them—and we in the news media have a better chance than we otherwise would of saving the industry we’ve made our careers in.
Speaking to our class for the first time, Christensen (“Call me Clay,” he would later insist) searched his brain to unlock his vocabulary. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I had a stroke, and sometimes I can’t find the right words.”
He had gone through intensive speech therapy after the stroke, which had happened the previous year. When I took his class, his soft, slow, and methodical cadence only enraptured his students even more. A leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Christensen commanded the classroom with both confidence and humility, in the way that only a preacher can. I had expected a business-strategy course called “BSSE: Building and Sustaining a Successful Enterprise” to stick to the gospel of finance, but what I heard, like so many others before me, was far more prophetic.
Read: The disruption myth
Christensen’s theory of disruption posited a consistent pattern across industries: New entrants to a field establish a foothold at the low end of the market with a product that is “cheaper, faster, and good enough,” which then eats away at the customer base of their incumbents by leapfrogging tech and lowering profit margins. Craigslist did to newspapers’ lucrative classified-ad business what mini-mills did to the titans of the steel industry.
According to Christensen, once you understood how to interpret where your company sat in the arc of disruption theory, you could then predict where it would end up next. Financials, he would preach, are a snapshot in time, telling about only the recent past. They cannot tell you what’s going to happen. That’s why companies, industries, and even entire geopolitical systems can be most vulnerable when they’re at their most profitable. This conclusion might seem obvious in hindsight. But when Christensen published his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, the revelation launched him into the upper echelons of business and academia.
Influential business figures such as Steve Jobs, Intel’s Andy Grove, and Michael Bloomberg all credited Christensen’s work as being hugely influential in their strategic thinking. His many co-authors would go on to illustrious careers of their own in consulting, tech, philanthropy, and media.
I knew none of this when I sat in his class, feeding off his every word. For years, I had felt as if there was no path forward for journalism, and here was someone arguing that, in fact, there was—if the industry could reinvent itself quickly enough to get ahead of what was coming. You just had to trust a theory.