Leadership Hall of Fame: Clayton Christensen, Author of "The Innovators Dilemma"

We continue our examination of the business book The Innovator's Dilemma with an interview of author Clayton Christensen. Why was the book successful, and what technologies will be disruptive this decade?

Clayton Christensen What was the impetus for you to write The Innovator's Dilemma?

While building the company that I founded with several MIT professors, I just noticed all around me that companies that were led by people a lot smarter than me were being blown out of the water by entrants. I could not blame stupidity. There had to be a better explanation. So I left the company to become a doctoral student, so I could study it.

Why do you think the book was so successful and resonated with the business world?

In many ways I was lucky. It was published in 1997, just as the Internet was getting traction. It helped people frame what the Internet could do. Had the book come out a few years early or later, it probably would have been ignored.

Are there new obstacles to innovation that have emerged since the book's release?

No. The obstacles have always been there. But we sure know a lot more about those obstacles now, than we knew 15 years ago—things like jobs-to-be-done, integration and modularity, the misapplication of financial metrics, and so on.

The Innovator's DilemmaIn the book you talk about several disruptive technologies that have become viable products—Flash memory, electric cars, etc. What new technologies to you feel will be disruptors this decade?

Current disruptions include banking by wireless phone in the developing world; software-as-a-service (and IT-as-a-service) on the Cloud; and online learning.

How has your process changed from Dilemma to writing Disrupting Class?

Good question. The process of writing The Innovator's Dilemma entailed the developing a new theory. My colleagues, students and I have been improving that theory, and adding others to it, since that time. So the writing of Disrupting Class and The Innovator's Prescription have entailed examining the problems of education and health through the lenses of the theories. The set of theories are proving to be quite robust.

What makes a good business book stand out from all the others?

A great book seeks to explain causality, not correlation. It works to point out the circumstances in which it works, and where it doesn't. And in so doing, it is broadly applicable.

What are your three favorite business books, and why?

  • The Halo Effect, by Phil Rosensweig. He shows why the vast majority of business books cannot be trusted.
  • Expectation Investing, by Michael Mauboussin et. al. He articulates the causal mechanism of movements in securities' prices.
  • The Book of Mormon. It's not just a religious book. It describes how the world works, and is useful in business and politics as well as in personal life.

Clayton M. Christensen is the author of The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Harvard Business Review Press).

Read more about The Innovator's Dilemma or our Leadership Hall of Fame.

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