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The Lasting Relevance of Clay Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma

David Anderson< David Anderson February 3, 2020

In case you missed the news last week, Clay Christensen has died. A giant both literally and figuratively, the 6’8” former basketball star was best known for his Innovator’s Dilemma theory while he was a professor at Harvard Business School. His bold 1997 ideas are worth giving a few moments of contemplation as they remain very relevant even 23 years later.

Before discussing that, though, a personal remembrance.  I was very fortunate to have passed through his orbit and had the luck of participating in his lectures during my time at Harvard Business School.  The brilliance of his teaching wasn’t the best thing about him; he was a charming, modest, kind man. He was enormously generous with his time. He encouraged deep thinking. I’ll be forever grateful for the interactions I had with him, and I’ll never forget him. If you haven’t read his article “How Will You Measure Your Life” then wow, you need to do that.

What does the innovator’s dilemma mean in today’s world?  I’d argue it’s more important now than ever. The magnitude and pace of change we see today is greater than any other period in human history, and it’s difficult to see that slowing down. This means that Clay’s ideas should be absolutely central to any knowledge worker’s thinking.

If you’re not familiar, the innovators dilemma says that companies who innovate and win big subsequently struggle to innovate again…and end up getting out-innovated by a competitor. The roots of this are in human psychology (confirmation bias) which leads to doubling down on the existing paradigm. This means that the leading companies – the innovators of the last generation (which in these times are cycles of decreasing magnitude) suffer from resource allocation related to serving their current customer base.  The fascinating thing about the academic research behind Clay’s book is that it was multi-industry; these themes were observed universally – which is necessary for a theory to be definitive and true.

At Vendavo, we work every day with customers wrestling with these themes of disruption, threats and opportunities.  Most of our customers are large and acknowledge that they need to be vigilant, nimble and creative to keep on the top of their industry and protect their core.  Our software and our experts enable them to “disrupt themselves” which has its foundations rooted in the business truism that change is the one constant thing in the universe.

If you’re interested in talking more about Clay’s innovator’s dilemma, your own innovation and/or business agility, please reach out to us. We are your partner in the pursuit of commercial excellence.