Why I Admire Clayton Christensen

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Last night, Clayton Christensen was the keynote for a scholarship fundraiser at the Celtics Training Facility; thank you Danny Ainge, also a BYU graduate, for making this possible, and Robin Baker, head of the scholarship comittee for pulling off a terrific event.  I was asked to introduce Clayton. Given that both he and his ideas have had such a tremendous influence on me over the last decade, it seemed appropriate to share my remarks here.

According to the Financial Times, Dr. Clayton M. Christensen, the Kim B. Clark professor at the Harvard Business School, is the world’s leading thinker on innovation.  His seminal book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, which first outlined the disruptive innovation frameworks, received the Global Business Book Award for the Best Business Book of the Year in 1997, was a New York Times bestseller, has been translated into over 10 languages, and is sold in over 25 countries.  He is also a four-time recipient of the McKinsey Award for the Harvard Business Review’s best article and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010.

Impressive as his credentials are, Professor Christensen would tell you — These are not the performance attributes that matter most.

Forty years ago, 18 year-old Clayton arrived at BYU Provo determined, as he tells it, “to get the best education he could.”  It turns out, Dr. Charles Tate wanted this young man to BE his best.  As Clayton recounted in a 2003 BYU Forum address, he went into Dr. Tate’s English 316 class thinking he wrote pretty well.  He’d been the Student Body President, a star basketball player, accepted to Harvard and Yale.

But when he turned in his first assignment, Dr. Tate gave him a C-.  Incensed, but determined to prove himself, Clayton spent 4 hours on the next assignment.  He got a C.  The next assignment: 6 hours.  A C+.  The final assignment of the semester, he spent all night, and finally, he got a B+.  Mercifully, he says, Dr. Tate gave him an A.  When Clayton asked why, Dr. Tate’s response was, “I thought you could become a good writer, so I pushed you.”

According to Professor Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation, a body of work about which I have personally seen captains of industry and heads of state beat a path to his door—a silly, crummy, David-like, start-up can eventually topple a Goliath-like incumbent.  For the Goliath, the decision to be made is die, or die sooner.

One place in society where the incumbent doesn’t typically face this dilemma is in academia.   The student begins the scholarly journey knowing far less than the professor.  If the student puts her nose to the grindstone, and the teacher does likewise, the student’s trajectory will eventually intersect with the demands of the market.  Perhaps even the student can meet those demands better than the professor.   Rather than ruing this day, a master teacher rejoices.  This is what Dr. Tate did for young Clayton, and what Professor Christensen has since done for thousands upon thousands of students.

He’s been dubbed one of the world’s best business school professors, a masterful, and spellbinding teacher, and Professor of the Year at Harvard Business School in 2010.  In accepting this honor, he delivered his speech “How Will you Measure your Life?” which, as a book, I predict will sell even more copies than “The Innovator’s Dilemma.”   All because he says to his students and proteges, I think you can become a good writer, investor, human being.  So he pushes us.

In late 2008, after publishing “Disrupting Class”, Professor Christensen received the following letter:

Dear Clayton,

Congratulations on writing another book that challenges the business-as-usual pattern of American society.   I am very proud of you; keep up the great thinking and writing.  Just remember, the best thing you have ever done was to marry Christine—All else pales to that.

Most sincerely yours,

Dr. Charles D. Tate, Jr.
Emeritus Professor of English, Brigham Young University

Ladies and Gentlemen, one of the people I most deeply admire in the world, professor Clayton M. Christensen.


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