In Memoriam: Professor Clayton M. Christensen

by Innovation Excellence

By Craig Hatkoff, Co-Founder, Disruptor Foundation and Disruptor Awards;Co-Founder Tribeca Film Festival
By Rabbi Irwin Kula, Co-Founder, Disruptor Foundation and President, Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership

In Memoriam: Professor Clayton M. Christensen
Photo courtesy of The Disruptor Foundation

“A professor, a rabbi and an entrepreneur walk into a bar….” As it turns out, the professor doesn’t drink, and the “bar” is the Harvard Business School Faculty Dining Room. Otherwise, what has been a running joke for years, is a true story. The year was 2007 when we met with Professor Clay Christensen for a remarkable lunch. The “we” is Irwin Kula (the Rabbi) and Craig Hatkoff (the Entrepreneur.) That lunch with Clay would change our lives. We had been meeting regularly for years to discuss innovation, technology, and religion. A new player, larger than life, was about to join us in our sacred space. Enter the Professor.

The Entrepreneur and the Professor had established a relationship back in 2000 when Clay invested in Hatkoff’s start-up, Story Orbit, an online children’s publishing venture. Clay had come across the start-up reading the term paper of one of his students, and invited Craig up to Harvard to discuss what he saw as vast disruptive potential and what was one of the better examples of disruptive innovation he had come across. At the time, Craig was unfamiliar with Clay, his emerging theory and the growing influence in corporate boardrooms. Clay had appeared the year before on the cover of Forbes magazine with Intel CEO Andy Grove who is credited with turbo-charging Clay’s reputation and crediting him as the inspiration for the Celeron chip.

But in 2000, and a far cry from the stature of Andy Grove and the Celeron chip, Clay’s intellectual curiosity in this children’s publishing start-up had piqued his interest enough to invite an unknown entrepreneur to meet with him to discuss Story Orbit; it was quintessential Clay. It reflected not only his curiosity but his passion and generosity as well. Clay made a modest investment and offered to serve as senior adviser. Unfortunately, Story Orbit turned out to be too far ahead of its time: it was a broadband application when only 2 million Americans had hi-speed internet. Though the venture never launched, considerable pre-development funds had been spent. Hatkoff returned Christensen’s investment plus a rate of return based on Christensen’s historical returns—a rather unconventional gesture but one that created an enduring relationship. “It just seemed like the right thing to do,” reflected the Entrepreneur.

Fast forward to June 2007. For some reason, inexplicable to either of them, the Entrepreneur gave the Rabbi a copy of the Professor’s magnum opus, The Innovators Dilemma, with the following inscription: “I am not sure why I am giving you this book… but you might find it interesting.” The next morning Kula called Hatkoff and said, “OMG! I was up all night reading the book. I finally know who I am and what I do. I am a disruptive spiritual innovator!” This led to the self-described occasionally devout atheo-agnostic Entrepreneur and the Disruptive Rabbi to develop a social enterprise initiative that applied Clay’s theory to the realm of religion and spirituality. Realizing we were taking some broad liberties with Clay’s “baby” we thought it would be both respectful and wise to at least run the idea by him. We sent the proposal to Clay. His office confirmed receipt of the email but cautioned it might take several months to get a reply.

Twenty minutes later, Hatkoff got a surprise call from Clay. “Do you think you and your rabbi could come to meet me for lunch? Craig, I don’t know if ever told you this, but I am like an Archbishop of the Mormon Church. You and your Rabbi are onto something I’ve thought about for many years. I’d like to be involved.”

So, there we were at lunch. It was like being at Hogwarts with Professor Dumbledore. But Clay, with his gentleness, grace, and warmth quickly put us at ease. Towards the end of an extraordinary conversation about disruptive innovation and religion, the likes of which had undoubtedly never happened before in the HBS dining room, or perhaps anywhere else on the planet, Irwin nonchalantly said to Clay “I assume Professor, you always viewed Mormonism itself as a disruptive innovation?” For what seemed like an eternity, Clay was silent. “By Golly isn’t that interesting! I never thought of it that way!” Clay then reiterated his desire to be involved with us and help us in any way he could.

By 2009, the three of us had formed the Disruptor Foundation dedicated to advancing disruptive innovation theory in society-critical domains. We were honored as Clay would casually refer to us as the theory’s “advance research and development arm.” We were his para-theorists exploring and thinking about applications of his theory to new frontiers.

One of Clay’s remarkable qualities was his openness and commitment to learning about any and all anomalies that his theory did not explain. As a profound theorist, he embodied the rare combination of brilliance and humility. Clay was never defensive! Always smiling, he was intellectually curious, empathic, present, joyful, and engaged.

By 2010, the three of us launched the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards, now known simply as the Disruptor Awards. The unspoken objective of the awards was to curate and celebrate innovations that fit the theory but also to showcase those anomalies that the theory, in its original form, did not explain. As a genuine scholar, Clay enjoyed these exceptions as much as those things that confirmed his theory.

Over a ten-year period, we identified and honored over 250 innovators—ranging from the usual suspects, (Twitter, Square, Wikipedia, Snapchat, Uber etc) to Nobel Prize winners to Ed Snowden, from the Mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to a bevy of teen and pre-teen innovators. Largely because of Clay’s reputation and endorsement we were able to create an ecosystem of some 400 plus fellows all of whom in some way were disrupting the status quo. Every year, the night before the awards would hold our annual Spaghetti and Meet-ball Dinner for all the Honorees and Fellows.

While he rarely knew who we were honoring in advance, one of the hallmarks of the awards was Clay’s closing reflections and commentary on that which he had just witnessed. Always delivered with great joy and gratitude, he would implore all of us to continue to search for innovations that would make him rethink his theory and challenge the community to keep disrupting the status quo for the public good.

By 2013, the fourth year of the awards, we began to see an unexpected pattern that was a departure from the original theory’s focus on the core utility of technology and business models. It was something that intrigued Clay. As there was no existing platform to encourage such kind of discussion we decided to launch our own publishing platform, known as the Off White Papers. Rather than serving as an academic or scholarly peer-reviewed platform, it was a space to provoke new thinking about Disruptive Innovation Theory liberated from the rigors, and yes, the stress and biases, attendant to more serious academic undertakings.

Our inaugural Off White Paper, which included Clay as an author, introduced the concept of identity-centric innovation where identity–people’s world views, values and belief systems– i.e. culture writ large was a “formidable variable” in the successful diffusion of innovation. The essence of identity-centric innovation suggests that:

“…in those domains where stakeholders’ identities are being challenged the identity function can often overwhelm the more straightforward utility of the innovation.”

Clay’s closing quote represented a quiet sea change in his thinking about his theory:

“If we are to develop a profound theory to solve the intractable problems in our society-critical domains…we must learn to crawl into the life of what makes people tick.”

What this meant to Clay is that in society-critical areas such as education, healthcare, the military, public sector/government, capitalism, moral and ethical development etc. disruptive innovation would behave quite differently than in domains of pure utility-centric innovation. A bit of a stretch but Clay was comfortable using the playful analogy of Newtonian physics versus quantum mechanics. Indeed, the title of our first article was Disruptive Innovation Theory Revisited: Towards Quantum Innovation. This notion of identity-centric innovation required refocusing on the role of culture and identity with a deep dive into the cultural ramifications, resistances, obstacles and rethinking the jobs-to-be-done framework altogether. When there are multiple stakeholders with multiple jobs to get done, innovation behaves quite differently than just assessing whether new consumers would embrace the inferior MP3 file that clearly turned out to be good enough to get the job done.

In Clay’s 2015 wrap-up of the Awards, he shocked the audience by stating that in his view three areas critical to our future desperately needed disruption: terrorism, parenting, and religion itself.

His concern was that strong moral underpinnings, largely absent in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, were fundamental to the success of capitalism and as institutional religion was eroding in America so was moral accountability. This led to a more ambitious and provocative second installment of the Off White Paper penned with Clay — Disrupting Hell: Accountability for the Non-believer.

In 2016, at the last awards he was able to attend, instead of his normal ten-minute wrap-up, a tearful Clay was particularly moved by the slate of honorees threw away his remarks and unexpectedly delivered a very ­­­­­emotional sixty-second reflection that our words can’t capture but anyone who wants to understand the man, needs to watch this:

Clay Christensen (Conclusion) from Tribeca Disruptive Innovation on Vimeo.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that every individual has the opportunity to dwell with God after this life in a state of eternal joy. Clay’s untimely demise leaves us profoundly saddened. The Entrepreneur and the Disruptive Rabbi are eternally indebted to the Professor who transformed our lives with his extraordinary mind, heart, and spirit. We have no doubt that Clay Christensen is indeed in a state of eternal joy. Our job-to-be-done is to continue to support his legacy for the public good.

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Craig HatkoffCraig Hatkoff co-founded Tribeca Film Festival with Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro after September 11th to help revitalize lower Manhattan. He is also the co-founder of the Disruptor Foundation with Clayton Christensen, and the creator and curator of the annual Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. Craig is a children’s book publisher and author as well. His New York Times #1 best-seller, Owen and Mzee, is part of a non-fiction series about resilience of young animals who overcome traumas and life challenge.

Rabbi Irwin KulaIrwin Kula is a provocative religious leader and a respected spiritual iconoclast. A cutting-edge scholar, teacher, and rabbi, he brings the insights of an ancient tradition to the challenges of the present to help people live more fully. Named by Fast Company magazine and PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly as one of the new leaders shaping the American spiritual landscape, Kula offers a broad vision of religious pluralism. He is the author of the award winning book Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life.

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