Clayton Christensen’s Last Interview

Giff Constable business models

MIT Sloan Management Review published an interview of Clayton Christensen — one of the last if not the last before he passed away. He was a huge influence on how I (and many) think. Here are a few interesting quotes (in italics) from the piece, with color commentary below each one:

“Disruptive innovations are not breakthrough innovations or “ambitious upstarts” that dramatically alter how business is done but, rather, consist of products and services that are simple, accessible, and affordable.”

This is a useful reminder to entrepreneurs: if you want to truly be disruptive, aim for more simple, accessible and affordable. However, this doesn’t mean that this is the only good new business to create. One can certainly bring a new premium product/service to market and be successful, but Christensen’s point is that it won’t meet his standards for “disruptive”.

“That’s its [disruption theory’s] value — not just to predict what your competitor will do but also to predict what your own company might do.”

It’s always easier to look at others than yourself. It’s easy to look at your product, resources and organizational structure and think about what it allows you to do. Not enough people can (or do) look at those same things to think about what you are no longer able to do. Our business models create opportunities but they also simultaneously constrain us. That’s worth poking at.

“Big data also tends to gloss over or ignore anomalies unless it’s crafted carefully to surface these to humans. That is, big data tends to be far more focused on correlation rather than causation and as such ignores examples where something doesn’t follow what tends to happen on average. It’s only by exploring anomalies that we can develop a deeper understanding of causation.”

Hear hear. A few lines earlier in the interview he makes a good point about data bias as well. I will never tire of repeating: yes, build an amazing data science practice, but never stop being skeptical of data. Look for those anomalies. Do your qualitative work to round out the facts of what is going on with hypotheses on why things are happening.

“Who are your best customers? What is your organization capable or incapable of doing? What “jobs” are you trying to help customers get done in their lives? In what circumstances should you integrate, and in what circumstances should you modularize your firm’s and product’s architecture? Who are the nonconsumers, and what is limiting their access?”

I love good questions, and here he rattles off five. Can you answer these for your business?

“most companies tend to focus on data to help guide their decisions: They know market share to the nth degree, how products are selling in different markets, profit margin across hundreds of different items, and so on. But all this data is focused on customers and the product itself — not what the customer is trying to accomplish in making the purchase… Customers don’t buy products or services; they pull them into their lives to make progress.”

I think Christensen’s “jobs to be done” philosophy is going to stand the test of time. It’s no surprise that the design community has latched onto JTBD so enthusiastically because it is about empathy. There’s a set of questions embedded in JTBD about the customer journey and customer mindset that I need to remember to constantly ask.

Top image from Randy Fath on Unsplash