Clayton Christensen, the gentle giant of innovation

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Jan 25, 2020

It is said that Abraham Lincoln had a high-pitched voice with a shrill quality to it. When he began his speeches, the audience at first wondered if this tall man was indeed the great orator of whom they had heard.

But as Lincoln’s words washed over them and Lincoln fell into a rhythm, the audience was soon mesmerized—both by the words they heard and how they were delivered.

When Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen began a speech, it was similar. Instead of thunder and lightning, his speech was slow and methodical, soft and unassuming. Even before his ailments had struck at his ability to speak, the audience often wondered at the beginning of a talk whether this tall man—he was 6’8”—was the great mind they had come to hear.

But as Christensen dove into his stories and began teaching how the world worked—not how we wished it would work, but how it actually worked—he gained steam and cast a spell over the audience that became mesmerized—both by the points he made and how they were said.

Just as with Lincoln 150 years earlier, most members of the audience could not miss the brilliance of the points or the man himself.

When I shared this observation with Christensen—or Clay, as I called my mentor, friend, coauthor, and cofounder—he discounted it with his characteristic humility. But that isn’t to say it wasn’t true.

Clayton Christensen and his family visit with Michael Horn and his twin daughters just one month after they were born. (Photo by Tracy Kim Horn)

In the hundreds of instances I saw Clay speak, even after his first stroke hindered his speech, he would sweep the audience to its feet with the eloquence of his thoughts and insights.

It’s those words and patterns of thought but also his fundamental humanity, compassion, and humility—not just in speeches, but also in countless private conversations over the past 15 years—that I will miss so much. With Clay Christensen’s passing this past week, the world lost a luminary who leaves behind a treasure trove of writings, recordings, and impactful relationships to inspire innovators and thinkers in all fields for generations to come.

As I read biographies of luminaries like Albert Einstein, I see echoes of Clay—people who were obsessed with discovering truth and causality in the world. Clay’s view of how to form theory and how to revise it as one learned more about how the world works was consistent with the greatest scientists in history. It remains underappreciated by his detractors, just as was the case with some of Einstein’s contemporaries. What was more, Clay’s ability to do theoretical thought experiments in his head and suggest ways to test them in the real world—as well as his understanding of the power of “n of 1” experiments to understand how a system really worked, not how it looked “on average”—is strikingly similar not just to Einstein, but to other great minds in history.

Like Einstein, Clay was certain that just because we couldn’t see or conceptualize the entirety of the universe, it was nevertheless ruled by an orderly set of causal rules that God understood. A deeply religious man with impactful ideas about both his Church and other religions, Clay’s image of God wasn’t of an individual who could shoot lightning bolts down from heaven and make things just happen, but instead of a being that understood these laws so well that he could subtly influence them—much as he thought CEOs should realize that the way to lead was by understanding the laws governing organizations, not by fiat. As Clay was fond of saying, God didn’t create data. Humans create data, which are, by definition, backward-looking. We use data to understand complex concepts because we have “finite” minds. God, on the other hand, doesn’t need data or statistics to understand the universe.

Clay was also a master of using analogies from distant, seemingly unrelated fields to distill complicated problems to their essence and see solutions that others could not envision. He thought through diagrams and stories, which enabled him to develop a set of broadly generalizable theories that held explanatory power across different industries. He could tackle such seemingly unrelated challenges as a company’s growth, financial investing, education, health care, global prosperity, green energy and more because, from his vantage point, he had seen some of the very same problems elsewhere before.

As he worked across fields, rather than assume that inconvenient facts or observations were wrong, Clay saw anomalies to his theories not as problems or “statistical noise,” but as opportunities to refine and improve them—or correct how he had applied them. It’s why he had a sign outside his office that said: “Anomalies Wanted.”

Clay, of course, had flaws, as all individuals do—and as with many individuals, those flaws were often endearing parts of his personality. Modest to the point of not interjecting a thought sometimes, he could allow misunderstandings to linger. When he told you that an idea you expressed was “interesting,” he was occasionally being genuine, but more often he was acting as a patient coach helping you to discover where you were missing something.

He was the consummate Socratic-style professor—as the Harvard Business School teaches its faculty to be—as he sought not to provide answers, but instead to ask questions to help people learn how to think, not what to think. He avoided conflict. Only rarely would someone, in his opinion, so cross the bounds of fairness or intellectual honesty, that they deserved a rebuke, in which case few could be as withering and pointed in their criticisms. But for the most part, he met criticism with kindness, challenges as opportunities, and interactions as chances to inspire and praise.

I had the opportunity to work with Clay before his health challenges started. As he and his beloved family endured health scare after health scare, I often said to friends that I was sure he had nine lives—which was a blessing not just for them, but for humanity. I remember well his first heart attack, as it was in the midst of our finishing “Disrupting Class” together. His first trip after the scare was with me. We journeyed to Seattle to present to the Gates Foundation. His wife Christine joined us, and I’ll never forget that as we rushed to our gate in the airport with little time to grab food, he said, “Michael, please get me a Double Whopper from Burger King, no matter what Christine says.” I, rightly or wrongly, did as he asked.

As Clay was fond of saying, like disruption, he loved the low end, from the rundown sedan he continued to drive to HBS early in the morning to motels and from his beloved Rose Park neighborhood where he grew up to the simple chimes he crafted out of rebar. Food was no exception—he was much more comfortable in a McDonald’s than a fancy restaurant.

Despite his occasional professed longing for a career goal of his youth—to be Editor of the Wall Street Journal—he wasn’t a journalist. Small details in Clay’s stories morphed over time. But the point in his storytelling was never the precise details. Instead, the point was in how the pertinent details wove together to illustrate a larger truth. Like Lincoln, Clay was a master storyteller who landed his punch lines.

It was from Clay that I learned the importance of crafting the right organizational structure when I communicated, as, without it, the logic would be lost. Clay was fond of saying that he never knew how complicated something was until he tried to write about it, but writing could help untangle many of the challenges until it was time to implement, test and learn.

A good friend has asked me several times about when would I split out and write on topics without the aid of Clay’s theories. But the thing is that once you see the world through his theories of innovation, you can’t un-see them. They pervade everything in your life. They are the lenses through which I think about everything I see in the world—so much so that at this point much of my writing and speaking voice is in many ways inseparable from that of Clay’s. It’s just who I am.

Clay didn’t just impact me in this way. We often talk about coaching trees in football and basketball. In addition to the countless organizations, CEOs, and students he transformed, Clay leaves an impressive tree himself. From Bob Moesta to Scott Anthony and Michael Raynor and from Karen Dillon and James Allworth to Efosa Ojomo and many, many more, Clay’s legacy isn’t just in what he produced, but in the people he affected.

As he tapped me to write “Disrupting Class” with him in February of 2006 (I was his second choice, and he only chose me after praying to God to be sure this was right for both of us—a standard practice for him), I often wondered what famous, tenured faculty member would have someone such as me be a coauthor with him? The answer was someone who was totally secure, humble, magnanimous and cared more about the impact and spread of good ideas than his own recognition. In that, he wasn’t just humble and kind but also incredibly smart. By creating other “mini-Clays,” as I often call myself (half the height and half the brains), he created disciples who had a clear stake in the ideas gaining ground and having a positive impact.

Clay’s thinking even pervaded my marriage vows. A few months after my wife Tracy and I began dating, I took her to Clay’s last class of the spring semester—a class that was always memorable for all present as Clay applied the various theories from the course to challenges in our personal lives. This class is what became the basis for his bestselling book “How Will Measure Your Life.” As Tracy and my relationship evolved, his teachings were instrumental in how we fashioned our life together. In the wedding vows we wrote, we interwove his theories and language as north stars that would guide our life together.

As my wife observed recently, in many ways, Clay’s legacy and pride were in the people he helped launch. He spent significant energy on these endeavors—in part I imagine because he always believed that he had the best job in the world where he got to learn more from his students than they learned from him. Clay himself said in “How Will Measure Your Life”:

“I came to understand that while many of us might default to measuring our lives by summary statistics, such as number of people presided over, number of awards, or dollars accumulated in a bank, and so on, the only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people. When I have my interview with God, our conversation will focus on the individuals whose self-esteem I was able to strengthen, whose faith I was able to reinforce, and whose discomfort I was able to assuage—a doer of good, regardless of what assignment I had. These are the metrics that matter in measuring my life.”- Clayton M. Christensen

This is why he viewed management as the noblest of professions—not because of managers’ ability to execute plans or make money, but because of their ability to impact the human lives of those they managed and, by extension, their families and friends, for the better. The ripple effect of one good act, but equally of one bad act, was profound.

Clay was moved by kindness. He always put people first.

Over the past couple of years, I had sometimes wondered whether my daughters would ever get to know this man who has had such an impact on our lives. When I cry about that, I also remember how when my children were just one month old, he showed up at our house with his wife Christine and his daughter—and my friend and colleague—Ann. They had brought an incredibly large batch of homemade gazpacho, which sustained us for days to come. Not only that, but Christine and Clay also came for our daughters’ 100-day celebration at our house and then for the girls’ 1-year-old birthday party at an apple orchard. There were undoubtedly more important things going on in their lives—and I worried about how it taxed Clay—but they showed up to help people.

I know that a great many more people in their Church will have similar stories.

And it’s why I know that deep down, even as he rose to fame with unimaginable demands on time, asked to opine on everything from the future of capitalism to the fate of our souls, Clay was still the man from Rose Park, humble and living life at the low end. He was a learner and thinker to the end.

I’m confident that when Clay had his interview with God, God welcomed him to Heaven—not only to confirm all of Clay’s suspicions about the unreliability of data, but also to thank this Gentle Giant in stature, intellect, and, above all, kindness and decency who graced our world and leaves a legacy that will continue to make it a better place for all its inhabitants.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.