In memory of Clayton Christensen, GuideSpark CEO Keith Kitani shares how Christensen’s work and wisdom in The Innovator’s Dilemma shaped the way he approaches leadership, especially during times of disruption and change.
Q: How has Clayton Christensen influenced your career and leadership style?
A: “Two important books came out in the 1990s, when I was starting to build my career: Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore and The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. Both works definitely impacted how I thought about business, especially as I began thinking about leveraging my technology background (first as an engineer, then as a product manager for technology companies) toward entrepreneurial ventures.
Christensen’s book, in particular, had a tremendous amount of influence on my thinking as I was starting my first company – it was a time when everyone was trying to “disrupt business through the Internet” in the dot-com era. A major takeaway for me at the time was that not everything disruptive makes a good business – which Clayton predicted in The Innovator’s Dilemma.
This book and I crossed paths several more times:
At Adobe in the mid-2000s, I was responsible for building new SaaS businesses where I saw and felt the challenges of innovating as an existing technology leader. Adobe has obviously had tremendous success growing their business and evolving their business model, but there were significant challenges innovating within Adobe for brand new business ideas.
In 2008, I co-founded GuideSpark, in part driven by the potential application of web services to enterprise businesses (Amazon had just launched in 2006). Having started my first company in the days where it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to put something online – buying servers, renting a cage, hiring admins, the list goes on – it felt like this disruption could lead to new innovative businesses built on top of it.
At GuideSpark now, all these years later, we’re working with many different companies at various stages of handling disruption – across retail, financial services, and manufacturing. We’re seeing the challenges for leaders to manage through changing industries, not to mention other challenges such as business models and organizations – which Clayton wrote about in The Innovator’s Dilemma.”
Q: How are you applying his teachings to today’s disrupted world?
A: “We are now in a world of constant innovation and disruption. This isn’t on the scale of some of the disruptions that he wrote about, but in the organizations we work with, there seems to be a consistent set of mini-disruptions affecting organizations almost continuously. So, many of the things he wrote about are still very relevant – and requiring organizations to change and adapt in a few key ways:
- Disruptive technology and innovation are driving companies to change their business strategy – Almost every company is undergoing some type of digital transformation right now.
- Internal organizations are leveraging incremental changes to adapt to new disruptions, as opposed to totally new approaches and ideas.
- Confronted with the challenge of organizational change – including values, culture and processes – being necessary to support business change, Christensen wrote, “to succeed consistently, good managers need to be skilled not just in choosing, training, and motivating the right people for the right job, but in choosing, building, and preparing the right organization for the job as well.”
- Business model changes are really difficult, especially from within the company. Christensen’s wisdom was, “if good management practice drives the failure of successful firms faced with disruptive technological change, then the usual answers to companies’ problems—planning better, working harder, becoming more customer-driven, and taking a longer-term perspective—all exacerbate the problem.”
I often think about taking his teachings and applying them to the constantly-changing world around us. When our focus is on people, we can better confront the challenge of changing mindsets more quickly – which ultimately supports organizations in disrupted markets.”