The world lost an intellectual giant in Clayton Christensen this week. He may not exactly be a household name, but we have him to thank for phrases like “disruption” and “jobs-to-be-done” that occupy the jargon of every industry these days. Like a poet exploring the complexities of love, Christensen described how businesses evolved over time. He peeled back layers upon layers, drawing insights from fruit flies to excavators, and made it accessible for the world to learn.
Christensen wrote in The Innovator’s Dilemma about the difference between sustaining and disrupting. Sustaining businesses have customers who don’t want “new” so much as to not have anything screwed up. There’s value in reliability. Disrupting businesses focus on “new” in a way that makes sustaining businesses look silly for doing things the old way. There’s value in innovation too.
Both sustaining and disrupting businesses have their place in the world and contribute to progress. Disrupters start new ideas and create new markets. Sustainers scale those markets, increase their profitability and become susceptible to the next round of disruption. At each stage, Christensen recognized companies should focus on the “jobs-to-be-done.” Customer preferences matter the most. Preferences determine if people are willing to accept a better way to do things (smartphones killing off flip phones) or a smarter way (retailers selling white-labeled pain killers at a discount to the name brands).
When we combine sustaining, disrupting, and jobs-to-be-done, we get a sense of the virtuous cycle of progress Christensen was most interested in. Professionally, we can all learn from these lessons. If we really listen to our clients, if we keep a close eye on the market place and our competitors, if we are willing to innovate, if we are willing to adapt – then, and only then, can we survive. The world moves quickly. Christensen’s work helps us to slow down what’s going on around us and see the gears that are turning.
Rest in peace Clayton Christensen. You will be missed.