Clayton M. Christensen, 1952-2020 (WSJ, NYT)
You think of many things when a friend dies.
When I was about 16, I went into the forest with some friends to watch the 50-km cross-country race at the Holmenkollen ski festival. One of the stars that year was Juha Mieto, an enormous (more than two meter) Finn who had to be careful with his strength, as he tended to break his ski poles. One of my friends decided to try to keep up with Mieto, just to see how long he could do it. My friend was a reasonably good skier, and managed to keep up for about 300 meters. Mieto, of course, kept going for 50 kilometers.
Sometimes I had the same feeling when interacting with Clay. Not because he was an imposing giant in the physical sense, but because of his incredible work capacity and ability to follow things through. I felt I could keep up with him for a while, enjoy it – and he would then go on, endlessly doing so much more than I was capable of. Clay was so many things: A famous scholar, a life-changing teacher, an adviser, a church leader, husband, father of five – and seemed to do it, if not effortlessly, at least conclusively, with a degree of self-discipline hard to imagine. For me, he was a friend.
We met as students at Harvard Business School in 1990 (he started one year before me), in an Organizational Psychology course with 140 papers on the reading list. Doing that alone just wasn’t possible, so we formed study groups of 5-6 people, writing summaries of papers for each other and occasionally meeting to discuss them before class. I still have the notes. Clay was different in that he added vry observations to his summaries, showing an ability to reflect and a degree of irreverence that wasn’t much visible elsewhere.
We became friends of a sort, spending much time studying in the cramped basement of the doctoral student house at HBS. Like me, Clay had a family and biked to work, but he would be in much earlier than me. After lunch, he would take a nap in his carrel, lying on the floor with his feet on the office chair. I remember him coming to school one day, shaking his head: His son had dunked a basketball – and he was twelve years old.
Clay’s research was on the evolution of technologies, specifically on generations of hard disks, a project that eventually became the The Innovator’s Dilemma. I got to see how his theory developed through seminars, papers and discussions, including some blind alleys. I was in a different field, but was more interested in technology than most of my peers and think I was one of the people outside his department who early on thought his work interesting and understood the implications, though I do not think I contributed in any meaningful fashion aside from encouragement.
Clay graduated in record time and became a professor, and I needed a friendly face on my thesis committee – so I asked him. Eventually I graduated and moved back to Norway, but kept my consulting job in Boston and travelled there quite often. Clay became famous, and, cashing in a favor, I invited him over to Oslo to speak at BI Norwegian Business School. He came in January, on his way home from the World Economic Forum in Davos. It was cold and dark and he gave a lecture the audience referred to as “life-changing”. I asked him if there was anything he wanted to do in Norway. There was one town – Drammen – he had always wanted to visit, since his great grandfather had been repeatedly arrested there for being a Mormon missionary. (To put this in context: Coming to Oslo and wanting to see Drammen is equal to landing in New York and asking to see New Jersey.) So we went there, in my colleague Øystein Fjeldstad’s car. It was foggy and bitterly cold and Drammen was every bit as dreary as you can imagine. We went back to Oslo, dropped off Clay at the luxurious hotel we had booked for him and urged him to try the gourmet restaurant. When his expenses came in, it turned out he had gone to McDonald’s. Our CFO solemnly informed me that I was free to invite this guy anytime I wanted.
In 2007 I thought I had come up with a way to redeem myself and my country and arranged a “Disruptive Cruise” – a weeklong trip on Hurtigruten with Clay’s family. The idea was to create a nice experience for execs from interesting companies and for Clay to have a great vacation with his family and some good discussions. Economically it just did not work – a combination of an economic downturn, Norwegian executives’ unwillingness to spend a week away during what for them was summer vacation, and my listless performance as a salesperson meant that the whole thing became a highly personal, rather low-budget thing – but Clay and his large family liked it. Clay spent much of the time typing on his computer, but found time to see the midnight sun from the ship’s hot tub, and experience both the bridge and the machine room (where passengers are not normally allowed), in addition, of course, to the coasts and mountains of western and northern Norway.
My partner in crime for this trip was Trond Østgaard, who was chairman of the Hurtigruten Appreciation Society as well as a prominent citizen of Drammen. Hence, Clay and family could visit Drammen in style this time, being shown around the old City Hall (where his great-grandfather had been imprisoned) by the Vice-Mayor and have his photograph taken next to the portrait of the sheriff who had done the arrests.
We stayed friends, though we did not spend much time together. I would occasionally pop into his office at HBS, where we swapped anecdotes and talked about technology. I tended to come up with examples, he would think about how they would play out. We would discuss processor modularity, telecommunications competition, hospital management and (a lot) the coming disruption of business schools. Again, I don’t think I contributed much to his research, aside from coming up with a few examples and suggesting ways to communicate things (not that Clay needed any help there). Perhaps my main contribution was to introduce him to Øystein Fjeldstad (the third guy in the picture on top here), whose “value configurations” made it into a couple of Clay’s articles and books. The way to talk to Clay was not to explain things, but to state examples and wait (not long) for him to work out the consequences himself.
I would occasionally see him when he swung by Oslo for a talk, once or twice being the MC myself. But Clay was incredibly busy with audiences constantly demanding his disruption stories (“I am becoming my own theory here,” he would comment, ruefully), I stopped travelling so much to the US, so we saw less of each other. In one sense we were very different: Clay was deeply religious, I am an ateist, and I could never reconcile his scientific mind with his religious views. We talked about it on a few occasions, agreeing to disagree. Mostly, we would talk about our families and our job experiences, stepping back and seeing what it all meant. For all his fame, Clay was invariably down to earth, a great support for me when two of my children became seriously ill – and I believe I played at least a small part like that for him, too. Clay’s health was not good – diabetes, cancer, heart problems and a stroke that made it difficult for him to form words, but he never complained and kept working – a bit much if you ask me (and his family).
I learned a lot from Clay, and he (politely) said he had learned from me. I learned about how to think critically and clearly, and how to be principled and persistent when you believe in your analysis. In my career this has helped me understand that I should build my career on what I am good at and what I can and want to do, not what the organisations I work for see as the correct career path. His way of thinking has enabled me on a number of occasions to listen to what job the customer want done – not a very intellectual concept, but one that is surprisingly effective – and apply that both to offerings I have developed myself and to my analyses of various companies and industries. In my teaching, he has influenced me enormously – when I finally felt secure enough to teach technology in a business school through cases, and cases only, it was his course I started with.
I keep judging my ideas up against what he would have thought. Just a few days ago, I discussed an idea for a paper with Chandler Johnson, a colleague at BI: Is machine learning disruptive to traditional management research (or traditional research in general)? We swapped some ideas back and forth, and I suggested we type it up as a short outline and send it off to Clay to hear what he thought about it.
And now he is no more.
In addition to his management books, Clay wrote and spoke about how to evaluate your life – and said that in posterity, he would not be judged for being a famous business school professor, but for how he had helped other people.
I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I do think that as a person, you exist as long as somebody remembers you, how you were, and what you did for them. For me, at least, Clay will exist for the rest of my life, and, I am sure, for many of my students.
And my thoughts go to Christine, and to her and Clay’s children and grandchildren, who have lost infinitely more than the rest of us have and for whom that form of remembrance is a small consolation – but hopefully, a consolation nevertheless.